Comment: Federated Farmers national arable chair Karen Williams explains in her own words how to leave your professional career in town for life on the farm. She shares the journey which brought together an interest in resource management with a sector that is facing many challenges.

How did an urban-born and raised woman with a resource management and environment degree - including a few feminist papers - end up in a leadership role at male-dominated Federated Farmers?

Like a lot of urban professional women working in provincial towns, it's not surprising when one of the cute local farm boys takes your eye.

What ensues from a set-up by friends at the local pub is a whirlwind courtship of quality time spent together in farm machinery, dates shifting feed breaks, and putting a farm bachelor pad in order before you might consider co-habitation.


Before you know it, you have become "Mrs Farmer".

Historically this forging of a farming marriage often saw a young wife busy helping on the farm and caring for the family. A new kind of busy descends as the kids and farm dominate what was previously a stimulating and demanding professional career.

For me, my background in resource management and environmental sustainability fuelled my desire to ensure our farming business lived by those principles, along with being economically prosperous.

When the juggle of family and farm life with an off-farm career got tricky, this is where I focused my attention.

In 2013 we won the Ballance Farm Environment Awards for the Wellington Region. This opened a whole new opportunity to meet like-minded farmers and share our vision for sustainable agriculture. It also sparked some agri-political aspirations in me.

But amid three young children and a busy farm, how was I going to make that happen?

Undertaking the Agri Women's Development Trust's Escalator programme in 2015 was a game changer for me.

It challenged my comfort zone, forced me to work on my personal development, identified my strengths and areas where I lacked confidence, extended my networks, and created self-belief.


Early in 2016 a leadership opportunity came up that would call heavily upon these learnings as I was appointed to Biosecurity New Zealand's Governance Group to manage the pea weevil incursion in the Wairarapa.

To my kids, I became the "Pea Weevil Lady" as this incursion took over our lives.

How to respond to the incursion was particularly challenging for me because I was the only person on governance who was commercially growing seed peas, and where any decision to ban pea growing would remove commercial pea growing options from friends, neighbours and industry colleagues, from all Wairarapa residents' vegetable gardens, and the production and use of pea straw for local gardeners for at least two years.

The key question was whether imposing a ban would give us a real shot at eradicating the pea weevil.

Upon receiving technical advice that said eradication was possible, the growing ban had my full support.

However, I knew that growers had to be supported through the ban period with a support package including an Alternative Cropping Strategy, compensation so growers would not be worse off, and support from seed companies with other crop options in place of the peas.

Whilst the growing ban was extended to four years, we were able to secure compensation for growers and we identified viable crops that will offer some alternative options for Wairarapa growers in the future.

However, the most exciting outcome is that in February this year we announced the eradication of pea weevil from New Zealand, which is a world first!

My role in the pea weevil incursion was instrumental in my appointment to the Federated Farmers National Board, and becoming the first woman to hold the national role of Arable Industry Group Chairperson.

While we see relatively good numbers of women in some agri sectors, I am the only woman in arable governance in our organisation.

Make no mistake, I am ably supported by many exceptional men, but we lack diversity in thinking, diversity in representation, and diversity in determining solutions to the many challenges we face.

Women are partners and contributors in these complex arable farming businesses - I wish to see them better represented in governance, leadership and decision-making roles.

What's next for me? My goal is to make the New Zealand arable farming industry strong, resilient and profitable while embracing social and environmental sustainability.

We have so much potential to grow our domestic arable markets by ensuring we as consumers demand New Zealand-grown wheat in our food products like bread, baked goods, pasta, sweets and breakfast cereals.

What is not well understood is that currently these products are largely made from wheat grown overseas.

This reduces opportunities for local economic prosperity, and provides no assurance that other countries are committed to reducing their carbon emissions, are sustainably managing their soil and water resources, or the scale and extent of fertiliser and pesticide use.

Reliance on imported arable food products alongside a rapidly-changing global climate puts our domestic food security at risk.

My leadership journey is far from over, and I am excited about growing the demand for local arable products complete with environmental credentials, traceability and provenance.

I hope a few of you are keen to make the journey with me.

- This article was originally published in Shepherdess magazine, republished here with permission.