Meet seven of rural Australia’s most inspirational women

Meet the 2018 finalists in the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.
Meet the 2018 finalists in the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.

It’s no secret rural and regional Australia is a rich vein when it comes to talented, resilient and innovative women.

So it’s no wonder then, that the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award attracts such an outstanding line-up of finalists each year. 

The award encourages innovation and problem solving, looking for projects and initiatives in various stages of development, that offer solutions to rural industries and the communities they support.

All finalists receive a $10,000 bursary for their project, provided by Westpac, with the overall winner and runner-up to be announced at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday October 15.

Darrylin Gordon, Western Australia

Darrylin Gordon, Western Australia

WA – Darrylin Gordon: The big skills muster

Darrylin Gordon is a cattle-woman about to embark on a different sort of muster.

The Halls Creek, Western Australia local wants to develop a skills training camp for unemployed locals in her region.

The focus will be on building local’s skillsets for local jobs.

“We know that mining, farming and tourism are the big employers here but a lot of the job training programs don’t focus on up-skilling locals with the skills needed for these industries,” Ms Gordon said. 

The 26-year-old was named the 2018 Western Australia AgriFuture Rural Women’s Award winner for her idea to launch a three month skills training project on Lamboo Station, a family owned and run business.

As a Jaru woman, Ms Gordon is passionate about her connection to her country and wants to drive regional development.

“We don’t want to leave home. We want to be able to do the training here and to get the skills we need to get local jobs.”

Ms Gordon works as an Indigenous Community Alcohol and Drugs Officer for Kimberly Mental Health and understands the importance of delivering a skills training project which offers wrap-around counselling and support services as a way to ensure the long-term successful employment of participants.

“I want to set this project up for success. Training will focus on hard and soft skills but also look at building life skills like how cooking, how to balance work and family life and how to deal with metal health issues.”

Ms Gordon has a passion to leave a positive mark in her community and hopes the project will instill selfpride and respect in the wider community.

“If we can start with jobs, we will address other challenges in our community like issues associated with drugs and alcohol,” she said.

“Participants will get practical, hands-on experience and walk away with the skills they need to get local jobs.”

Ms Gordon envisages the skills training project would take place over three months and cater for eight locals.

Throughout the program, participants will be taken on site visits to the local gold mine and have the opportunity to meet and network with local employers.

Allison Clark, Tasmania

Allison Clark, Tasmania

Tasmania – Allison Clark: Literacy campaigner 

Illiteracy is costing business. Tasmania rural award winner Allison Clark has seen how a simple reading and writing error can have major ramifications.

“A local fresh food business had two major food recalls within a short space of time, costing the owners $100,000 all because one of their employees couldn’t read the best-before date,” Ms Clark said.

The Hobart local will use her $10,000 bursary to launch a research project which looks at how literacy and numeracy barriers impact on a business’s ability to innovate and grow.

“49 per cent of Tasmanians have literacy and learning barriers and there are plenty of services to help address this,” she said.

49 per cent of Tasmanians have literacy and learning barriers...

“I want to know where people are going to get help and how people are using these services so that I can make recommendations into what we can be doing better.”

Ms Clark’s project touches on her own personal experiences with illiteracy.

“In my family there are three people with literacy and numeracy challenges. In my experience, they are extremely smart people who learn to adapt in different ways. Sometimes they just need a different style of teaching to understand how to read and write.”

Technology will be a big focus in the project and Ms Clark is interested in identifying the online or app-based platforms which are currently helping adults with learning difficulties.

As part of her project, she will also uncover other reasons which may hinder a businesses’ ability to innovate, such as design, development or commercialisation issues.

Ms Clark has completed an MBA degree, specialising in agricultural innovation.  Her project will start in Tasmania and take in case studies in Victoria and overseas. 

The NT – Linda Blackwood: A digital safety net for outback stations

Katherine local Linda Blackwood has been on both sides of the fence when dealing with paperwork and insurance for contractors on large outback stations.

“I worked on a station where we had a team of men building yards and it was two weeks before we realised they were there and gathered their necessary paperwork and insurance,” she said. 

“I’ve also been a contractor myself and had to hand out the same paperwork multiple times to different customers, which was extremely time consuming.”

Ms Blackwood was named the NT award winner for her idea to build an app which will hold important insurance records and station-site access documents. The app will mean less paperwork for both station workers and their employers as well as a better guarantee of confidentiality.

“The last thing you want is to have a conversation about who is covering what while someone is being loaded into the Royal Flying Doctor Service plane,” she said.

Ms Blackwood said the station site accreditation app could be rolled out nationally.

“Farms aren’t like construction sites. We don’t have gates and an office at the front with admin staff collecting paperwork from contractors. This app will mean contractors can lodge their credentials into the system and stations can easily check their accreditation status, which will improve risk management, increase efficiency and reduce admin costs.”

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award and $10,000 bursary, from platinum sponsor Westpac, will help get the idea off the ground.

“The award has given me the motivation to keep this idea moving. It’s also allowed me to connect with a network of like-minded women who want to do something positive for their communities.”

Ms Blackwood moved to the Northern Territory in 2005 with her husband where they started a mechanical business that services pastoral properties.

“Katherine is an amazing region to live and I really enjoy the rural lifestyle. I love the whole cycle of looking after the land and making sure I leave a positive impact. But because I live remotely, I don’t have the same access to professional development opportunities and the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award has given me the skills and confidence to take on this idea.” 

Alex Thomas, South Australia

Alex Thomas, South Australia

South Australia – Alex Thomas: Calling out safety champions 

Paperwork doesn’t save lives. That’s the message from Adelaide woman Alex Thomas who wants to shift the focus of safety conversations to positive reinforcement and stories of success.

Ms Thomas was named the 2018 South Australia AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award Winner for her idea to launch a platform called #PlantASeedForSafety.

She will use her $10,000 bursary to launch the website which will feature profiles of 100 rural women who have made a positive safety change in their workplace.

The website will also host a series of resources on how to keep safe in our rural industries.

“It’s a contrast to the current doom and gloom safety messaging,” she said. 

“I see women as key agents for change. I want to harness their care factor and their position to influence their partners and children and encourage them to take meaningful steps to ensure their health and safety.”

Ms Thomas grew up on Parnaroo Station, 280km north-east of Adelaide. At a young age, she commenced caring for her father in a part time capacity; who as a result of having contracted Q Fever in his early 30’s, suffers from diabetes, heart and kidney failure.

Ms Thomas runs a work health and safety consulting business and is a fierce advocate for the prevention of workrelated serious injuries and fatalities in our rural industries, the fatality rate for which remains eight times higher than the average rate for all other industries.

“The stats aren’t changing and there are still far too many people being hurt in rural industries,” she said.

“The messages around safety also haven’t changed and this is where I see an opportunity to shift the focus. “Farmers are competitive. John will see something that Trevor is doing on the neighbouring property – perhaps a more effective, less cumbersome safety guard on one of his machines – and he’s likely to want to jump on the band wagon and get the same thing.

“We need to be sharing these stories and examples of practical improvement to encourage others to take the same steps. A bit of paperwork or taking a ‘box ticking’ approach to compliance isn’t going to change minds, we need social change.” 

 Krista Watkins, Queensland

Krista Watkins, Queensland

Queensland – Krista Watkins: Food waste crusader 

North Queenslander Krista Watkins insists innovation at the farm gate is key to reducing food waste.

The Walkamin local was named the 2018 Queensland AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award Winner and National Finalist for her project which will look at uncovering by-products for sweet potatoes, an industry which wastes on average 50 tonnes per acre.

“As a primary producer, it’s absolutely heartbreaking that so much of your crop that you’ve put a lot of love, care and money into is simply thrown away because there isn’t a market for it, it’s oversupplied or it doesn’t look how consumers think it should look,” Ms Watkins said.

Ms Watkins has already started research into developing by-products for the four most common varieties grown in Australia.

“You can make an incredible sweet potato gluten free flour, I’ve tried it and it’s a really fine flour product,” he said.

“This is just one example of creating a full-circle income stream. Who knows what else I will uncover? Perhaps next year people will be applying a sweet potato mask to their face each evening because of some unknown skin benefit.”

It’s estimated that food waste at the farm gate represents 10 per cent of gross food production, valued at $4 billion.

Ms Watkins own business, Natural Evolution, takes fresh bananas grown on her plantation and turns the fruit into banana flour.

“Our crops were hit by two cyclones within a short time period. I knew we had to do something different because we were wasting so much. I couldn’t change mother nature but I could change the way we worked with our produce.”

“It’s a new way of doing business, it’s breaking stereotypes and it’s conditioning growers to think of alternatives.”

Melissa Connors, Victoria

Melissa Connors, Victoria

Victoria – Melissa Connors: A recruitment drive for retired farmers

When Melissa Connors and her family moved to their 10-acre property at Kyneton Victoria, they saw long grass and fences and bought six Angus steers.

Winter came and the feed was gone. On top of that, the cattle had charged their way through the fences.

The city slicker from Melbourne was on a steep learning curve.

“We didn’t know what we had taken on,” she said.

An idea sparked after an encounter with her neighbour Noel Jenner, a retired farmer who used to walk past her property every day.

“The older generation will never butt in and tell you what you are doing wrong,” she said. 

“Noel walked past our property for three years and didn’t say a thing. A lot of knowledge about managing farms and agribusinesses is buried in our cemeteries and I knew we could be better harnessing this knowledge and encouraging this generation to share their tips.”

In 2015 Ms Connors launched a community project called This Farm Needs a Farmer.

It aims to bring together retired farmers with tree changers, and anyone else new to the agriculture sector to share knowledge and to network and connect.

Ms Connos was named the 2018 Victoria AgriFuture Rural Women’s Award Winner and National Finalist for her idea and will use her bursary to expand her project by organising more face-to-face events.

“We are running chook workshops where people can find out how to properly set up coops and keep their chickens healthy,” she said. 

“We also have an online network where tree changers who need help or advice with fencing or livestock can connect with a retired farmer. They can get together, face-to-face for a cuppa and an exchange of advice and knowledge.”

They can get together, face-to-face for a cuppa and an exchange of advice and knowledge.

Ms Connors said the project benefits both participants with tree changers getting better at managing their parcels of land and the retired farmer feeling more connected and valued in the community.

“The key to this project is face-to-face interaction and communication. The website is important for the younger generation and tree changers to find out about how they can get involved but it’s the personal component that is a big success.”

Jillian Kilby, NSW

Jillian Kilby, NSW

NSW – Jillian Kilby: Starting with start-ups

The start-up space is a noisy one. Help is on offer at all stages of a new business journey in the form of grants and advisory services from both the public and private sectors.

But at times, our entrepreneurs don’t know who to go to first for help or where to start.

The 2018 New South Wales and ACT AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award Winner Jillian Kilby wants to cut through this noise and really understand how we can better help start-ups in our regional communities.

“Start-ups have access to wonderful service providers but it’s a very congested space,” she said.

“As a business owner or as a future business founder, it’s a very difficult arena to navigate. At times, the delivery is piecemeal, the operators are in silos and they don’t have the data they need to improve their services.

Ms Kilby has used her $10,000 bursary to launch a national survey in partnership with Startup Muster which tracked the progress, challenges, and opportunities within the Australian start-up ecosystem.

She also ran a series of workshops where start-ups and service providers came together and discussed what services are lacking which could benefit future entrepreneurs.

“From the survey and workshops I have a whole heap of data which we have never had before about what start-ups in regional communities need help with,” she said.

Ms Kilby will put together a report which will use the survey and workshop findings to suggest recommendations to help start-ups in regional areas thrive.

“We know that one reason why so many start-ups fail to get off the ground is because entrepreneurs don’t have the support they need. We will pilot some of the recommendations from the report, for example, networking events and co-working spaces to help address the challenges innovators face.”

Ms Kilby will tackle her project with the same logical thinking she applies on an everyday basis.

Originally from Coonamble but now living in Dubbo, the 34 year old founded The Infrastructure Collective, and has served the infrastructure needs of 50 local governments in regional NSW as well as clients across Australia and the United States.

“We all have that friend who has an idea which could solve something,” she said. 

“They are teetering on the edge of starting something great. I’m looking forward to improving the commercial success of start-ups by increasing the capability, capacity and confidence of regional business owners.” Jillian will use the skills she learnt from launching her own business to help others. “

Applications now open for the 2019 Rural Women’s Award

Applications are now open for the 2019 AgriFutures™ Rural Women’s Award.

To find out more visit

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award is proudly supported by Westpac.

- Feature compiled by Penelope Arthur