Daughters of farmers who became farm owners had:
- worked on the farm and retained an interest in the business through their youth;
- developed a unique skill set, which increased their employability;
- defined and communicated their value to the farm and reasons for returning;
- received mentoring and established a supportive network; and
- demonstrated leadership capacity by holding community governance roles
Katrina Sasse wanted to provide thought diversity and challenge the status quo in family farming through a Nuffield Scholarship, looking at how businesses can encourage their daughters through farm succession.
Hailing from Morawa in Western Australia’s northern grain belt, she returned home after 15 years of school, university and career to help out on the family farm.
After going through the early stages of succession with her family, she discovered a need for succession resources tailored for daughters.
She quickly realised that few other growers’ daughters were taking on family farms. This prompted her to want to write a guide for growers and industry to inform and encourage daughters to be active participants or candidates in farm succession.
“I was concerned to hear people say that you needed a son to take over the farm,” she says. “I thought that perhaps there was some gender bias going on, so I decided to take on this subject as a Nuffield Scholar.”
Her 2017 Nuffield Scholarship, with GRDC investment, took her around the world, which allowed her to meet other farmers’ daughters making a career on the land.
Ms Sasse says women offer different ways of looking at the farm business, which is essential given the many challenges facing farming families today.
“We need people with different skills and perspectives to keep farming viable,” she says. “Women bring different leadership styles to business, and their different viewpoints and breadth of experience offer a guard against groupthink.”
In her Nuffield Scholarship travels, she says many of the women she visited who were taking on farms had up to 10 years of experience working in other businesses before returning to the farm.
She says most women who returned to the farm had been involved in the business at an earlier age.
“The most critical time to encourage women to take an interest in farming is when they are young,” she says.
“Ask young women regularly from when they are children to when they are teenagers if they want to farm so that they realise that running the farm could be part of their future.”
The women she met overseas were allowed to see the possibility of running the farm and were never pigeonholed into specific jobs as youngsters but were encouraged to do farm tasks just like their brothers.
“During the teenage years, young women drove tractors, combines and milked cows, which provided life experience and connection to the farm.”
For example, some of the women she visited were given cows or part of a crop to manage in their youth, and this connected them to the farm as a business.
“It is important that young women, and men, are allowed to run part of the farm business because it introduces financial accountability.”
The women she met overseas who ran farms had often returned to the farm on weekends and holidays while they were at university because they loved the work.
“Some of these women had studied robotics or ecology, were highly employable in many fields, offered a diverse skill set, and could define their value to their parents.”
Confidence a must
Many women she met had worked outside the farm for three to five years to gain confidence. Building confidence involved feeling comfortable talking to people, working with a mentor and taking on leadership roles.
“The women running farms overseas who I spoke to were all leading community groups or had done so when they had worked off-farm.”
After women return to the farm, Ms Sasse says, they need time to settle into their role, gain confidence and determine what part of the business will be their focus.
“I could not even drive a tractor when I moved back to the family farm,” she says.
“I learned when I was 15 but had forgotten and was scared. It was a culture shock, but I took the approach of learning from my parents.
“Now, I have no problem driving tractors, seeding rigs, sprayers and harvesters, but that’s taken 10 years, so be patient.
“I don’t think I understood agronomy until I had to choose the chemicals to spray a crop.
“I started with some compacted and poorly structured soils and engaged advisers. This gave me a sense of ownership and allowed me to develop my confidence, experience and autonomy.”
Katrina says the corporate world grooms people to act professionally. “But it’s essential to see the move to the farm as a step sideways and then building up from there rather than a step backwards.
“The finance skills I learned by working for NAB have been critical to buying my farm because I learned how to complete budgets, review financials and write emails to suppliers, for example.”
The next step, she says, is the family life stage, where balance is required between running the farm and bringing up children.
“I asked the women running farms how they managed to balance farm and family, and all of them said they just did it,” she says.
“Many daughters said they had childcare options, such as grandparents who helped out or they had employed a nanny.
“Some also adapted the workplace. For example, one woman I visited had a barn with a window enabling her to see into her child’s toy room while she immunised the pigs.
“Additional managers or workers were employed if the daughter needed to be away from the farm at any time.
“Nonetheless, the daughter successors I visited always worked hours to suit their duties to the family.”
Ms Sasse says equal discussions about farm succession are only sometimes possible because some parents believe that farmers are men.
“One of my favourite insights came from Jenny Rhodes, who I visited in Delaware in the US, who talked about the importance of opening the conversation and showing your worth.
“It is about gaining parents’ support for alternative options such as buying into another farm, leasing another farm, starting a different venture, or finding another career path.
“This is where mentoring from other women who have been in a similar situation to you can be valuable.
“But there will be women disappointed because of gender bias in their families.”
She encourages women to look locally for a support network.
“Focus on what you need in farming, such as confidence or leadership. I go to everything where women in agriculture are encouraged.
“Locally, I’m involved in the Morawa Farm Improvement Group, which I chaired for six years and am now a committee member.
“Although the Morawa Farm Improvement Group isn’t a women's group, it gave me the confidence and ability to speak up about who I am and share my farm experiences with my local peers and learn from them.”
She says a sound process for daughter succession seems to depend on several factors.
“Commonly, the women I visited had a performance-based pay tied to yield or production,” she says. “This focused their attention on boosting production and improving efficiencies.
“Secondly, they owned at least five per cent of the business and had an opportunity to build that over time. The daughters may or may not have used funds secured from working on or off the farm, but that money allowed them to buy a few cows and sheep or part of one paddock.
“Most daughters had a long-term plan to buy out their parents and take over the farm, which had been agreed in advance, and could be adapted if necessary.”
Another critical point for all daughters, she says, is that they relied on accountants to help minimise their tax burden.
“Each woman I visited said it was critical to have advisers that know succession and the changing landscape for farm businesses today, and who are positive about women running farms and know the tax implications of farm transfer,” she says.
“Often, the daughters I visited worked alongside their brothers, but some had siblings not interested in farming.
“Women often worked in a family trust and ran the business as a corporate company, with advisory boards, legal counsel and used a professional approach, such as holding regular meetings with employees.
“The daughters commonly used contractors, with their brothers often owning and running the contracting companies.
“I saw many examples of family members who could work together, despite having different yet complementary roles.”
Ms Sasse says raising daughters to farm is about taking your daughter out to the shed or paddock and allowing her to tinker.
“Be patient and allow her to try something different while coaching her to do better.
“We need to focus on the fact that agriculture is not all about being physically strong. Women can compensate for their physical difference by applying their excellent minds to innovation.
An untapped resource
“We become too focused on thinking that farming is all about machines or is too physical for women, but there is a range of skills that women could bring to the farm business (see Figure 1, for example) if given the opportunity.”
Data collection and analysis, benchmarking
Compliance and financial controlling
Value adding to existing production
Pest, disease and invasive species management
Occupational health and safety, wellbeing coaching
Natural resource management or ecology
Agritourism, social marketing and merchandise
On-farm trials and research
Mapping and modelling
Onboarding and new employee training
Read also: Raising women to farm
More information: Katrina Sasse, firstname.lastname@example.org
Applications for the 2024 Nuffield Scholarships are now open and close 9 June 2023. Visit the Nuffield website to apply.