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MV’s Women of the Land

Taking the lead: National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson. Picture: AAP.

Genevieve Barlow, Miranda: Women of the Land exhibition opens at Melbourne Museum, The Weekly Times, 18 October 2017

How many people would cross Melbourne, let alone the state, to see Heather Mitchell’s Akubra hat?

Given it’s a key part of its new exhibition, Women of the Land, which opened in Melbourne on Friday, Melbourne Museum will be hoping that lots do.

Yet, most Victorians and certainly many Australians could be forgiven for asking: who is Heather Mitchell?

It says a lot about our country’s relationship with farming and with the nation’s acknowledgment of women as key players and shapers of the agricultural industry, that Heather, the first female president of the Victoria Farmers Federation (1986-1989), remains largely unknown and unacknowledged more widely.

It’s probably true to say that few could recall many VFF or even National Farmers’ Federation presidents in recent decades, a sign perhaps that farming and rural Australia’s hold on political outcomes and power has weakened enormously with globalisation.

But if we remember any, we remember the men — Ian McLachlan, Donald McGauchie, Graham Blight and that marvellous bridger of peoples and differences, the NFF chief executive of the late 1980s Rick Farley (perhaps I’m just showing my age). Yet there were women — Wendy Craik and Anna Cronin held the NFF chief executive post through the first decade this century and the NFF’s current president is Fiona Simson.

Women are leading in farming now. But how quickly their fellow female farming antecedents such as Heather might have sunk into history had the Melbourne Museum not rescued them from invisibility with exhibitions such as Women of the Land and by backing the national Invisible Farmer project — a three-year study aiming, among other things, to reveal the hidden stories of women on the land.

Hopefully from here on, women will be as visible in farming — as advocates, on its boards, at its field days, in paddocks and in its professional and practical roles — as men.

Today’s young farmers, women such as Sallie Jones and Amy Paul, will ensure that.

Every bottle of milk sold by the company Sallie co-founded, Gippsland Jersey, will include an Invisible Farmer project photograph.

Like many women in farming before her, Sallie, 36, says she feels unworthy of the title farmer.

She doesn’t get out in the shed twice a day and milk cows. And she doesn’t own a farm (her mum does and her company co-founder Steve Ronalds does).

But she used her marketing background to create a brand of fresh milk that goes direct from farmer to consumer, not via a big processing company.

And that brand is based on three key pillars — to pay farmers a fair price for their milk, to be involved in caring for farmers’ mental health and to carry out random acts of kindness for farmers (funding a visit to the hairdressers for farmers in stress is one way).

South Gippsland egg producer Amy Paul says her husband Nicholas laughed at the notion that women were invisible in farming.

“Invisible!” he declared. “You’re the face of the business,” he told her.

Amy agrees. As the marketer and company blogger she’s at the forefront of her family business, Ruby Hills Organics.

She’s also mad about caring for the soil.

Women such as Sallie and Amy will not be silenced or subordinated or invisible as women were in farming before them.

They won’t play second fiddle.

They are their farming businesses.

Women of the Land is on until November 26 in the Melbourne Gallery of the Melbourne Museum.