Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Invisible farmers

Source: MV Collections

Konrad Marshall, Rural women share stories of the ‘invisible farmers’ The Age, 18 April 2015

It was blowing a gale in the foothills outside Benalla, but it was near noon and a big shadow of black Angus calves rested calmly enough in the top paddock, so Alana Johnson sat down at her farmhouse table to tell a story.

“This was down the road at Euroa,” she says, plonking an index finger on the polished timber. “And this should be marked.”

The yarn she tells is about a woman who settled there in the 1800s, named Eliza Forlonge. Forlonge walked across Europe for more than a year, collecting the best sheep she could find. She walked them all over. All the way to port. Then she got on a boat with them, brought them here, and marched them north to a patch of selected land.

“The rest is history, or as I like to say, her-story,” Johnson says. “She was one of the most successful farmers in Australia, and people don’t even know her name.”

Johnson is a fifth-generation farmer. She lives on a 485-hectare property named Cleadon with her husband Rob, raising 800 head of cattle and growing Ironbark and Tasmanian blue gum for long planks of timber with no knots.

Among rural women, Johnson is pioneer who needs no introduction. She has been in Women’s Weekly and on the ABC program Q&A, and has been named in The Australian Financial Review as one of 100 women of influence in Australia. A force in agri-politics, she helped elect independent MP Cathy McGowan.

But right now Johnson doesn’t want the spotlight, she wants it steered in the right direction.

Johnson is a major supporter of the Invisible Farmers Project by Museum Victoria and University of Melbourne. Just launched,the project will record oral histories to address the “historical invisibility” of women on farms.

“The story of rural women is absent, but it is absent in a way that that is more than just forgotten,” she says. “It’s almost a purposeful discounting.”

Catherine Forge, curator of the project, said the work was urgently needed to counterbalance a solely masculine idea of Australian farming. From 1891, the Victorian census did not even register women engaged in farming pursuits because that created the unwanted impression “that women were in the habit of working the fields”, she points out.

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