A Farming Life by Liz Harfull

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Because the cover of this book, A Farming Life, told me that it contained tales of resilience from inspiring rural women, I initially thought that each of the six chapters would highlight just one specific woman and her achievements. What I found in each chapter was not just the accomplishments of one woman but also the amazing work done by other women in her family – her mother and daughters. The chapters also included a detailed history of the individuals mentioned as well as the history of the farm on which they worked. This is not to say that there were no men involved. There were partners and fathers who supported the women, worked with them, or had their own goals to strive for. Some, both males and females, had careers and extra jobs off the property. In other cases, the property had been in the hands of one family for generations and been traditionally run by the males.

The women highlighted brought their knowledge and expertise to improve the properties on which they lived as well as contributing to community initiatives. Some had the added burden of health issues which they did not let deflect them from their determination to improve conditions on their land and for rural enterprises. Some became leaders in different organisations – often being the first woman to hold this position. Others wrote books to help interested women or spent time mentoring young women interested in a life on the land.

When Ruth Robinson and nine other young women entered the Roseworthy Agricultural College in the 1970s, it caused a reassessment of how the long-entrenched college practices would now occur. When she won the College’s Gramp Hardy Smith Memorial Prize, the plaque had to be modified as it originally read ‘all-round characteristics of manliness, sportsmanship and scholarship’ (115).

There are six chapters covering the accomplishments of women from the Northern Territory and South Australia as well as the eastern states. Each of these women display the characteristics of resilience, resourcefulness, a positive attitude, a willingness to embrace change and adapt where necessary, ingenuity and creativity, having a vision for the future and being prepared to work hard and have a go.

The women selected for this book come from different backgrounds and parts of the country. Some work with cattle, others with sheep or dairy cows while others grow vegetables. How they came to take the path they did varies, and most don’t realise what they are doing is exceptional and unusual. 1996 South Australian Rural Woman of the Year and one of Australia’s most highly regarded kelpie breeder and trainer, Nancy Withers, believes that loss and illness taught her to make the most of every day. She says that ‘the generosity of strangers and an aristocratic black and tan kelpie called Bullenbong Mate, shaped her appreciation of dogs and their true place in the hierarchy of life’(249-250).

It is obvious from reading this book that activities on the land have changed over the years as has some of the stereotypes of gender roles. Most farmers are more aware of how rural practices are affecting the landscape. Also, from the actions of the women highlighted, farming is no longer just a male dominated industry. Women are still involved in childrearing and cooking as before, but now they have more of an input into the decisions made concerning the running of the enterprise, which can be very complex. Sometimes the major decisions are made by the women.

Liz Harfull, the author, is passionate about telling stories and unearthing histories of the extraordinary everyday people who make up our community, especially in areas away from the cities. Previous books written by her have also focussed on rural women, with another on the centenary of the CWA organisation in New South Wales. She has also produced two books on cooking.

I found this book, A Farming Life, very detailed and somewhat confusing when starting a chapter on introducing one female then before long diverting off to another relative or the life on the property before swinging back to the first character in this chapter. However, all the information was very interesting and exciting to know that the rural sector is in good hands. With so much to take in, the reader needs time to assimilate what they have read before moving on to another chapter.

A Farming Life


By Liz Harfull

Allen & Unwin


$34.99; 319pp

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