Sue Middleton nurturing people who feed people

I recently was lucky enough to catch up with the remarkable Sue Middleton twice in a period of four weeks.  Sue was the “RIRDC Australian Rural Woman of the Year 2010” and farms with her husband Michael in the Wongan Hills In WA.

Sue and I share a similar passion and commitment to drive change in agriculture. Sue is particularly committed to building capacity in rural women and me in our young people.

Sue is heavily into making a difference, where it counts, at policy level. According to Sue ‘Policy is a dark beast, untraceable. to influence policy and make a difference you have to learn the skills – it takes patience and tenacity.’ Mentored by Cathy McGowan who Sue’s says ‘taught me the value of pinpointing what makes a difference to the people you want to convince to help you solve your particular issue. If you want results, discover what engages your audience, find where that intersects with what you’re after and speak to that.’

Sue’s commitment runs in the family and her daughter Lizzie Brennan together with Catherine Marriott has recently set up Influential Women to ‘recognise the inherent power women have as natural communicators and seek to nourish their infinite potential’ Lizzie and Catherine custom design training to draw upon the strengths of women and build their skills and confidence in communicating their unique story.     

Sue Middleton Jenni Hawkins Lynne Strong and Lucinda Corrigan

Sue Middleton, Jenni Hawkins, me and Lucinda Corrigan at CCRSPI conference in November 2012

We first featured Sue as part of our Art4Agriculture case studies in 2010. See here. Today I want to share with you what she had to say when asked the question ‘What do I wish non-farmers and the Australian Government understood about farming?” as part Fleur McDonald’s 52 Farmers in 52 Weeks series for Australian Year of the Farmer. Read it in full here  

What do I wish non-farmers and the Australian Government understood about farming?” 

Sue answered …….

Firstly that what we do is really risky and we are at the mercy of weather.  That means that not every product we produce will look the same. Oranges with a blemish on their skin are just as good as fruit without a blemish on it.  Blemish is caused by wind – it’s a very natural part of fruit.  Learn to eat fruit and food that doesn’t look perfect but is identical in every characteristic that impacts your health!   This one shopping habit alone will save you dollars in your pocket.

We are wasting 50% of the food we produce in Australia. We don’t need cheaper food – we need to stop taking good productive energy and turning it into waste!  If people focused a little bit more on reducing the food waste from their homes, they would find their food bills dropping dramatically.

Buy as direct as you can- each week take one product that you consume and find a way of purchasing it as directly from a farmer as possible.  Start reading labels  – be ferocious in your food stores – demand locally produced food where you know the food production standards are high.  You have all the power – exercise it – start reading food labels and start checking where food comes from.  We do supermarket checks regularly and supermarkets frequently label fresh food incorrectly and say it comes from WA when it really comes from interstate – check the labeling and challenge the stores to be more accurate.

The government needs to understand the huge impact of policy changes.  The banning of live trade to Indonesia has rippled through WA agriculture and caused huge impact not just on northern Australian cattle farmers.  We now have $500k of straw in our paddocks we can’t sell because the bottom fell out of the pellet market.  The knock on effect of decisions like the cessation of the trade has been gigantic.  The government doesn’t pick up that tab, and they need to be VERY cognizant of the impact of their decision making.   We do not need them to add to our market risks.

Finally I would like people to know we are in a very technical game. It is very science driven and we utilize all knowledge we can to improve our sustainability constantly.  Looking after the land and our animals is a priority for us.  But we are in a marginal game and we are unprotected in the world markets competing against countries that are highly subsidized.  It is not a level playing field in this globe!  To keep our noses ahead we need more investment in research, development and most importantly extension so we can keep learning and driving our businesses productivity and profitability further.

And what does Sue love about being a farmer?

It is great to drive around the crops doing a crop-run when they are growing well.  There is no greater pleasure than growing a great crop.  Conversely in the dry years it can be tough when the rain doesn’t come and the crops get compromised.  It is also very satisfying to see our animals grow well and we love to see them in good condition. 

Growing things is what we love.

The line in the sand

I was recently asked to speak at the CCSPI Conference ( Climate Change Research Strategies for Primary Industries) by my good friend Esther Price who is the guru of agricultural conference event management in this country and I said no

I said no because

  • Firstly it was the last session of the day on the last day of the conference and everybody knows no-one hangs around for the last session of the day on the last day of the conference.
  • Secondly because I had a hell of a lot happening in my life and I was starting to spread myself way too thinly and felt I wasn’t delivering to the level Art4Agriculture deserved, our Clover Hill Dairies business deserved, my family deserved and I what I deserve. Recently my wise friend Victoria and I spent a Sunday putting together a strategic plan for me. Wow how organised is that.  So I ran this conference through “is this conference core business A to Z scenario?” and its screamed “NO NO NO – this is not the best use of your time Lynne”
  • And thirdly farmers rarely get paid to speak at conferences and in the majority of cases I think its because we don’t ask and this has got to stop.  So for the first time I drew my line in the sand and emphatically said no.

Well Professor Snow Barlow head of the CCRSPI conference committee is a bit like me in that ‘no often means almost yes’ and the next thing I know he is on the phone giving me 20 reasons why I should be there. I happened to mention that I would like to hear Bernard Salt speak as well as Sue Middleton and Dr Jude Capper. Snow then had a light bulb moment, though he couldn’t promise anything, but would breakfast with Jude, Sue and Bernard tempt me.? Did I ask to be paid for speaking you ask.?  NO ( hang my head in shame) I crossed my line in the sand. BTW This is firmly on my New Years wish list for 2013 and I see a Farmers Speakers Network looming on the horizon.

Having breakfast with Sue Middleton was easy – we are already good friends, but Snow did not deliver Bernard nor Jude – but he did put forward a very exciting proposal at the end of the conference and I look forward to catching up with him on that.     

My gig was on a panel and to Snow’s credit he did get a lot of people to hang a round. Panellist members were Lynne Strong wearing my  farmer hat , Dr David George (National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility), Caroline Brown (Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment Tasmania), Professor Tim Reeves (Tim Reeves & Associates) and Dr Mark Howden (CSIRO).The audience in the main was researchers and government and policy makers and some farmers

The brief “ A discussion on climate change needs into the future: in light of the knowledge exchanged at this conference, what are the climate change research and capacity needs for the sector into the future? Perspectives from a leading farmer, research manager, policy analyst, research director and leading researcher. Panellists will provide their own perspectives on the topic, before opening the floor to audience questions and open discussion”.

So what did I have to say? 

Here is the guts of it ………

The most immediate threat to agriculture in this country is I believe not climate change, not drought and not water restrictions. It is the disconnect between farmers and their customers and consumers’ lack of understanding and discomfort with modern farming practices

This has led to whole new playing field for both farmers and researchers. Consumers today are 5 x more interested in knowing that you care about the environment and your animals than in knowing that you have the knowledge to look after to them. That is values outsell science 5 to 1

My work in the community shows me the social environment that farmers find themselves in today is totally foreign to most of them and they in the main don’t have the skills sets to engage in two way conversations with the community and build the bridges that will address this

Whether we like it or not farming today is under more scrutiny than ever and increasingly accountable to the public 

Farming today

  1. Is all about people
  2. Is all about relationships
  3. Is all about values

It’s a marketing exercise. Today our farmers have to sell the sizzle, not the sausage. Delivering the sizzle is what drives me ( I love this analogy but cant take credit for it)

I have been asked to represent ‘farmers’ on this panel and what they want with respect to Climate Change research & capacity.

If I asked a group of 100 farmers this question I know I would get at least 100 different answers.

If I asked a group of 100 scientists this question, I would probably get 300 different answers – and I probably wouldn’t understand any of them!

Seriously the point I am making here is

•          We need to remember that ‘farmers’ is really a collective noun for a diverse group of individuals that happen to produce food and fibre. Every individual in this group has different perspectives and opinions about what Climate Change means to them

•          researchers have a major problem in communicating what they do

What farmers and researchers do have in common is they both have a product to sell  and everybody in business knows you go broke fast if you are selling a product nobody wants to buy  So we have a great opportunity to work together here to keep all of us in business  

So today I am going to try and tackle all of these points through a partnership model.

I will do it from my personal perspective but I hope the insights I have gained as a farmer, a climate champion and from the broader community through our Art4Agriculture programs will prove useful to you.

Point 1

Let’s consider the needs of farmers first. Generally farmers are practical people and they want the SAUSAGE. Most think that the research is pretty well covered.

Personally – I am a Champion of targeted research I get excited by the possibilities but sooner rather than later. I want a tangible product that I can apply on my farm… when I am ready for it (i.e. the sausage).


The product (technology or technique) has to directly relate to satisfying my needs. If it ticks any of the following it will go on the list of things to consider


Note that this is not the list of things that ‘get done’… just the list of things to consider at this stage! The list of things to get done is a completely separate list, kept securely on the fridge between my husband and his breakfast. (see footnote)


Get on this list and you have it made – Poor man no wonder he has indigestion He is lucky to get time to sit down for breakfast.

Your Climate Change product must in this orderSlide4


Point 2

Let’s now look at the most important person in the value chain – the consumer

Now – Has anyone eaten raw sausage? I don’t recommend it. For your Climate Change SAUSAGE to be palatable you need to cook it i.e. add some SIZZLE.

So whilst some of you are busy translating research into tangibles for farmers, we really have some work to do selling the SIZZLE to consumers in the broader community.


Remember that farmers are a part of this broader community too.

Our customers today have a very poor understanding of modern agricultural systems and have become distrustful of the way we manage our natural resources and care for our animals. We have to admit – we seriously have some work to do!

Farmers and researchers need to engage with the wider the community so they are comfortable with what researchers and the farming community are doing to tackle climate change – we can’t build extra value in our food and fibre products unless our customers KNOW and are COMFORTABLE with the core values of the product.

People want to make the decisions to buy they don’t want to feel they have been sold something that doesn’t fit with their own values. It is all about TRUST and you build trust through engagement and communications.

My Art4Agriculture programs have been directly and very successfully targeting these issues but there are plenty of other ways to reconnect using Climate Change as a common issue both communities have an interest in.

In conclusion – if you ask me about what the key Climate Change needs are for the farming community then I would advise you to crank up the barby and get those sausages sizzling…

Provide me with Climate Change SAUSAGES that are tangible – preferably with bread and tomato sauce so they target my needs and I add them to “the List”.

Make sure your sausages are well cooked – with plenty of SIZZLE. I want to make sure everyone around me can smell how delicious they are, and know what a great product you have developed. Particularly the broader community needs to know what I am eating – and why I am doing it for them. 

Engagement is the key and there is no-one better positioned to kick goals in this high priority area than a collaborative and cohesive partnership between farmers and researchers.

The time is now – Let’s do the sizzle together like its never been done before


Bon appetite!

Footnote: This list is wearing my farmer hat, my other hats have different priorities – no wonder I need a strategic plan