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Rural women, underestimate them at your peril!

By Anna Campbell

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the women who won the Enterprising Rural Women Awards in the Otago Daily Times last week.

In reading the article, I decided enterprising was exactly the right word for so many rural women I know, both in New Zealand and internationally.

The stereotypical image of a farmer’s wife, gently plump with scones in the oven, is long gone; in fact, I am not sure she ever existed.

My own great grandmother arrived from Scotland with her husband and farmed a six-cow dairy farm in Greenhills near Bluff.

I had imagined her as diminutive, in an apron, literally keeping the coal fires burning. This image was put to right when I saw a photo of her with my great grandfather and other Southern menfolk. There she was, towering above them all, yes in an apron, but there was nothing diminutive about her. I have been told that she used her ample bosom as a platform for slicing bread!

On both sides of my family, I am surrounded by capable and enterprising rural women. Both my mother and aunt run sheep and beef farms and did so for many years while their husbands worked off the farms.

My mother-in-law was an integral part of a successful dairy farm business. She was and still is a powerhouse both at home and in the community. She used to get home from night duty as a nurse, milk the cows, get the kids off to school, have a quick sleep and then go back out to milk the cows again – all the while keeping the baking tins full!

The extra income from nursing was vital during the 80s, especially in times of drought when the pressure was really on the farming business.

The days of rural professionals, bank managers and the like, ignoring the role of females in farming businesses and directing their talk only to the men, are mostly gone, yet I wonder how often do we still underestimate the resources and value of rural women? I ask this because I have been caught out myself, rather badly.

I did some contract work with two of my colleagues in Brunei Darussalam to develop the country’s agri-biotechnology strategy. Brunei is a country dependent on income from oil. The majority of food in Brunei is imported but after 2008, when world food stocks became so low, the Government decided to invest in developing agri-business in Brunei.

Brunei is a Muslim country and with that brings restrictions for women. Interestingly though, agriculture and agricultural science is mostly run by women as the men tend to be tied-up with careers associated with the oil industry.

In the afternoon of one of my business visits, I was introduced to a tiny woman from the Philippines. She was very sweet, came up to about my shoulder and was wearing a pink hijab (which is a moderate form of a burka, only covering the hair and neck, but not the face). We were told that we were going to be having dinner with her. “Lovely”, I said, “I will look forward to that”.

Off we went for our business dinner and as the night wore on it emerged that the ‘sweet little lady’ from the Philippines was a rural business magnate, owning massive beef feed lots and pineapple plantations with her own army of staff.

Throughout the evening, unbelievable stories of plantations guarded by armed men, murder and corruption unfolded. My colleagues and I listened aghast.

This ‘little lady’ would have eaten the average New Zealand rural professional for breakfast! At the end of dinner, when we left our hosts and got into the lift, we dissolved into laughter about our extraordinary evening and how very badly we had underestimated the ‘little lady’ from the Philippines!

Enterprising rural women come in many shapes and forms. They play an enormous and often underappreciated role in the success of international agri-businesses and communities.

It is fabulous we now have awards that recognise their contributions but for me, I will always have the photo of me in Brunei with the ‘little lady’ from the Philippines. As I tower above her, she is smiling sweetly as if to say “underestimate me at your peril”.

Find out more about the Enterprising Rural Women Award winners