In 2017 the Victorian Women’s Benevolent Trust gave grants to projects that focussed on regional Victorian women. We were pleased when the Western District Health Service proposed to invite women farmers to share their experiences of thriving and surviving farm life.
What happens when life comes crashing down on the other side of those farm fences we drive past on country highways? The Western District Health Service asked women farmers to reveal how exactly they manage when disaster strikes the farm. Seventeen women recorded their stories and the result is an exhibition of video stories capturing moving, inspirational and heartbreaking experiences and the ways each woman managed to survive and eventually thrive.
“This workshop provided me with confidence, comfort and a sense of wellbeing I didn’t expect to gain. For the first time since my husband passed away I found myself able to revisit photo albums, put into words my grief, and realize what helped me navigate my new path on the farm and in life.”
What shows through in many of these stories is the way in which women farmers, sometimes referred to as invisible farmers are not always considered by their male counterparts to be capable, knowledgeable or worthy of the top jobs. And yet, each story reveals a woman who has navigated the aftermath of natural disaster, partner suicide, or financial crisis, and found the resilience and nous to adjust to difficult circumstances when not even they knew whether they were capable of it.
Allison admitted, ‘I had to develop cunning and subterfuge to work around him’ when her husband developed frontal lobe toxicity from a lifetime of petro-chemical exposure on the farm and in his hobbies. He could no longer perform the duties he had always done, and Allison found novel ways to not only get on with the job of keeping the farm going but also to include her husband so that he was still a vital part of the family and the farm.
Elizabeth wants us to know that, although we’ll never meet her, she will always deliver the milk we drink – but she can’t do it without her dogs. In a quavering voice she describes the way her working dogs ‘just seem to know when to turn on the charm’ when she is feeling down.
Sally is a pig farmer who grew up in a country town and after marrying a farmer managed to adjust to the demands of farm life. She found that her cooking skills apparently weren’t up to community standards, nor was she given credit for her skills on the land. When it came to mustering cattle in 40-degree heat, she was the one trudging on foot through the paddock while her husband sat in the comfort of their ute. And when she turned her hand to rouseabouting in a sheep-shearing shed it was Sally who was given the lowliest job of collecting and sorting the dags. Sally may not have been born on a farm, but she reckons ‘The pull of the country always brings you back home’.
These stories, and more, from women in rural Victoria talk of resilience, shared responsibility and community caring.
One viewer commented: “I actually learnt that you have to keep going, resilience. Rural women have that, a lot of them don’t give themselves credit for what they can actually do, but when their husbands are against them they can actually somehow pick up the pieces and keep the whole farm scene/ environment going.”
There is value in listening to women who are resilient and who have overcome tough times. There is a power in storytelling that heals not only those hearing the stories but also those telling them.
This was such a wonderful experience. It was very healing to be in such a group of people. Those with stories to share and those with skills to share melded into an accepting support network of friends who provided sounding boards and comfort.”
The exhibition has toured through Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania as well as being included in postgraduate education for Health and Agriculture professionals and can be viewed at the Inside the Farmgate webpage.