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Home on the range: rural women


Women make up 50 per cent of the workforce in primary industries. They play a vital role in rural communities, agricultural, horticultural, arable fields, and their families. GIANINA SCHWANECKE spoke with a few of the rural women contributing to Wairarapa’s primary sector.

Lisa Portas, Palliser Ridge expansion manager and shareholder

Used to a life in Wellington, Lisa Portas said adjusting to living on a coastal South Wairarapa farm was “hard at first”.

She moved to the property 10 years ago with her husband Kurt, and in 2013 they were made shareholders in the property, prompting her to look at new ways to could utilise her retail experience to benefit the farm.

As expansion manager, she’s helped the farm to diversify and strengthen the brand – starting the Woolshed Store, Palliser Ridge Farm Tours, and on-farm accommodation, Kaikoura Lookout.

“I’ve been on the other side of that because I’ve been a retailer,” she said.

The role offered flexibility to raise their two sons, Beauden and Axel.

“One of the biggest perks of this job is that it’s on my terms. I’m so grateful to have a role that gives me the flexibility [for my family] while having this business side.”

She said one of the interesting parts of her and Kurt’s role was living and working together, but having a common goal helped.

“We both say yes a lot – probably to our detriment,” she joked.

She said one of the other reasons it worked so well for their family was the “awesome” Pirinoa community.

Katie Milne, Federated Farmers president


Fifth-generation West Coast farmer Katie Milne comes from a long line of rural women, making history as the first female president of Federated Farmers.

“There’ve been a lot of strong women around me,” she said.

Her mother’s family farm was purchased by her maternal uncles, prompting her mother to find her own farm with her accountant husband.

Milne said it might have been a little unusual in those days to see a woman take the lead as the farmer, but the model had shifted.

“It’s good to see either can stand out in the front as the farmer [now].

“They’re always been alongside a man as partners on the farm but it’s good to see women coming and doing that in their own right too.”

She said women played a valuable role in the agricultural sector — making up 50 per cent of the industry.

The successes of previous Federated Farmers could be attributed to the women behind the men she said.

“Those men had great women back on the farm letting them do their work.”

She said the organisation had changed in recent years and gender was less a factor in gaining her new position, than representing previously marginalised areas like the West Coast.

“It’s not about gender but because I’m from the West Coast.”

Seeing rural women’s previous experiences incorporated into farm management practices was exciting she said.

Lisa Sims, Agri-Women’s Development Trust general manager


Since November last year, Lisa Sims has worked as the Agri-Women’s Development Trust [AWDT] general manager.

She runs a sheep and beef farm outside Eketahuna with husband Tom, and their four young adult children.

Sims grew up on a Wairarapa farm, and her business and rural background took her to Japan to promote New Zealand red meat in 1989.

Founded in 2010, AWDT is a charitable trust equipping and supporting women to generate economic, social and environmental progress in the primary sector and rural communities.

“The work we do captures that potential,” she said.

She said women who came to farms as farmers’ partners had valuable skills which could help grow the business and contribute to rural communities.

“Often we don’t realise the high value of these skills that can be used in to contribute in other areas.”

Sims said AWDT programmes like ‘Escalator’ enabled women to grow their skills and themselves.

By the end of this year more than almost 4000 people will have completed AWDT programmes.

She said it’s helping women to change how they see themselves, but also how the industry sees women.

“Their partners are saying this is fantastic – ‘my partner is more confident and is able to share the load with me’. We’re seeing men benefit.”

Karen Williams, Federated Farmers arable chairperson


For Gladstone farmer, Federated Farmers arable chairperson and mother of three, Karen Williams, juggling her busy schedule takes a lot of work.

The former Wairarapa College student and town girl met her husband, Mick, after studying geography and resource management at the University of Otago.

She found these skills translated well when she moved to their 224-hectare family farm in Gladstone.

“By the time we had three children I stepped away from planning as a career and got more and more involved in the family farm,” she said.

After winning the Wellington Region’s Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2013 she has held a number of high-profile positions in the agricultural industry, juggling board meetings with running the farm’s finances and caring for her family.

“Women fall into that [habit] — we give to our families, we give to our work, we give to our farms, and we give to our communities.”

Williams said she didn’t feel any gender bias in her work with Federated Farmers. As with Milne, bias related more to geographic background than sex – Canterbury is the traditional home of arable farming.

She said board diversity was about representing a range of perspectives and technical backgrounds rather than strict quotas.

“I’m a firm believer in diversity of thinking.”

The last six years have seen her take on more responsibilities, and she credits programmes AWDT’s ‘Escalator’ programme with giving her the confidence to do so.

“Invest in your own personal development,” she urged other rural women.


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