We must get more women in agriculture by 2030: Niki Ford, CEO of Australian Organic

We must get more women in agriculture by 2030: Niki Ford, CEO of Australian Organic

As the youngest CEO of peak industry body Australian Organic Ltd, Niki Ford represents the national organic and broader agriculture communities. She says Australia can benefit from having more female leaders in agriculture.

Earlier this year, I had the honour of joining the National Farmer’s Federation’s Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program for 2020 – an outstanding program supporting women in agriculture. It regularly brings together 12 dynamic females who connect with likeminded female mentors to assist their leadership journeys.

The one thing in common we have, despite our different backgrounds, is our passion for agriculture and quest to balance our professional and personal commitments.

Currently, women make up more than 50 per cent of Australian agricultural tertiary enrolments and on-farm workers at the forefront of ag-tech and innovation. Yet women are under-represented in senior levels. The 2030 Roadmap – the NFF’s plan for agriculture to be a $100 billion industry by 2030 – details a target to double the number of women in leadership positions by 2030.

My sector of organics is set to become Australia’s fastest growing industry. Market researchers IBISWorld forecast the industry will grow at roughly 15 per cent per annum over the next five years and will become a $3.7 billion industry by 2024-25, with health consciousness and environmental awareness escalating demand.

Through our annual September campaign, Australian Organic Awareness Month we highlight issues in industry and encourage consumers to try organic products. This month our campaign is our biggest one ever, and you’ll find our certified organic Bud logo in supermarkets, independent retailers, health food shops and online.

Being part of this industry at a time of significant growth is exciting and fills me with gratitude. I’m an organic consumer myself and am highly aware of consumer demands. As the CEO of AOL I’ve drawn on my professional background, business insights and strategic planning to drive change and awareness of the value of organic agriculture.

AOL’s membership is diverse – everything from beauty products to cattle grazing. I often deal with agricultural members in difficult circumstances which requires me to engage, listen, be empathetic and want to affect change. Over the past two years I’ve been on a steep learning curve, which I’ve relished as I have a thirst for knowledge. Despite the gender imbalance in the agricultural industry I’ve always felt welcomed and encouraged in my plight to understand technical details and system processes.

Despite my professional focus, my main passion is my family. My fiancé has been my foundation. We’re equals and have always supported each other’s career in conjunction with family. As the mother of an intelligent, beautiful four-year daughter, it’s been important to demonstrate that a mum can also be a professional. It’s provided the framework for my success and has been important to our parenting for my daughter and 18-year-old stepson.

I believe women can be great mentors to other women, particularly in gender imbalanced industries. My NFF program mentor, Alison Penfold, has an impressive business acumen and is an extraordinarily intelligent woman who challenges my thinking. She may not be aware of the value she’s provided simply by sharing her experience within areas I’m only just getting to know. Alison’s candidness suits me – I enjoy frank, direct dialogue. I’ve also developed new relationships with fellow mentees which is something I value just as much.

As I’ve never had a formal mentor, the opportunity to learn from one has been invaluable. Often it’s assumed CEOs have all the answers all of the time. I think a lot of CEOs feel this pressure. To have an advisor you can trust and learn from who’s championing your career and decisions is an invaluable opportunity for personal development.

Like two thirds of organic consumers, my interest in organics was sparked when I became ill. I developed fibromyalgia when I was 21 and wasn’t able to work for nine months due to severe muscle pain and fatigue.

I visited specialists who didn’t know how to treat me and said just take more painkillers. It wasn’t until I saw an osteopath who suggested I strengthen my immune system by embarking on healthy eating and exercise, that I delved into what I was putting into my body. I started incorporating organic foods which didn’t contain synthetic pesticides and chemicals. I began living as cleanly as possible and gradually due to my wellbeing efforts, my condition improved.

As the first CEO of AOL, I’m humbled and proud to protect such a diverse and dynamic industry. I hope to inspire other women to strive to senior positions within the agriculture industry and encourage them to remember that you should never be adverse to risk – failing is often the best way to learn.

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