Born and raised on a farm in Chinchilla, Queensland, Sue Middleton or “Chilla” as she is known in industry circles, is many things.
She’s a successful farming strategist, board director, industry spokesperson, consultant and former Rural Woman of the Year.
But it’s her new role, as an unofficial spokesperson against sexual harassment in agriculture, that she is most passionate about.
Middleton has known the power of her own voice since childhood. But when her friend and former WA Rural Woman of the Year, Cath Marriott, came to her and told her of sexual harassment allegations against the then-National Party Leader, Barnaby Joyce, her initial response was to encourage her to keep quiet.
The next morning she knew that response was the wrong one, and she told Marriott: “Whatever you have to do, whenever, however; I will be absolutely 100 per cent be by your side.’
“I have had moments where I have thought: ‘shit, I don’t want to be the spokesperson for sexual harassment in agriculture, but neither am I not going to speak, because I am ready.
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“Every time I feel any kind of forgiveness, I go and read her assault story again to get angry again. I tell myself: ‘you need to stay angry Sue, because if you don’t, he’s going to get back into power’.”
Middleton – who in addition to being named Rural Woman of the Year in 2010 has been awarded the Centenary Medal for Service to Regional Australia and was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018 – joined Twitter only a year ago in a bid to raise her concerns about sexual harassment in politics and rural Australia.
“Twitter for me has been really interesting because I am meeting lots of young women. I want them to know, that us ‘oldies’ who have been in the industry for 30 years, are taking the issues that are holding women back really seriously. I want them to know that I am using my voice because I am determined that it will be better for them.”
Middleton says the culture of sexual harassment in agriculture is “the elephant in the room”. She says it needs to change because it isn’t representative of how most men in agriculture think. “It isn’t actually how most men in ag feel. Most of the men I know in ag are good men, and what changes it is when the good men speak up.”
Middleton’s ambition and drive to make a difference has driven her from a young age. She set her career goal to “learn how to make Australia prosperous” at the age of 22, taking on an economic development role in outback Queensland.
“I legitimately thought I would be done by the time I was 30,” she jokes. “I am still working on that.”
Years later in the late 1990s a conference in Western Australia drew her to the state, and later she met and fell in love with a farmer, Michael, and his three young children. “I was never going to be a farmer, that was not a part of the plan. No thank you,” she said.
Middleton went on to work immediately on the farm in WA’s wheat belt, trying to hold a strategy workshop, which she describes as “a complete, utter waste of time”. She then applied for a $2,500 state government grant that aimed to increase farms’ resilience and got a business coach – who remains her coach today. From then on, Middleton became the business strategy manager of the farm – which produces grains, oaten hay and pork.
One of the first strategies Middleton and her husband embarked on together was Moora Citrus. Her husband confirmed that citrus could be grown on their property and the water supply was ideal, and Middleton began researching the area. She found a WA government report that earmarked the region as an ideal growth area for citrus. She also discovered that 60 per cent of the state’s citrus was imported.
Middleton and Michael pioneered citrus growing in the region, which has transformed its agricultural profile.
Exhausting work requires a ‘fuck budget’
Personally, Middleton admits that her drive, passion and determination to “make agriculture better”, sometimes leaves her exhausted. In 2020 she has given herself a new mantra to “just say no”. That, Middleton says, comes down to what she describes as her “fuck budget”.
“The fuck budget came from a book I have read [Everything is Fu*cked”, by Mark Mason]. Basically, all the things I give a fuck about go on the fuck budget as a ‘yes’, and anything I don’t care about is a ‘no’,” she says.
“I do get FOMO and I want to be involved in everything. My challenge is to learn how to say no. I am still learning that at my age!”
So far her new philosophy has meant cutting back from four to five company boards, to two boards a year (Middleton is on the board of the National Farmers Committee and FRRR, and she is the chair of the Economics and Farm Business Committee).
Middleton and her step daughter, Liz Brennan, also run the agriculture business development and consultancy business AgDots. “We will say to clients: ‘you won’t have heard of this person or this innovation, but here’s why you need to know about them,’” she said. “We want to be able to show family farms how they can attract and engage with an outside investor, which is what we have had experience with in our business.”
Middleton says agriculture is a valid and rewarding career choice for women, particularly the younger generations. In her family’s case, her step son tried farming twice, but found that he was more interested in grain broking, and her step daughter is now in a farming role.
“We are seeing more daughters come back and be the key decision makers and managers on the property,” Middleton says.
“From a leadership perspective, women are generally very collaborative in their leadership style, and that is exactly what Ag needs.”