Championing farming women

By Country News

Rien Silverstein was never content to be known as a ‘‘farmer’s wife’’.

As a mother of five boys and formerly a trained midwife, Rien later found a passion as communicator, advocate and leader for women and in agriculture.

With a disability preventing her from physically helping husband Maurice on their Orrvale and Tatura orchards, Rien leaned on skill sets she had discovered through taking on various committee roles through her children’s schools and sporting clubs.

‘‘Having had a lot of operations and recovery during my life, I had time. Time at night when the kids were asleep to read and to research,’’ Rien said.

‘‘When the boys were at school, I started taking more of an interest in the orchard and I really jumped straight into it when I joined a (Goulburn-Murray Water) Water Services Committee in 1995.

‘‘There was noticeably a lack of women represented on the committees and also, no real representation from the orchardist community in the Goulburn Valley, so I felt like it was important for me to step into this role and that is really where it all started.’’

After completing the Fairley Leadership program in 2002, Rien said her confidence, skills and networks in the community advocacy space really flourished.

Her contributions to the community and farming industry have included representation on the VFF, Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority and Fruit Growers Victoria.

Crippling drought in the early 2000s gave Rien even more drive to be a voice on behalf of her community and to take issues affecting farmers of the Goulburn Valley up to all levels of government and to not only be heard, but to influence policy.

This included Rien’s work with the Horticulture Policy Council, the Victorian Government’s Drought Response Committee and with the Irrigation Futures project and beginnings of the now, G-MW Connections Project.

‘‘Issues surrounding water were front of mind for everyone during the drought and as orchardists we faced a horrible reality,’’ Rien said.

‘‘At one point our (water) allocation was 25 per cent and for the year we were buying in water for the equivalent of the cost of a house in Melbourne.

‘‘We were getting into debt to buy water for our permanent plantings, but producing less and to a lesser quality.’’

Rien said during this time many women on the farm were taking on more of a role to manage the water and to become the decision-maker in this space.

‘‘During the drought we set up the GV Women in Horticulture Group, which was a huge success, bringing together like-minded women from across the region,’’ she said.

The GV Women in Horticulture Group was supported by Fruit Growers Victoria and aimed to see women recognised for their contributions and leadership within the industry and to support, inform, strengthen and promote women in the industry.

More recently, Rien has been involved in The Invisible Farmer Project, which seeks to address the historical and contemporary invisibility of Australian farming women and to celebrate the role that women play in sustaining Australian farms and rural communities.

Where Rien’s next venture lies, she is unsure. She still remains an executive committee member of the VFF and has recently joined the Country Women’s Association.

‘‘There is a lot happening on the orchard and I am still doing the CFO type work, the financials and running of the business, but my community work and contributing to the broader farming community has always given me something to focus on and get passionate about,’’ she said.

‘‘Perhaps it is my background as a midwife, but I want to help people and care about people and through these roles, that has been about helping people improve their farms.

‘‘And I’ve seen a lot of change in my 30 years farming. The technology side to farming and irrigation has been taken up in gusto by farmers and not just by younger people — we’re all looking at ways to do it better and more efficiently.

‘‘We have also seen change in the visibility and representation of women in agriculture and more broadly in leadership roles.

‘‘Women have always been involved in farming, in many different ways and in many different cases have been doing the same work, but they have been more invisible or behind the scenes. That is also changing.’’