June 7, 2021
Amanda: Can you tell me a little bit about what is the Central West Farming Systems Group?
Diana: Well Central West Farming Systems is a group that was developed by a number of growers in the Central West area of New South Wales. It was generated in 1998, and growers were trying to look for some more information, some RD&E really, on the low rainfall region of which Central West sits. So growers got together and they looked for some funding, and they received funding and established Central West Farming Systems. It’s a not-for-profit independent organisation, and we look at a lot of collaboration within the industry and with growers and universities and anyone involved in agriculture. We work together to really improve the sustainability and profitability of farming practices in the Central West of New South Wales. CWFS has quite a wide footprint; we cover 14 million hectares in the Central West. We have sparsely settled farms, often because a lot of farms are quite big in this area, that’s really how we got started.
Amanda: How long have you been involved with the Central West Farming System?
Diana: Oh I started here about six years ago, and we’ve had a wide range of projects and we work with a wide range of industry organisations. So some of the projects that we would roll out–we’ve had an over-dependence of agrochemicals, so that was funded through GRDC [Grains Research & Development Corporation], and we worked with a number of farming systems groups in other low rainfall areas, and we looked at different ways of trying to deal with what chemicals we use and how to lessen that footprint. I think everybody understands there’s going to be some long-term impacts; chemicals are going to become less able to be used once we have resistance issues. And of course we’re all trying to really make sure that we’re lessening our footprint and doing as much as we can in sustainability.
Amanda: Absolutely. What’s your role Diana? I understand you’re the CEO, what does that look like and mean for the farming systems group?
Diana: So what does that mean, it means that I really look at funding options, and looking at gaps where there’s some RD&E in our area. Part of the main mission of our organisation is to come from the grassroots, so we talk to farmers in our region and see what they would like to research and have more knowledge on. And I think that’s where we try and be the conduit really from what’s happening in the research area and extension area, to saying to everybody look this is what is really needed on the ground, these are the gaps, how best can we all get together to push some information out to farmers to improve farming practices. In all our projects we have a lot of workshops; we really look at building resilience and sustainability.
And I think one of the main issues that I’m finding now, which has been really interesting to watch over the last few years, I think there’s a lot of media around farming practices and some of it is probably a little bit sensationalised. Because I’m a great advocate for our farmers, I think Australian farmers are amazingly efficient, and they really probably don’t have the same level playing field in terms of global environment, where a lot of other countries have quite heavy subsidies and tariffs. So sometimes I think we can be a little hard on our farmers, but that’s my side because I really do think sometimes a lot of negativity comes towards farmers, and I think it’s not the right way to go, I think farmers do a great job.
Amanda: No I agree with you totally. I was doing some research the other day which was actually just talking about Australian agriculture and Australian farmers, and actually it is the most risky industry in Australia. And as you say, farming in Australia is one of the riskiest agricultural industries compared to others globally, because of those reduced subsidies, because of our harsh climate and conditions as well. So in working with farmers over the last few years I have developed such an admiration for what you all do. But I did hear something funny as well the other week which was with all this home online schooling. One of the farming families was actually helping their child with their online homework and they were looking at some of the facts around beef production in relation to the amount of water that was used in beef production. It was actually totally factually incorrect, as you say, almost giving farmers a negative image.
Diana: Yes, yes, that’s right. I think it’s like everything really, once you work in an industry and understand it a little bit better–often you hear some media reports and you’ll go no well that’s actually incorrect. As you say Amanda, it is a little bit frustrating because I think there is a bit of a bias that farmers don’t do the right thing in the media, or it’s often to do with something that’s a bit more sensational, and that’s just their job really. But I do think sometimes the perception of the metropolitan demographic might not really see how hard and good farmers are in their role, and of course I think people forget we need food, we need fibre, and it’s probably a fundamental need. So I just hope everyone can make sure they support farmers as much as they can.
Amanda: And it sounds like your group, a group like yourselves can really advocate that as well, in demonstrating that evidence-based research for not only the profitability but the sustainability aspects as well, and as a conduit to share that with the public as well.
Diana: Yes, that’s what we really hope to do and I think we do that well. And even the project that we did with Farming Together, I think was one of the ground projects that showed how we can really collaborate, and we can improve a whole range of decisions on farm to make the industry more sustainable and more profitable, those are the two keys really to keep farming in Australia.
Amanda: Yeah, I think so too. Look I noticed that with the Farming Together program–and I’ve looked in general, that you have quite a strong theme around empowering women in agriculture. And I was wondering if you could just tell us a bit more about your approach with that, and some of the things that you’ve done in that space?
Diana: For about the last 15 years we’ve had a project for women and youth in agriculture, so that was really to upskill and increase the capacity of women and young people to be more involved on on-farm decision-making or on board levels or encourage young people to come back to the farm. There’s a great drain of young people in rural communities that will go to jobs in mining or other areas that pay a lot more than the long-term farming roles that are out here, so we’re really trying to keep farming communities and regional communities strong and sustainable. We know that when the women are linked to agricultural value chains they do increase production and viability of farms, so educating women has massive flow-on effects by encompassing local and regional communities.
So by educating and increasing the skills of women they will not only help their business, they’ll help their family, and then they help their community. It’s really important to use that resource, and it’s often untapped. And I think from my perspective I came from Sydney and moved out to Condobolin around 20 years ago, so I was amazed at how many women were on farm and had left jobs to come and be with partners or to come back to the farm. And they’re just talented and clever and they often don’t recognise or acknowledge what they do. What we wanted to do was to give them some more confidence and to highlight their achievements on farm, so that’s how that program got started and it was really successful.
We’ve had a number of different funding models with that project on different areas in agriculture, and then in 2016 Central West Farming Systems [was invited] to present at a symposium in New Delhi in India. And that was through CSU [Charles Sturt University] and Ambedkar University in New Delhi and PRADAN, that was looking at the transformation for rural development and the co-production of knowledge. That was an amazing experience. So [0:09:05.4] another colleague and myself went over there, which was just an amazing experience. We saw how PRADAN ran self-help groups, women’s self-help groups. So in 1997 PRADAN pioneered women’s self-help groups, and that was as an approach to mobilise poorer communities and to improve livelihoods, so since 1987 there’s now 70,000 self-help groups in India.
Diana: If anyone has a moment to look up PRADAN it’s an amazing NGO, and they have really transformed a lot of the communities in the poorer rural areas of India.
Amanda: What were your biggest takeaways from what sounds like an absolutely incredible experience?
Diana: To see how empowering women can have such a positive impact as I said earlier on families, but then in the wider context of communities, of villages in India, and how it increased their sustainability, their profitability increased. Women’s agency to make decisions in places like India, of course they have so many more barriers, you know they’ve got religion, there’s a whole number of barriers for women. We don’t have that, we’re a first world country, women have much more agency anyway, but it was very inspiring, it was very inspiring. And I think the commonalities from women in poorer rural communities and here even in Condobolin, it’s quite amazing, we all face very similar things.
We have to juggle families, we have to juggle–sometimes our partners might not be so open to some new suggestions, because a lot of times in Australia women will move out to farms. So their husbands may have lived and worked on the farm for generations, so they may tend to be a little less responsive to new ideas. So I think we all bonded very much over just the basic commonalities and you realise that everybody is the same and faces the same dilemmas and the same frustrations in farming. Whether it be you get too much rain, too little rain, what to grow, what are the risks, how do you market the product at the end of the day, because you put so much work into it what’s the best way to get the most money, and it was a very inspiring opportunity and we got a lot out of that.
Amanda: And it sounds like you implemented a lot of that when you got home. And I wonder for those grower groups, other farming system groups that haven’t got these women empowerment programs, that potentially what you’ve done is something that is highly transferable to other groups and other areas.
Diana: That’s right Amanda, and hopefully it’s transferable to other industries as well, so the model that you can create from this can be transferred elsewhere. And the best way to really focus on empowering smaller groups too, that’s really important, because you have the mentorship and you develop relationships. So assessing how PRADAN rolled it out and to see what really worked, that gave us the impetus to go okay we can do that here and use PRADAN’s model, which obviously has been so successful.
Amanda: What would be some of the key points that you could recommend to other groups that wanted to do something similar?
Diana: Try not to overreach. So we kept groups to about 10 so that people can get to know each other and it’s quite intimate, relationship gets established and it’s quite a strong relationship. And then we had industry experts come and talk to our group, so we were focusing on marketing, and it was really good to have those groups. Everybody became very close and everybody developed very strong relationships with our mentors, and I think that was because the groups were small, and that seems to be a really key point to take away from how we establish these.
Amanda: That’s a great point. One of my questions is obviously you cover a very large area, Central West Farming Systems, and people can be quite far apart. I don’t know how far the furthest people would be apart from each other but I’m guessing it might be a fair few hours’ drive?
Diana: Yep, that’s right.
Amanda: So what kind of things have you done to connect people and to help communication? So it sounds like you’ve got a number of face-to-face opportunities, but what other things do you do to help keep that communication, keep that connectivity between group members?
Diana: Part of the issue with women on farms in our area is isolation, we do live long distances from everybody else. So we make sure that everybody’s involved in group emails, we can do Facebook, but really for us face-to-face is the most important thing to do. A lot of people might travel an hour or an hour and a half to get to a meeting, but it means that they get to go off farm; they get to talk to people and see people. We would organise our meetings at particular sites and venues, so some of our meetings I’d organise everybody to meet at certain places along a route to go to one of our activities. We went to visit Sophie Hansen in Orange, now Sophie has established a venison farm and she is a well-known chef, and we went to Sophie’s venue near Orange.
We went for a tour of her farm, a venison farm, then she cooked a beautiful lunch, we sat down, she does a lot of social media so she talked about social media. We had another grower of grapes that came, Angullong Wines, she’s on the other side of Orange so she came and talked about how she marketed wines. Those are really very different, you’re getting people off farm, and you’re getting them to meet these amazing women that are in the same position but have been able to really see some opportunities. That’s probably one of the strongest parts of this group, really getting people out of just what they’re normally doing and going off and seeing other people. And talking face-to-face seems to be such a big thing out here because we are so isolated.
Amanda: So I have also seen your newsletter and your website, and I thought they were really great ways of reaching out to your members. Some of the groups that I’ve spoken to have talked about the way they’ve used technology in different ways, and I just wanted to get a sense of how you’ve used technology to communicate and reach out, and what you have found has worked, or hasn’t worked?
Diana: We’ve got a member information email that goes out every two weeks, so we use that to update everybody with what’s going on and our projects. We print a newsletter as well as send one out and put it on our website. Often we’ve got a bit of a problem with some of our technology, we just don’t have the infrastructure out here for a lot of technology to work really well, so we try and mix and match. And of course some people are better at technology than others, so we try and make sure that we cover off on everybody with both printed material, with Facebook, emails, Zoom meetings, so we try and cover off on every avenue. Really all the social network platforms as well as the more traditional forms of media just to make sure [nobody] misses out.
Amanda: Yeah. We’ve had the similar experience in trying to reach a lot of farmers across the country in different ways, and finding that that multichannel strategy is definitely the best way to reach. Do you find there’s one tool that wins over the others in terms of interaction?
Diana: Look I think our printed newsletters are probably more widely read than the email version. I think people with emails, you tend to think I’ll go back when I’ve got more time, but if you’re sitting having lunch you can flip open a hard copy of something, face-to-face and written newsletters.
Amanda: You can’t beat going back to the traditional methods of communication.
Diana: That’s right, yeah that’s right.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah, if it works. I’m interested in personally for you, what are you most proud of in the work you’ve done with the Central West Farming Systems?
Diana: Look I think after every project–I’m proud that we’ve rolled something out that I think we’ve done well, and delivered and given some more information or knowledge to farmers. Probably on a personal level some of the women’s project has been really special in that–it’s lovely to see–one of our participants–we had a women’s event in March for New South Wales Department of Women, the Women’s Week, and I asked her to speak. We had a couple of really high-profile speakers and I asked our local girl to speak, because I think she does an amazing job and doesn’t realise it.
And she was so nervous, and then she spoke and she was so self-deprecating, she didn’t want to do it, and I said ‘no you must do this; you’re just an inspiration to lots of people’. And anyway she got up and she was fantastic, and afterwards she said she just loved it and it gave her so much confidence. And I just think it’s lovely to watch how people can grow, there’s just so much talent out there and these women are so appreciative. It really does make a difference to give them the opportunity to really gain confidence, and I think that’s really important.
Amanda: That’s something that sounds really important, that you’ve actually been able to create that enabling and empowering environment, to as you say, give someone who would never dream of stepping up on the stage the opportunity to tell their story and then find their strength through that.
Diana: Yeah, that’s right. And we have a major conference every two years for the women and youth project. And in March last–sorry I’m losing track of time now.
Amanda: It’s gone, it’s just disappears into the COVID-19 void [Chuckles].
Diana: But we were in drought, so we had been suffering four and a half years then of drought, like unbelievably devastating, it was just a terrible time for everybody. So we had this conference and I cannot tell you how wonderful it was. We had Fiona O’Loughlin the comedian, she gave a keynote address, we had Susan Lee, who’s a Minister for Environment come up and give a keynote address. We had really wonderful people and we just needed a circuit breaker, we needed to all get together and we needed to tell our stories and say yep we’re all there for each other. And it was really lovely to see how there is such strength in the community, and we just need to make sure that everyone gets out and knows that it’s there.
Amanda: Look I wanted to go back to something that you said earlier about the function or the mission of the Central West Farming System, and in a way that was about being a conduit or bridging the gap between farming and research. What do you think are some of those gaps at the moment that are there that your group is doing to help fill?
Diana: At the moment we’ve got a number of projects looking at growing pulses in the area, encouraging chickpeas and pulses that traditionally have been a little bit more difficult to grow in our region, but with better varieties and better knowledge around farming, and technology is improving all the time, so we’ve got better ways of sowing with disc seeders. Really it’s just keeping up with what’s new in the market now, what’s new in research, and that’s an ever evolving situation. In terms of gaps we really look at growers, and in some ways it’s really interesting because there’s been a great leap forward in terms of how people farm.
For farmers a lot of their initiatives are well on the way, and some of the barriers to new practices it has been broken down with more information and with better machinery. And also farmers need to be profitable to be able to invest in the future, which is to buy more updated machinery, look at things like soil moisture probes and understanding the soil better. We’re involved in the Soil CRC Co-operative and we’re looking at lots of projects under that banner, helping farmers know how to understand their soils better, make the most of moisture, looking at increasing soil tests on their farms.
Amanda: So do you partner with a lot of research institutions? Is that how you help develop new and innovative knowledge to share that with your farmer members?
Diana: Yeah, we do. A lot of research organisations will come to us because they need to put some trials on the ground for farmers out here. We come up with some project that we think is going to be helpful to farmers in our region, so we put that to funding bodies, government agencies. We work with New South Wales DPI, we work with GRDC [Grains Research & Development Corporation], MLA [Meat & Livestock Australia] and we work with universities. So we really collaborate with everybody in the industry for the betterment of our farmers.
Amanda: It sounds like really important work that the Central West Farming System is doing in a lot of different spaces, but I imagine running an organisation like that is not always easy, you’re not-for-profit base, probably you do a lot of co-funded or funded project work. What are some of the challenges that running an organisation like this faces, and how if you’ve had these challenges have you overcome them?
Diana: Some of the challenges really apply to everybody working in the industry, especially not-for-profit, not being understaffed and underfunded is a major issue. Sometimes the direction where funding is available might not align with what our organisation does, we are here driven by farmers, looking at what farmers want in our region. So we just need to make sure that whatever we apply for aligns with that rather than trying to just seek funding for funding sake, so that’s always a bit of a balancing act.
Amanda: What about different personalities? Are there ever other challenges there when you’re trying to work with a lot of people who have a lot of different ideas?
Diana: No I haven’t actually found that to be much of a problem. When we do work on a specific project we are all united really in the same goal, and I think that keeps everybody working well together, so I haven’t really found that much of a challenge which is good.
Amanda: Well I think that might be in part because of some of the leadership potentially that the members have, so I think that’s reflection on your part and your team I would say.
Diana: Oh that’s very complimentary, I’m not sure about that but thank you [Chuckles], happy to take it. But I think it’s really interesting isn’t it, because even in the women’s groups someone said about the dynamics, everyone works so well together, and most people are so generous really with their information that they share and with time. And maybe in this space particularly–yeah I don’t know, maybe we’re just lucky, we’re just very lucky.
Amanda: Yeah. And I think also having taken the time to have built trust between you as members, and understanding that it is together by moving forward together that you can actually achieve the shared goals.
Diana: Yes exactly, I think that’s right. The shared goal really is the way for people to cooperate and work well together.
Amanda: Definitely. What do you wish you had known before you’d started in your role?
Diana: This wasn’t a role I particularly aspired to. It wasn’t something that I was thinking oh I could do that role, it sort of happened upon me. And because I really came from the city I didn’t have a broad knowledge in agriculture, and so I think I felt not as skilled in my knowledge base and that was one thing I had to overcome. I was probably very nervous about taking on this role, and I wish I’d had a little bit more confidence to realise that it’s been such a wonderful opportunity; I have had so many wonderful experiences. If I’d realised that’s a big part of this role and not to be so nervous.
Amanda: So maybe some advice that you would give to someone else who was thinking about being in a similar position to you, is just believe in yourself really by the sounds of it.
Diana: That’s right.
Amanda: I think a lot of people whether they would acknowledge it or not would feel unprepared or not qualified or unsure about their capacity in a new role. And then once they’re actually in there they have the opportunity to look back and go actually this is not so bad, this is really exciting, oh look what we can do.
Diana: Yeah, that’s right.
Amanda: I think it sounds like you’re doing some pretty great things by the sound of it. What are you working on right now that’s really exciting you?
Diana: We’ve got a number of project proposals we’re going to try and pull together, on adding value to some of the work on some of the projects we’ve already done, which I think is really important because that’s one of the other frustrations you find. Sometimes the project gets funding and then once the funding stops all of that information just seems to drop off a cliff. We’re just trying to pull some of the project work we’ve done, and add value by keeping some of those specific activities just rolling on and keeping it in the upper most of people’s minds. Keep going. So that’s what I’m looking at. I’d really like to engage some metropolitan people in some of our farming practices, better understanding from that group. Because it really concerns me that some of the policy decisions and direction is getting pushed by some groups that may not actually understand farming as well as they should, so looking at coming up with some sort of project that might be able to gauge some city people.
Amanda: Stay tuned. We’ll wait [Chuckles]. So obviously from our position one of the things I was interested in, we see that there is quite a gap between research and practice and adoption in farming, and the idea that your group is actually filling that gap. One of the things I was keen to hear more about is about the ways you were doing that. Obviously you’re partnering with universities to do this research, field trials and so forth, how does that all work? And then how do those results get translated to meaningful information or resources, and then how is that adopted by your farmer members? Because I also know that we can provide all the resources and great information that’s out there and the latest research, but adoption, practice, change is actually really difficult as well.
Diana: Yeah that’s right, exactly. So I think that’s kind of like the big question that everybody faces, is really increasing adoption of new ideas. So we have lots of projects on water use efficiency, so we’ve got an irrigation site at Condobolin, so we’re looking at a smarter irrigation for-profit project that’s with the Federal Government. The problem with farming as you know, you have benchmarks and your projects will say that you need to show adoption, and farming is one of those things that it’s really seasonal. So we had projects rolling out in the drought, well what can happen in a drought, we sow a trial and then it doesn’t rain and that trial doesn’t come up.
And that’s one thing I actually have really learnt which I did not fully understand, that it’s really seasonal, so every year it’s going to be a slightly different way of doing what you normally do. Having a toolbox worth of ideas for farmers to go okay what’s the best way to do this in a really dry season, in a really wet season, so it’s really not just one size fits all. And I think that’s a really important message to get across, so that you’ll see something happen and you’ll go oh that’s not [0:30:14.3], but actually if you understand it in context it is good under those circumstances.
Amanda: Yes, I hear two things there. The first one is about having a suite of tools or ideas that are contextually relevant, that a farmer who is very in tune with their landscape, their farm, is able to look through this suite of tools and ideas and go yeah I’m going to give this one a try, I think this one I need to do it a little bit differently, I’m going to give this one a go, in very basic terms.
Diana: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And I think that’s one of our roles is really to give farmers as many options available, so that they can make that decision as the season comes on. And they might be planning something and suddenly have 40 mm of rain, they have to be really agile living out here. And I live on a farm with cattle and cropping, that’s one thing I’ve learnt is you have to be very agile and you have to be prepared to take lots of risks.
Amanda: Yep. And the other thing I actually heard from that as well which may not be specific to your case, but what I get a sense of in general is these funded projects that you’re working on, obviously there’s all these accountabilities that you have to meet your objectives and deliver the impact. But as you say, if you’re doing a field trial and you don’t get any rain then the goalposts are going to have to shift. So actually agility in those projects and the accountabilities around them as well are also really important.
Diana: That’s the other thing, why it’s so important to do everything on the ground in areas like ours, because we’re trying to replicate what is real life. So you’re going to have a project and it’s all fabulous, but you’ve got to put it out here and say okay well this is what a farmer faces, you put it in and now it doesn’t rain, so what do you do from there, how do you manage this from here.
Amanda: What have you learnt that has surprised you the most about Farming Together?
Diana: There is such power in uniting together. Really you can’t achieve anything in isolation, working with groups that we work with, with the growers, with researchers, with universities, the shared knowledge, the networks, the agency that you build is so powerful. And it is something that collaboration is really the only way forward, if you want to be a successful and sustainable and profitable farming community. And we all rely on each other in different ways for information, for capacity building, for networks, for ringing someone up and saying ‘okay what do I do here, what do I do there’ or ‘I’m having a bad day, I don’t know what to do, where do I go’.
So I think in terms of building community strength, community resilience, farming resilience, I just think collaboration and Farming Together is really just crucial, and that just can never be underestimated. So that’s the way I see how things should go forward, and most farming communities are really doing that. And I think farming communities probably understand that quite well already, because everyone in a farming community in regional areas, we’re integrated in so many ways. We all know what’s going on, everyone is so closely connected, so I think we’ve got a very strong understanding of that now.
Amanda: Wow, what a beautiful way to round off the conversation. That was amazing.
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