Women’s recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia during 2006-2010

Dr Janet Congues


Women’s recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia during 2006-2010: What role for local government?

Janet Congues: Thank you Katie, for inviting me to present this seminar and for your kind introduction. I begin today by acknowledging the traditional landowners and paying my respects to the elders both past and present.

I take this opportunity to thank each of you for coming along today; I appreciate the chance to present my thesis which was successfully finalised last month – and yes I graduate from The ANU in December this year. I also want to acknowledge the tremendous experience of working with my primary supervisor, Professor Daniela Stehlik; the first sociologist in Australia to undertake research in the late 1990s that interviewed women who farmed separately from their husbands.

Today, the focus will be primarily on two chapters from my thesis. The first chapter is about the theoretical framework which is based on Smith’s Feminist Standpoint Theory, Bourdieu and the field and Heller and ideology. The second chapter to be presented is the findings chapter from the interviews which have yet to be presented or published. Before I begin I would like to briefly introduce the question on which my thesis was designed and to familiarize you with the Goulburn Valley and why this particular time in the Millennium Drought was important.

When I began working as a drought worker for the Greater Shepparton City Council, it was the women who spoke of how short-term crisis management positions in local government see a strong relationship between the community and local government build up only to be lost when the funding ran out six months later. They felt there was knowledge and history lost each time they had to start with a new worker. This was a pivotal moment that led me to ask:

What did women who farmed think was useful for farming and managing drought in the future?

  • How did they manage for drought during 2006-2010?
  • What was useful? What was not useful?
  • How can this knowledge and experience be useful in preparing and managing for drought in the future?

Uncovering a congruence between the findings of the interviews with the women and the analysis of the GSCC reports, the question evolved to include:

What role is there for local government?

  • What resources are available that rural women can utilise to enhance community networking?

The Goulburn Valley

Australia is the only country in the world that has implemented a risk management approach to drought. It did this formally in 1992 when it launched Australia’s National Drought Policy and removed drought from the Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements. Drought was now considered a hazard that people who farmed needed to manage and prepare for as they would any other risk to their business.

Aside from the Goulburn Valley being my home territory and the place where I worked as the drought worker for the Greater Shepparton City Council during the drought years of 2007-2009, this is an interesting location for the variety of farming industries; as most studies about women and farming focus on a particular industry within a particular region. As you can see, geographically the Goulburn Valley is surrounded on the east by the mountainous Great Dividing Range, to the west by flat lands that become The Mallee and throughout the valley are numerous rivers and creeks bordered on the north by the Murray River. The major city within the Goulburn Valley is Shepparton with a population of approximately 29,553 people and it is only 191kms or a two hour drive from Melbourne.

Approximately 2/3s of the Goulburn Valley is made up of Dairy farms and Orchards, while the rest of the industries include beef, sheep, and grain cropping – such as wheat, canola and rye. Within the region some farms have access to irrigation water while others are dryland farms. I interviewed women from each of these industries. It is also important to note that because of all the rivers running throughout the region into the Murray River at Echuca, the people who farmed believed that together with access to irrigation water, the region had been drought proofed.

With approximately 25% of Victoria’s food production coming from the region it is not surprising that the Goulburn Valley is often referred to and taken-for-granted by those living in the region to be the Food Bowl of Australia which of course is often contested by other areas around Australia.

The Millennium Drought, as it is now named occurred between the years of 1997-2009 with the drought breaking sometime in 2010. The south eastern part of Australia endured below median rainfall consecutively throughout 2001 to 2009. To experience this many consecutive years of below median rainfall was an anomaly and was also a drought where even those who had considered their farming businesses drought proofed with irrigation, feed-banks and savings, struggled to manage ‘the crisis’ of this drought.

The reason for focusing this study on the years of 2006 – 2010 was that the Goulburn Valley itself had never before experienced two top 10 consecutive driest years; but that happened in 2006 and 2007. Therefore, 2006 became the starting point of the study.

From October 2006, when the Federal Government declared that most farming districts were experiencing Exceptional Circumstances (EC), funding was made available for a range of support services and drought programs. So from October 2006 through to the end of March 2010, all of the Goulburn Valley had been issued with an Exceptional Circumstance declaration. Until that point only certain industries and particular areas within the Goulburn Valley had been issued with an EC declaration.

While this is but a brief introduction to the Goulburn Valley, it gives you some idea about the location, a brief understanding of why my thesis’ timeframe is 2006 to 2010 and it touches on some of the complexities about how drought is constructed in Australia. Feminist Standpoint Theory

My thesis situated knowledge from the standpoint of women in their everyday. It is grounded from a feminist epistemological position that recognises that to date, women’s experience has not been recorded as a significant contributor to the enhancement of knowledge – and this is particularly true for the Australian agricultural sector. This thesis places women as the centrepiece of the discussion and insists that their knowledge be located as the primary aspect of the research.

To better understand Feminist Standpoint Theory and its value to the research, I will quickly define some key terms from the opening statement.

The standpoint of women is defined as the knowledge, expertise and experience positioned outside the cultural, taken-for-granted norms of masculine hegemony.

The everyday is the physical location of the standpoint; the space that women embody in a particular time and place.

Situated knowledge is that which is uncovered from the knowledge, experience and expertise of women. In my thesis, it is what I have used to inform the role of women, what they had done, how they thought about farming and the future viability of farming while at the same time uncovered aspects of ideological influence about expectations of themselves and the roles they identified for themselves. While these terms are clearly interrelated defining them like this helps to better understand the theoretical inferences made throughout my thesis when using these terms.

In a paraphrased quote from Smith, the standpoint of women was not about universalising ‘a particular experience’ but was a means to create ‘the space for an absent subject, and an absent experience’ where the voice was ‘filled with the presence and spoken experience of actual women speaking for and in the actualities of the their everyday worlds’ (Smith 2013, p. 107).

Feminist Standpoint Theory, Bourdieu & Heller

In order to better understand the location of the everyday, I drew on Bourdieu’s concept of the field through which to explore the meaning of place. As briefly defined here by Wacquant, the field is ‘an arena of struggle through which agents and institutions seek to preserve or overturn the existing distribution of capital’. Another way of describing it is using a very visual concept of a game.

Take for example the game of Soccer which is played on a pitch that in some ways sets the parameters or contains the rules of the game. Everyone who plays the game knows the rules and those who do not are taught the rules or they learn them. If you consider the concept of the field being like a game of soccer, you will come to realise there is also more to the field than just the pitch on which the game is played. It is contingent of players and referees plus it includes the spectators, the governing bodies, the team managers, coaches, and committees. So too in the field of farming. Imagine for a minute the field of farming – there are the people who farm, their family and extended farming families; there are workers, share-farmers, lease holders, then there are political organisations like the National and Victorian Farmers Federations, plus accountants, agronomists, farming businesses that sell products to the farmer, milk factories and so on. Now that you have a picture of the field of farming which is, here, illustrated by the board, where is the field of women who farm?

This I suggest is where the everyday comes in.

The everyday for women is both encompassed by the field and yet simultaneously external to the field. Imagine for a moment that the field of farming had an itemised agenda. In terms of prioritisation where everyone is contesting the field, the everyday standpoint of women would be considered extremely low on the agenda. Literature and data show that the voices of women are not prioritised within the Australian agricultural sector. A more obvious example of this was the policy decision to not count women who farmed in the census from around 1893 through to 1996. This was a deliberate action taken to demonstrate that Australia was a progressive and modernised nation where women were not needed within farming enterprises and thereby the government of the day could attract the ‘right kind of people’ to build up the Australian population.

While Bourdieu does not uphold a feminist epistemology ‘the field’ is useful for understanding and visualising the theoretical location of the everyday place for women as both encompassed by and external to the field of farming.

The third aspect to understanding this theoretical framework is to understand ideology. Smith defines ideology ‘as those ideas and images through which the class that rules the society by virtue of its domination of the means of production – orders, organizes, and sanctions the social relations that sustain its domination’. For Heller, ideology is deeply ‘rooted in collective historical recollection’ and while it is neither good nor bad, it ‘can be mobilized for great and dignified actions, yet also for acts of pointless revenge and the consolidation of the friend/foe dichotomy’.

Heller’s theory of modernity came from her wanting to make sense of massive destruction, tragic outcomes and irreversible damage like Auschwitz and the Gulag and how events like this can happen in a modern society without anyone questioning it. Briefly the two primary tools she uses are technological imagination and historical imagination. Technological imagination is about how things are done. It is outcome driven, future oriented and focused on problem solving. Historical imagination ‘is past- and tradition-sensitive, feeds on recollection, and mobilizes the human capacity towards expanded meaning-oriented thinking’.

Here’s the trick. When they work in tension with each other – like the tension in the rope between people playing tug-of-war Then there exists a double bind of modernity where ideology can be contested and extreme events rarely occur. When technological imagination and historical imagination work together, then ideology becomes so naturalised that it is extremely difficult to examine, question and contest.

The extreme crises that inspired this study were twofold. First and foremost, the writing of women out of knowledge is a critical issue especially within the Australian agricultural sector where it has maintained a hold of patriarchal hegemony using agrarianism and neoliberalism. The second crisis is the impact of drought and how a neoliberal approach to drought policy employing risk management, failed the government and failed the people living and working within the sector. Both agrarianism and neoliberalism are deeply embedded within Australian society and this thesis contests that within Australia, many people have adopted these values and function within these frameworks without too much conscious decision-making because they seem to be the natural order and are difficult to challenge. Further, these ideologies continue to oppress women and locate them in the roles of housewife and child bearer within the agricultural sector regardless of any roles they may have achieved as role models and leaders.

Point of Rupture

The final point made in my theory chapter goes to Smith who argues that when the experience of those not of the dominant social group fail to be recognised or interpreted it is often referred to as a ‘point of rupture’. My thesis identifies three points of rupture that establish that universal notions around farmer, farming, agriculture and the agricultural sector are gender specific and fail to incorporate women’s knowledge and expertise as farmers.

The first point of rupture relates to the history of women on farms and the agrarian notion of ‘farmer’s helpmate’. The second point of rupture was the field of women who farmed. The third point of rupture comes with the notion that women are leaders within the agricultural industry. This thesis contends that women who farm are significant contributors to the viability of farm businesses and they have the capacity to be political and community leaders, educated in agriculture and contributors to policy development.

While there is much controversy relating to using feminist standpoint theory including the argument that situated knowledge is value laden and partial and therefore cannot be objective, my research aims to uncover both the knowledge, experience and expertise of the women who farmed during the Millennium Drought and to uncover that which is below the ideological surfaces of that which is assumed to be natural. The women who farmed may not have produced something that was extremely different to the knowledge that was already available but they may have knowledge and expertise that enhances what is already known and yet to be textualised. It is also important to ensure that the women’s experience of a phenomenon is reflected as their experience, that they could see themselves as part of the knowledge and that there was a place for their ideas, experiences and their knowing.

Methodology and Methods

The methodological means of actioning feminist standpoint theory was threefold.

  1. It had to start with the everyday voices of the women
  2. Use methods that preserved the women’s voices so that they were not objectified – so that they became the ‘knower’
  3. Account for the researcher who was embedded with the women’s everyday world – in other words reflexively acknowledge my position which in this case is as both insider and outsider.

I accomplished this primarily using two methods to gather and analyse the data.

The first was to undertake in-depth interviews with women who farmed in the Goulburn Valley during 2006-2010 and who were still farming when they were interviewed. Purposive and convenience sampling was used and all told there were 8 unstructured, in-depth interviews used.

The second method was to perform a text analysis of the GSCC Drought Program reports that were written throughout 2007 to the end of 2009. Examining the reports I used the method of interpretive document analysis. A limitation to this research was that the voices of Indigenous women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds were not represented. Further research needs to be undertaken to include these women in this research but this will be discussed later in this presentation.

The women who farmed

As you can see, by the list of names, these women came from a range of industries within the agricultural sector. The names that are listed are those who agreed to have their recollections used in the study. Each woman chose the name to be used and for most they are made up. These women’s ages range from around 30yo through to one who was over 80yo and still the person running the farm. All bar one have had children, some now have grandchildren and while most married into farming or came from a farming family, one woman, Sarah, the youngest together with her husband walked onto their new dairy farm in October 2006 – the day that Exceptional Circumstance was declared for the state by the Australian government. Some of the women are highly engaged in their communities, others are involved politically, while others are not.

The everyday location of these women is both encompassed by and external to the field of farming. At this point I want to elaborate on the field of women who farm. My starting point for my research was to categorise the women into three groupings:

  1. Traditional
  2. Off-farm employment
  3. Entrepreneur

When I set out to interview the women, what I wanted to do was to choose women who represented each of these classifications. What I discovered was that the field of women who farmed was more complex.

Those who I had considered to be more of a traditional ‘farmer’s wife who predominantly worked in the house, in fact worked on the farm, at times worked off-farm and was often involved in decision making depending on what was needed. Those who worked in off-farm employment still often worked on the farm, contributed to decision making discussion and often carried the load for managing the household too. The entrepreneurial women who farmed, while they predominantly worked in the farm business, at times also held off-farm positions and primarily were responsible for the maintenance of the home.

This brief overview of the positioning of women within the field of women who farmed provided a starting point from which began the design of the research methods for this thesis. Significant to the stability of this base point was the recognition that the concept of field was moveable and potentially transformable.

The women who farmed and drought

Most of the women interviewed came into farming because their husbands were people who farmed. Jennie, was one woman who had inherited a share of her dad’s farm and it was she who brought her husband back to the farm in the 1980s. She remembered the 1945 drought when her dad bought truckloads of paddy melons to feed to the cows to keep them alive because of the shortage of water and feed. She remembered ‘the pet old monster of a cow who could crack the paddy melon for all the others because they could not get in but she could’. She was about 7 or 8 yo at the time. Now she is trying to decide to sell the farm but she faces a difficult time because even though she is over 80yo, her husband and son do not want her to sell the farm, even though they cannot help her to run the farm. It is also a difficult decision because the farm had been in the family a long time. You see her dad’s grandfather had been the original selector on the land.

There are five topics that best identify the impact drought had on the everyday lives of the women:

1. Feed

2. Water

3. Animal and Orchard welfare

4. Well-being

5. Financial strain

During 2007 access to hay ran out and people who farmed had to resort to all kinds of foods to feed their animals wherever they could lay their hands on it. So for example, Susan sourced feed for her cows including bread and hot-cross buns, marshmallows, ice-cream cones, straw, peaches, oranges and orange pulp, bi-carb soda, molasses licks and pellets. Sarah managed to get hold of some palm-kernel extract to add to the straw so that the cows could get some kind of energy along with the fibre. Susan spoke of the risks she took to feed her cows accessing hay that people had cut from the sides of the road. Aside from all the rubbish like coke cans and cigarette butts, there were weeds including deadly nightshade. When she fed her cows bread, they had to be strategic in the distribution because too much bread all at once and the cows would bloat up and die. While Susan and I laughed when she described the first time the cows saw the marshmallows in their pellet feed holders as they walked into the dairy it was actually an indicator of the lengths the women went and the risks they took sourcing feed for their animals.

Water was a major issue. This was a region that thought it was drought proofed. In 2006 it was the first time irrigators did not receive a full-allocation of water at the beginning of the season. In 2007 and 2008, both seasons began with zero percent allocations and people’s worlds were turned upside down. Regardless of how much water the irrigators received, they were still expected to pay their full water bill. This was a point of anger for many as they believe the expectation was unfair and unjust. Why should they pay for something they did not receive?

Making decisions about the culling of herds and of trees in orchards was heartbreaking for most people who farmed. Chris spoke of the time when after purchasing a mob of 300 sheep they started dying and they lost more than half. ‘that was the worst thing I’ve ever done is pull dead sheep out from under trees and create a fire…’ All because they had eaten a weed called Hellitrope at the previous owner’s place. Others sent their herds to the slaughter yards because they could no longer feed them. As the women spoke about their animals and their trees, it was the heartache they felt with the loss of life, that you could still hear in their voices as they recounted their stories.

The health and well-being of the women and their families was also impacted significantly. Susan spoke of crying for no reason, Chris hated giving up work but felt she had to so that she could better support her husband, while Ellie spoke of being torn because she had to go with her son to hospital for major surgery while being unsure about the decisions her husband might make about his life while she was not at home.

Meanwhile all the women spoke of the debts they were still paying off or had just finished paying off three years after the end of the drought. Most had accessed the Exceptional Circumstance interest relief subsidy and payment to subsidise their incomes.

These programs just mentioned were also part of the ways in which the women survived. In my thesis the drought programs are mainly discussed in the chapter about local government, yet curiously when I asked the women about which drought programs they used they found it difficult to recall which programs and support services they accessed.

Of most significance to the study was the way the women prioritised social connection. This will be discussed in more depth shortly but doing things like keeping the children connected to sporting clubs and joining a craft group or Landcare were important strategies that the women acted on to survive the drought.

As to the future of farming, while some were adamant there was a future, others made sure to deter their children from entering the sector because they saw no future. One point of consensus was that unless you had family where you could enter farming through succession planning, it would be very difficult for any young people to purchase their own farm. Many suggested that it was better for young people to work as an employee if they wanted to farm.

There was also no consensus on climate change. Some believed the science, some did not believe, but all agreed that the cycle of drought periods was real and was a feature of Australia’s climate rather than an aberration.

Taking action

One of the dominant themes that came through the interviews and was also recorded in the GSCC drought reports was that women took action to make sure that they were socially connected to others during the drought. Whether it was starting up their own friendship/support groups, meeting a friend for coffee, seeking advice from a GP or participating in larger community based activity/industry groups these women all sought support off-farm to survive the drought with their well-being intact. Catherine initiated holding the Women on Farms Gathering in Shepparton during 2007 because she felt the women who farmed needed something to spur them on. She also actively engaged with her local council to gain support from them to help financially with in-kind access to function rooms. Sarah became involved with the Victorian Farmers Federation and Murray Dairy and worked towards policy changes that better supported new farmers in the industry. Joan was involved with United Dairyfarmers Victoria as the secretary and proactively through their auspices helped to access grant monies to put on social events for the local farmers for which one event included a night with Denise Drysdale.

One of the key findings in all of this talk of networking and seeking support was when Sarah started talking about the future.

She saidSarah, dairy: “We need to value our social networks…part of the policy needs to be putting human capital needs…to have a value put on it, but it’s going to need to be given a financial value in terms of the position or a person to do it as a job and that needs to be there all the time because to network with people you’ve gotta have a foundation to network from - not just six month contracts…”Chris, sheep: suggested that “…your personal network had to be strong and you had to drag the men with you. Things have to be put on…”

Catherine, orchard: pointed out that “…[farmers] used those services successfully and now they want to use them again but they’ve gone and that’s really sad because the government needs to know that they should continue those services because that will help stop depression…”

This was moment of realisation for me, that there was some congruence between the women’s stories and the findings of the drought reports’ document analysis.

What role for government

The original question led my research to discover the proactive response of women in crisis, to focus on shoring up their personal support mechanisms so they could better support their families and local communities.

My analysis of the interviews and drought reports revealed that Local Government can play an integral role towards supporting their rural communities to prepare for and manage drought. My analysis of the interviews and drought reports revealed that Local Government can play an integral role towards supporting their rural communities to prepare for and manage drought.

They can:

  • Legitimise the voices of women through writing evaluation reports of community activities
  • Be a conduit between rural communities and the Australian and Victorian governments to promote rural policy development suited to the needs of its the local community
  • Work with rural communities to better prepare for future droughts and other crisis events through a dedicated position that oversees community development in the rural sector.


This study began with an early question: what knowledge do women have that enables them to adapt and manage for drought during 2006-2010? It then asked the women interviewed just how such knowledge and experience could be utilised to prepare and manage for drought events in the future.

The evidence has highlighted how women’s resourcefulness, decision making and social networking were aspects of their management strategy and the study considered just how these maintained and supported the social capital essential to survival and sustainability. Any future drought policy needs to ensure that social capital is both maintained and strengthened and the thesis found that there is a critical role for local government to play supporting rural communities better prepare for and manage for drought.

Rather than being a passive player waiting for a Federal declaration and then for a State government hand-out of funding, this study concludes that local government must be part of any future drought policy development, and it needs to invest now for long term success and community resilience. Such investment could include an ongoing community development position that has a long term responsibility. This way, when the crisis of drought comes again, there will be no need to run ‘sausage sizzles and jumping castle’ events to boost community morale. Instead there will be a more valuable focus on liaising between the rural community and service providers, disseminating quality, up to date information and strengthening strategies that will enable not just a survival, but rather a thriving which enables the community to recover more rapidly.

This thesis also concludes that there is much to be gained if the agricultural sector included more broadly the knowledge of women who farm. This means a better appreciation of the value of women’s knowledge, of their networking capacities and of their keeping their families and communities connected socially and up to date with the information they gather through those networks. This study has shown that until that happens women will simply continue to be seen as the ‘glue’ that holds farming families together while the agricultural sector renders them invisible to the field in decision making and knowledge building. While valuing the building of social capital is not seen as ‘agricultural’ as it is not considered as a component of production, nevertheless it is a strong and powerful aspect which has enabled the Goulburn Valley to survive through a once-in-a-generation crisis and which should be recognised by governments as crucial in supporting any future risk management approach to drought.

The stories of how these women who were interviewed managed for drought focuses on the untouched, unacknowledged capacity that women have to navigate their way through a world that refuses to value their knowledge, experience and expertise. They provide insightful ideas about how drought can be managed better in the future and these ideas need to be adopted, acknowledged and given value for their contribution.

Today, my research has started to focus on women who farm in the Punjab, using that as a basis to better recognise what they do in the part of India to farm and manage for drought. This will form the base from which interviews with women from our local Punjabi community in the Goulburn Valley will be conducted. The aim here, is to tap into knowledge and experience that they brought with them to Australia that might assist other people who farm in Australia to better manage for future droughts.

Please note: this presentation was based on my doctoral thesis: Women's recollection of farming and managing for drought in Australia, 2006-2010: What role for local government? which is available through Open Access ANU.

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