Written by Trudy Glasgow, NSW Department of Primary Industries
‘It’s a role we’ve always played … in the paddock, around the kitchen table … but it’s now we are seeing women coming into the public face of agriculture.’
NSW Farmers President Fiona Simson’s leadership journey began with an experience close to home. As a Director of ‘Plantation Trading’, a 5500 ha family mixed farming enterprise she manages with husband Ed and children Jemima and Tom near Premer on the Liverpool Plains, the issue of coal mining became very personal in 2006.
It was about this time that farmers in the district were concerned about its threat to their rich agricultural country. Fiona was invited to become the inaugural secretary of the Caroona Coal Action Group – a group set up to give a more public voice to potential threats of coal mining to farms and to the rights of landowners.
As she described the experience in a recent speech, ‘it didn’t take very long at all before I was hooked’.
Realising that the challenge of winning the community action group battle involved changing the process so communities felt they had a voice, Fiona’s lobbying journey began in earnest as she sought and secured representative roles with Liverpool Plains Shire Council and the NSW Farmers Executive Council.
Her efforts as Chair of the Association’s Mining Taskforce enabled her to meet farmers across NSW, eventually leading to her being encouraged to stand for the top job.
‘There was no doubt I thought I could make a contribution, but the question for me was whether the time was right,’ she told a recent Farmwriters audience.
Seeing a chance to give Association members the opportunity to do things differently, and to achieve change, Fiona successfully stood for and was elected the first female President of NSW Farmers in July 2011.
She sees her election, working alongside other female leaders such as NSW Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson, as indicative of an exciting new chapter of increased profile of women in agriculture.
‘It’s a role we’ve always played … in the paddock, around the kitchen table … but it’s now we are seeing women coming into the public face of agriculture,’ she said.
‘I think it’s due to a number of reasons: labour shortages as we don’t employ as many people on farms and as a result are trying to do more ourselves and secondly, we have a generation of young women coming back to the farms, bringing with them professional skills which make them well equipped to speak publicly about rural issues, with strong IT and writing skills … they are women well qualified to represent their business and their industry.’
While welcoming the increased recognition of the contribution and leadership women are providing within agriculture today, Fiona doesn’t want to exclude men from the equation.
‘It’s a balance thing,’ she explains.
‘It’s about attracting young people to the industry including women, while making sure we have balanced input and representation.
‘It’s part of the changing face of farming generally … we recognise farming as a business, and that includes the part women play in that business. They don’t have to be driving the tractor and working in the paddock to be part of the team – they are contributing in a whole range of other ways to the management of the business.’
Originally from a farm near Armidale, Fiona spent time in Canberra and Sydney before relocating back to the bush with husband Ed to Plain Station at Bundella. She has a BA in Arts/Business and tertiary qualifications in workplace training and adult education … all proving important skills in helping manage the farm, her various professional roles and community work.
While meeting substantial travel and work commitments with NSW Farmers, she remains responsible for administration, marketing and risk management of the farming business, which includes broadacre farming and commercial and stud poll Hereford cattle productions.
Fiona admits it is a busy schedule, which includes spending time with her family, but is excited about the challenges ahead, in particular using the Australian Year of the Farmer to raise agriculture’s profile.
‘It is a real chance for us to take pride in what we do as farmers … and an opportunity to assess where we are now as an industry and our plans for the future.
‘Unfortunately, we are a diminishing population, so we want to be well placed as a business, and look at how we can attract more young people to join that business.
‘There is a disconnect between those who eat and those who produce … this is our opportunity to reconnect with the city consumers, encourage them to recognise our role as producers, and to make those connections.’
Having been elected to the Presidency on a platform of renewal, excellence and inclusiveness, Fiona’s view on leadership is based on facilitating participation.
‘My role is to facilitate others to achieve their ideals, their ambitions, and their ideas, through whatever group they form a part of.
‘It is critical to encourage young people to be involved in our industry and to ensure there are leadership opportunities for them, so they can drive change.
‘I have always put my hand up because I believed I could do it. I want to see other women feel confident to do the same … rather than having a set quota.’
(Article featured in The Country Web: Our Farmers – Our Future, Number 56 Autumn 2012)