This year's RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year Sophie Hansen’s journey from 'paddock to plate’ was more the opposite; she swapped life as a city-based food writer for one of Jill-of-all-trades on a holistic deer farm four hours’ drive from the Big Smoke.
“I have always worked in food media and in that realm, spent lots of time writing about producers and telling the paddock to plate story,” recalls Sophie, who spent 15 years as a food writer in Australia’s largest city before heading to a farm outside Orange, in central west New South Wales. “But I didn’t anticipate the country move at all.”
It wasn’t until her late 20s, when Sophie took an internship in Northern Italy at Slow Food International – “a three-month stint that turned into a three-year job” – that she made the powerful connection between paddock and plate.
“I really came to appreciate the simple, powerful message that if we consumers buy seasonal and local produce that has a story, then cook and share that produce, in a simple way but at a convivial table, the whole process is so deeply nurturing, so enjoyable that you’ll want to repeat it over and over again.”
A few years later, Hansen got the chance to put that message into practice when she and husband Tim bought a deer farm near Orange and she found herself on the ‘paddock’ end of the ‘paddock to plate’ story.
The big switch
As kids, Sophie and her siblings were no strangers to ‘farm life’. “We always had family connections with the land and spent lots of time at a property we shared with another family near Mudgee,” she recalls.
But after a lifetime in the city, the shift to back-of-Orange was a seismic one, as much psychological as it was geographical.
“When I … began my new life on the deer farm, I had to re-invent myself work-wise,” Sophie says. “Initially, I did some marketing for a local winery and a wine bar but after having children, I wanted to find an income source that was flexible – complementary to our farm business but independent of it, too.
“We don’t have a huge, inherited property – all up, we are on 1500 acres – and we farm a niche product: deer. So we have to work every angle. I’m just trying to use the skills I have to contribute to what we do.”
To forge connections, Sophie started a blog; its success led to freelance writing gigs and recipe development work, and “at the same time, helped us promote the activities we do on-farm”.
These days, she uses the farm as a base for everything from workshops in food photography and food styling to site tours, cooking demonstrations and hosted ‘farm-kitchen lunches’.
Between times, she mucks in around the property: “While I do help with the farm work and business,” she says, “it’s nice for us to both have our own areas that we work in and are good at.”
Using social media to build ‘social capital’
Winning the 2016 Rural Woman of the Year Award, with its accompanying bursary and business support, will give Sophie the impetus to further develop her ‘self-paced’ online learning course, ‘My Open Kitchen’.
The course and communications channel, she says, are designed to empower primary producers across Australia to use social-media platforms to build ‘social capital’.
"There’s exponentially growing interest in where our food is coming from,” she says. “You pick up a magazine or turn on the TV and the content is probably going to be food-related. But I’m not seeing the farmers in there enough.”
In turn, she hopes, this will help to bring greater transparency, engagement, trust – and in the long run, financial returns – to the nation’s frequently-misunderstood food producers.
Flow-on benefits will be broad-ranging, Sophie contends, encompassing everything from improved sustainability for regional agribusinesses to greater consumer awareness of farmers’ integral role in the food we all eat.
“I really think that we can change consumer behaviour and encourage them to support us producers in a long-term way by involving them in our story, investing them in what we do and making the process enjoyable, accessible – and delicious.”
My Open Kitchen: helping food producers connect with consumers
Sophie describes her My Open Kitchen project as “a self-paced online course to help farmers, value-adders, cooks and producers get started with social media, to celebrate the beautiful food we produce and tell our stories through recipes, words and great photos”
“It’s about collaboration, inspiration, conviviality and learning useful new skills,” she says.
Through My Open Kitchen, she explains, “I want us farmers to ‘virtually’ invite the world into our kitchens and, through our stories, inspire new networks to support us through their choices and voices”.
The course component of My Open Kitchen will be delivered in five modules that can be downloaded from the net; and will run in six-week blocks.
“Its delivery, content and approach will be unique, fun and inspiring,” Sophie says.
“We aim to kick off with the first group of students in late 2016 or early 2017.”
The project also involves a podcast “full of great stories from behind the farm-gate”, she says. “It will be a celebration of food, inspiring people, great ideas – and the power of social media to inspire farmers and producers to go out and build supportive and engaged communities and networks.
“It’s the inspirational arm of my project. I hope listeners will finish each episode full of ideas and inspired to get out there and tell their stories.”
Social media: pros and cons
Why use social media rather than just making connections directly – say, at farmers’ markets?
“Face-to-face is great but it’s not always possible,” explains Sophie. “For many farmers, their nearest market is many … hours away. Phone calls, emails et cetera are great, but social media lets us connect in a very direct, authentic way to thousands, tens of thousands of people at once. It is very efficient and powerful.
Sophie’s aware of the fact that slow, unreliable internet service can make connecting via social media difficult. But that’s no excuse for not bothering, she contends.
“It’s hopeless that so many farms don’t have access to reliable internet connection. Things are changing, advances are being made, but they need to happen faster.
“There are major problems with digital connectivity in many parts of the country. But that isn’t a reason not to push ahead with projects like this. I think My Open Kitchen and its ilk just add to the already strong argument that these problems need to be resolved, and fast.
“If you don’t have any access to the internet in your area, it’s tricky – but it doesn’t mean you can’t jump on board the social media bandwagon,” Sophie says.
“You may just have to save photos and stories on your phone and then upload them when you get to town; schedule a bunch of posts in advance, perhaps. That’s what I do when our internet goes down or we have used up all our data.”
Farmers to foodies: making the connection
To Sophie, the point of it all is to encourage Australia’s food producers to connect – with each other and with consumers, especially ‘foodies’.
She believes her My Open Kitchen platform will benefit producers and consumers, encouraging women in rural communities and on the land to reach out and share their stories - among each other, and to a growing group of consumers further afield who are interested in provenance.
“More than ever, people want to connect with their food and the stories behind it,” Sophie explains. “And we’re not just talking about ‘foodies’.
“The benefit of this for us farmers is that there is an audience and a market out there hungry to hear our stories and engage in them. And once this happens, they are far more likely to go the extra mile to source our products and support us.
“I think there’s a really good opportunity to use this social media we've got in our smartphones to connect in a really positive way.”
Rural Women's Awards: building a network
The RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards identify and support emerging women making a significant contribution to primary industries and rural communities. They recognise the capacity of rurally-based women to “effect change and influence through connecting and collaborating”, creating opportunities for them to “drive innovation and build resilience”.
Each year, the winners of state, territory and national Rural Women’s Awards get access to financial and professional support including:
- a $10,000 bursary for each state or territory winner to implement her vision;
- a further $10,000 for the national award-winner;
- the opportunity to participate in the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) Company Directors Course;
- support in developing an individual integrated leadership plan; and
- lifelong access to a “powerful and positive” network of RWA alumni.
Indeed, simply applying is a “leadership development opportunity”, claims the RIRDC: it affords applicants access to mentors and expert feedback to help them focus their passions.
For 2016’s Rural Woman of the Year, the RWA journey has been hugely rewarding.
“I’ve built a network of incredible, supportive women around Australia,” Sophie says. “I’ve been able to improve my public speaking skills. It’s helped with my confidence, presentation skills, connections – and the courage of my convictions.
“I’ve had the chance to really think about my plans going forward in a more strategic way – and of course, the bursary will allow me to roll out My Open Kitchen in a more professional, targeted way.”
More information and nomination
To find out more about the RIRDC’s annual Rural Women’s Awards, and/or to nominate yourself or someone you know, visit the Rural Women’s Awards section of the RIRDC site, rirdc.gov.au/rural-women's-award phone 02 6271 4132 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.