Otago Daily Times Comment "Over the Fence" · Changes to Farm Practices Mostly Facilitated By Women 1 April 2013

04/09/2013 at 22:12 in Otago Daily Times

Behind every successful man there is woman rolling her eyes, so Hollywood actor Jim Carrey says and it’s no different on the farm.  Women spearhead changes in farm practice.

While women are not as visible in rural leadership, their influence on farming men is tenacious; nothing like a sharp elbow in bed to remind one of their responsibilities and accountabilities.  If he hasn’t got it during the day, he has by morning...

As a teacher of alternative farming methods over 90% of my students are women, and it’s not just in New Zealand.  I encounter this when I teach in Australia and my colleagues tell me it’s the same in North America and probably UK.  Women are increasingly taking farm management and ecology classes I teach at Lincoln University.  Even my Otago farm discussion group has more women attending than men.  The education side of farming is awash with women eagerly looking for fresh and innovative ideas to challenge the status quo.

Women attend my classes for many reasons and from discussions emerges their nurturing instinct, not only of the bigger picture like environment but also they want their men, children and themselves to be safe and happy.  Women are much more courageous pursuing health issues than men and the shift to alternative farming methods is embroiled in perceptions of health. 

I alerted the farming industry to the phenomenon of women pioneering change in farming in the 90s after researching how farming couples learned their way through changing circumstances.  Learning in its widest sense as part of farm lifestyle corresponded with traditional gender roles and this where big changes are happening. 

Farming women’s learning is different in nature to their partners; it’s more social and diverse.  Many come to farming with training from other careers and often have greater flexibility to attend formal education classes.  Their egos are less attached to the way of doing things allowing them to question tradition and what is touted as common sense. 

So how come women are prime shakers in driving changes in farm practice?  An open secret in farming is women already run 2/3 of the business anyway.  They keep the books and manage labour - the family.  A little information and they quickly see relationships between environmental health, farm business well-being, and their family’s quality of life.  They have a broader appreciation of how decisions on land affect costs and family because they’re already sensitive to many more business and social factors than their men tend to be. 

This sensitivity goes beyond farm and into community.  Twenty years ago the ‘bush telegraph’ was how women kept in touch locally.  Today with high speed internet women are less isolated and more independent than ever on the farm and this greater freedom allows them to pursue their interests and contacts more easily.  

However, it’s not all one way traffic; this cannot happen without blokes being involved.  While men are missing in action from classrooms, they are still on the front line when grappling with changing farming practices; they are not there just to lift heavy things. Women’s increasing interest in farm management information is happening with their partner’s blessings. 

So while men aren’t in my classroom, ideas I introduce are passing through farm gates and being discussed in terms of relevance and reality facing any couple. Women are not doing this journey on their own; they take the whole family with them.  They are inclusive.

Furthermore, I don’t get the impression women monster their partners with new information either.  They accumulate enough practical examples before challenging farm practice.  Farming is one of the few careers where office and home are the same place and farming couples see themselves as a team.  Partners are often in close contact, especially during the working day providing opportunities for sharing insights and observations. 

It’s through the close relationship with their blokes women evolve farming practices.  The sharing of experiences allows partners to question, monitor, and evaluate choices and activities together.  Analysis and judgements are part and parcel of daily banter to improve business and lifestyle. 

While some people wail farming men aren’t doing enough to challenge the status quo, I’m less concerned.  As highlighted throughout this article, women are sensitive to a greater range of relationships.  They know their partners more intimately than I ever will.  They know what pushes their buttons and what turns them off.  They know when to subtly make a suggestion or slam down an ultimatum. 

Therefore, I know women attending my courses have a much better chance of helping their men understand alternative farming practices than me.  After all, as Margaret Thatcher said, want something said get a man, want something done get a woman. 

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