Elizabeth Graham is a student at Deakin University currently volunteering with the Invisible Farmer Project at Museums Victoria. In this guest blog post Elizabeth interviews 2018 winner of the South Australian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, Alex Thomas.
Alex Thomas grew up on Parnaroo Station, a pastoral property in the north-east of South Australia. She owns her own work health and safety consulting business and plans to use the AgriFutures Award to promote her ‘#PlantASeedForSafety’ campaign, spreading awareness on the importance of work health and safety in rural industries and celebrating the important role rural women play in influencing positive change.
In this Q & A Alex talks about the inspiration for her campaign, her connection with the land and agriculture, and the importance of recognising women within the industry.
Tell us about your connection to agriculture?
Growing up on a remote sheep station, some of my fondest memories are of lying under a Mallee tree – in the dirt – far enough away from the homestead that I couldn’t hear the sound of people, but close enough that Mum wasn’t having a coronary.
I was a School of the Air kid, and I did the majority of my early education from home via HF radio. Mum was my governess, my best friend was the cat and most days I’d ‘knocked-off’ from school by around 1pm. Afternoons were for being Dad’s shadow, building cubbies out of stumps and corrugated iron and anything and everything to do with our horses.
Those years on the Station were idyllic and I literally couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. We didn’t have mains power so obviously went without air conditioning, and time spent in front of the TV was strictly limited to days when it was too hot, too cold or there were too many snakes around to warrant playing outside. Trips in ‘to town’ were a novelty, the prospect of rain was an event, our neighbours were (still are!) our best friends, and at that point in time the only worries I had in life were whether the pet joey would survive the night, or whether I’d finish school in time to go out with Dad.
At 12 years old I was plucked from an incredibly comfortable sense of security and thrust into the world of an all-girls boarding school. Life in Adelaide was completely foreign, which isn’t surprising given how little time I’d spent away from the comfort of the Station. At 13, I remember returning home for an exeat [permission for a temporary absence] to learn that – to my horror – the Station was to be subdivided and sold, and at 15 to hear of my parent’s divorce.
The drought of ’82, the drought of the ‘90’s, spectacularly shitful wool prices and absurd interest rates had had a profound and irreparable impact on my everything – our family, my father’s health, the business, the landscape and of course our stock. I was becoming acutely aware that life on the Station was rapidly slipping from between my fingers and that things would never be the same again.
Year 11 and 12 exams were a haze of uncertainty and confusion, a means to an end before bolting back to the north-east to pursue a job as station hand… which in hindsight, was merely a desperate attempt to rediscover what it meant to ‘go home’. Returning to the north-east (albeit only for a couple of years) was the perfect antidote for a broken heart.
I chased rodeos, I drank rum and I literally fell in love with the cowboy next door. While that relationship wasn’t meant to be, that period in my life reaffirmed my identity, my connection with the land and an unconscious and unyielding desire to eventually ‘give back’.
The collective impact of drought, Q Fever (as a result of Dad’s work with feral goats), Ross River Virus, diabetes, divorce, heart failure and kidney failure rendered Dad permanently disabled from the age of 56. As the next woman in line after Mum left and his mother passed away, I’ve been caring for Dad in varying capacities since I was around 15 years old.
Sure, there have been some super tough times along the way, but for me – my connection to the land and to agriculture is in the blood. I don’t get to wear jeans and boots every day and I don’t have my Station to go home to, but I still remember how to strain up a fence, how to muster stock and how the land sings after even the tiniest trickle of rain. I’m eternally grateful for the sheer tenacity of my parents in providing my siblings and I with such a sublime start to life, and while Dad’s illness really, really sucks; its equipped me with an innate sense of purpose – to engage and empower rural women – and to improve the health and safety of those in rural industries.
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