Australia’s top rural women recognised with awards

Caroline Robinson (left), a sheep and wool producer and rural entrepreneur from WA’s wheat belt, is the winner of this year’s national Australian Rural Women’s Award. The rural development consultant from Woolocutty, about 350km east of Perth, developed the successful Wheatbelt Business Network to promote local produce and regional tourism and provide networking and training opportunities for members. She will use her $10,000 bursary to research, develop and implement a Buy Local marketing plan for the region. Robinson was a state award winner alongside national runner-up Barbara Grey (Qld), and Angela Betheras (Vic), Karen Hutchinson (NSW), Kim Blenkiron (SA), and Jackie Brown (Tas).

The Rural Women’s Award is co-ordinated by the federal Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and recognises rural women’s contribution to primary industries, resource development and rural Australia. It particularly focuses on developing future visions, so provides each state and territory winner with a $10,000 bursary for financial and practical support to implement their own ambitious Award project. Winners also attend a Company Directors Course in Canberra. Since its establishment in 2000 the work and experiences of over 200 state winners and runners-up have been recognised.

This year’s state winners represent diverse ideas: a rural entrepreneur (Caroline Robinson), rural communicator (Barbara Grey), trade negotiator (Angela Betheras), community capacity builder (Kim Blenkiron), rural change agent (Karen Hutchinson), and agricultural educator (Jackie Brown).

National winner & runner-up

Caroline Robinson (WA)

National winner Caroline Robinson will expand on the work she has already done with the not-for-profit Wheatbelt Business Network (WBN). Her Award ambition is to embark on a comprehensive Buy Local marketing campaign for the wheatbelt region. To do this, she will visit other rural communities to learn about their strategies, then co-ordinate a survey of the region’s local government and key stakeholders to identify local economy gaps and how existing and new businesses can fill them.

Robinson has considerable experience in rural development. She runs a rural industries consultancy business (Solum wheatbelt business solutions) that specialises in community development, project and event management, and research and grant writing. She has a Bachelors degree in commerce (majoring in small business and tourism management) as well as a Diploma of Education. She established the WBN, which launched in March 2010, so that local businesses could share knowledge and have a strong voice on regional issues. Members are drawn from small and home-based businesses, community and not-for-profit organisations, government and corporations in the region. Five local shires support the network and it has become a central hub for the region providing news, information and opportunities to network and promote services and products.

Barbara Grey (Qld)

National runner-up Barbara Grey is a 30-year veteran irrigated-cotton grower in Mungindi, on the Queensland/NSW border. Working in close partnership with her husband Ralph to provide innovative and efficient practices, their 1400ha farm has been recognised as one of the region’s benchmarks for cotton growing. In 2007 they were awarded Cotton Australia’s Innovative Grower of the Year. She is currently the Chair of the Women’s Industry Network – Cotton (which supports women involved in the cotton industry) and a non-executive director of the Cotton Co-operative Research Centre. Her Award ambition is to implement a pilot education program aimed at helping aspiring rural and regional women leaders to understand the political and government decision-making processes better so they can have strong, effective voices for their communities.

State winners

Angela Betheras (Vic)

Victoria’s winner Angela Betheras breeds alpacas on her West Gippsland property at Darnum. She also runs an integrated tourist enterprise (Nickelby by Darnum) on the property which provides visitors with opportunities to buy products and interact with the animals. Before becoming a breeder, she spent 18 years working in international trade and supply management. Although the alpaca industry established itself as a credible and profitable fibre industry, Betheras believes it is necessary to find new markets for its woollen products. Her Award ambition is to explore China as a potential export market destination and hopes to initiate new trade relations with the country.

Kim Blenkiron (SA)

South Australia’s winner Kim Blenkiron has been involved in farming all her life. She grew up on a farm in the Mallee and for almost 20 years has farmed with her husband – first on Kangaroo Island and now on the mainland at Strathalbyn. She has been involved in representing her regions in industry organisations and is currently the State Co-ordinator of Partners in Grain South Australia where she helps women in regional communities develop their professional skills and self confidence. She plans to develop this support further with her Award ambition and will run a series of workshops for rural women to pass on the coaching and communication skills she has developed over the years.

Karen Hutchinson (NSW)

Irrigation policy specialist Karen Hutchinson is NSW’s winner. She lives on an irrigated property at Hanwood, near Griffith, where the family grows sultanas for dried fruit production. As Executive Manager of Murrumbidgee Irrigation, she is responsible for water distribution in the region and is mindful of the difficulties facing agriculture in the region with expected cuts to water allocation in the Murray Darling Basin. She hopes to provide some leadership in this challenging area to help the irrigated agriculture industry adapt to the changing environment. Her Award ambition is to research current knowledge and practice on innovation and change in various industries, and map out ways change can be managed in the Murray Irrigation Area.

Jackie Brown (Tas)

Agricultural educator Jackie Brown lives in Brighton and is Tasmania’s winner. She has spent 30 years raising awareness among students of the diverse career pathways available in agriculture. She was instrumental in developing Brighton’s Bridgewater High School Farm (which provides vocational and work skills programs and short courses) into a nationally recognised and well-utilised educational facility. Her Award ambition is to investigate international best practices in agricultural studies and then implement more innovative programs for Tasmanian teachers and students as a way to address the shortage of students pursuing agriculture careers.

State Runners-Up

NSW: Sally Martin – Knowledge broker
VIC: Jennifer Savage – Fish farming pioneer
QLD: Erin Corish – Lamb industry innovator
SA: Rebecca Williams – Rural development consultant
WA: Cathy Howard – Small wine producer advocate
TAS: Jan Hughes – Agritourism promoter

(there was no award recipient for Northern Territory this year)

More information and detailed stories about the award winners and runners-up can be found at the RIRDC’s website.

Images: Caroline Wilson (top) & Barbara Grey (middle) (photos courtesy of RIRDC); WA’s wheatbelt (photo by SatuSuro… commons.wikimedia.org)