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Country Life, City Life – What’s the difference for a woman?

There are many articles in this issue of Lot’s Wife that discuss women in Australian society. Nearly all of these discussions are drawn on the experiences of women who live in Australia’s major cities – experiences that are vastly different for women who live and work in the country. Lot’s Wife editor Sophia has a chat with Angelique, a 21-year-old female farmer, about what life is like for rural women.  

Angelique and I went to school in New Zealand together – we have even known each other for more than half of our lives. We both live in Australia now, but our journeys across the ditch have taken two very different paths. While I live on campus in the relatively calm and sheltered world of Monash University – Angelique has hopped around all over the country, working on dairy farms, cattle stations, and even in a small-town pub.

Angelique started her agriculture journey in 2012, when she left high school midway through her second-to-last year. She moved to Masterton, on the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, to attend Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre. She then moved to Waverley – a small town on the Southwest coast of the North Island. She worked there for two and a half years, and aside from her boss’s wife, she was the only female on the farm. She would start the day at 4.30am to milk cows, have an hour break for breakfast at 8.30am, then continue work till 12.30, feeding calves, doing tractor and maintenance work. At 2.30pm she would go milking again which would bring her to the end of the day: about 5 or 6pm.

She eventually moved to the South Island, to a farm just outside of a small town called Methven.

Early last year, she split with her boyfriend and moved back in with her parents in Auckland. Unsure of where to go next, she saw an ad online. A small-town pub in Northwest Victoria was looking for someone to work at the pub full time and live on site. It wasn’t farm work, but it was in country Australia, which was where she wanted to go. A few days later, she had flown to Melbourne and I was driving her five hours north to her soon-to-be home.

“You sure you want to live with a bunch of people you’ve never met before, in the middle of no where, in a country you’ve only just arrived in?” I said to her on the way. “I’ll be fine” she insisted.

A couple of weeks passed, and one Saturday night at her new job in the pub, a big rush of people came in after the football game. Angelique noticed someone had dropped a pair of keys on the floor. Trying to be hospitable, she walked around to the other side of the bar, in her shorts, and picked it up. “Does anyone know whose key this is?” she said. A middle-aged man snatches the key off her. “No”, he says, and throws the key back to the ground. “But you can pick it up so I can see your ass again” he says, laughing. “Don’t disrespect bar staff”, her boss mutters quietly to the guy. The guy continued to show up to the pub every weekend, while Angelique was forced to continue pouring his beer.

“You know… if that happened in Melbourne,” I said, “that guy would have probably gotten banned from the venue. All your co-workers would have asked if you were okay, too”.

“People got so drunk at the bar though,” she says. “They stumble around, start fights, punch each other. They never get refused service, they never get kicked out, and they definitely never get banned. I’ve seen people legless, unable to walk or talk, continue to get service, and then get in their car and drive home.”

A couple months later, Angelique moved on to work on a Cattle Station in the Northern Territory. “There was a workers camp, and then another separate camp for the Aboriginal workers”, she says. “Aboriginal workers slept outside, and they weren’t allowed to use any of our equipment. They were from a dry community and were meant to stay sober, but I’d often see them drunk. They’d drive half an hour away to a non-dry community, and would even drive through farmland so they didn’t get caught driving on the road,” she says.

“What about the other guys you worked with, then?” I said.

“Well, there was a lot of unwanted attention”, she says. “The boundaries are pretty different. Farms are very free-spirited, there’s not a lot of rules”.

In her experience, men simply expected less from the women and thought that they weren’t capable of more difficult tasks. “When you start a job, you don’t get a set of rules written down in front of you, so I guess sometimes, personal boundaries can be pushed”, she adds.

“You learn to be tougher. I might not be the generic female, but I have learned to really stand up for myself, and not hold back”, she says.

She went on to explain how common it was for farms to exploit young workers, and neglect to give payslips or use employment contracts. “I think Australia is a bit worse than New Zealand”, she said. “New Zealand has really stepped it up with the rules and regulations, not so sure about here.”

She explained how in New Zealand, there is a fair bit of attention paid to women on farms – like rural women’s groups and rural women’s awards. However, it’s not as developed here, and there definitely aren’t the same support networks.

“It’s because Australia is bigger, and you get farms that are extremely remote. New Zealand doesn’t have an outback, so you can’t just slip under the radar like you can here”, she explains.

Since her time in the outback, she’s moved to Western Australia, which so far, has been her best experience here. Currently she lives and works a couple of hours east of Carnarvon in the Gascoyne region – about twelve hours north of Perth. Her job involves mustering cattle on motorbikes and then processing them through the yards and exporting them live to Vietnam, Israel and Turkey. Her boyfriend works in the mines, twelve hours away, but she’s okay with the arrangement. “We appreciate our time together more”, she adds.

On family cattle stations, Angelique explains that there tends to be generations of men all still working: son, dad, grandad all helping out. However on the large commercially owned stations, all of the crew are young. “It’s hard to work as a jillaroo or jackaroo when you’re older as it’s dangerous and physically demanding – but definitely not unheard of.”

A first or second year jillaroo usually gets paid on a daily rate of around $150-180 a day. They are long and hot days, up to 12-13 hours, working in very dusty and dangerous conditions. However, they get meals and accommodation provided on site. Due to the perception that men ‘do more’; men often get paid considerably more too, even when it doesn’t quite reflect reality.

Not many people from a high school in the suburbs end up as a jillaroo, nor do they see it is a viable career option the way those who live in the country do. However, supported by the availability of tertiary courses in agriculture, Angelique is proof that you don’t need to be a born-and-bred country kid to succeed highly in the world of agriculture. Australia offers jillaroo and jackaroo courses, but she believes it’s definitely not pushed to study here in Australia to the same extent it is in New Zealand.

Working on a farm, cattle station, or even a small town pub is not an easy experience for the average woman. But it’s not just the everyday sexism and racism that makes it difficult for women on farms – coping with mental or physical illness is especially challenging. Going to see a GP can mean at least a full day of travel there and back. There’s a she’ll be right attitude that pervades the rural community – a difficult obstacle to overcome.

“Where will you end up in the future?” I ask.

“I’m still thinking about what my future will hold – ideally I would further my agricultural studies. Possibly agribusiness, so I can work in the industry, but in a less physically demanding job for when I’m older.”

I looked through photos of her working on these farms – there were photos of her sitting next to a goat she just shot, shooting rifles, on her horse lined up with a bunch of jackaroos, and a photo showing off the buffalo she had just hunted down. That buffalo would easily weigh four times her own weight. It’s remarkable when you consider that twenty years ago, it was unheard of to have female jillaroos mustering cattle. Women would work on cattle stations and on dairy farms, but mostly just to cook food and do the men’s laundry and cleaning. Since beginning her career as a farmer – she has driven huge tractors, shotguns, mustered cattle, and there’s not a single thing her male co-workers can do that she can’t. It’s a reminder that women can quite literally, do anything. Most importantly, she’s happy.

“Are you going to stay on farms for the rest of your life?” I ask.

“It’s so peaceful here. I prefer life in the country. So yeah, I will probably stay forever.”

Sophia McNamara

The author Sophia McNamara

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