Lindy Nelson on why she became the female farmers’ champion
Despite it being one of New Zealand’s biggest industries, women are still woefully under-represented in agriculture. But former Woman of the Year winner Lindy Nelson, who won the Business and Innovation prize in 2013, is doing her damnedest to change that
The first time I ever saw Lindy Nelson in person she was striding around a stage wearing killer heels, a glossy blue outfit, big hair and wielding a mic as if she was born to it. She was funny, never short of a quip or lost for words – even when she got someone’s name wrong – and hugely energetic. She marched up and down that podium, at the recent World Women 17 conference in Auckland, the entire weekend, introducing, summing up, cheering on the roomful of women. She changed outfits frequently, every transformation another take on corporate glam, and she was unfailingly upbeat. Lindy was the definition of authentic. Lindy made statements and then nodded to ensure we agreed. “Isn’t that right, ladies?” she would ask, nodding, staring us down, grinning. Yes Lindy, we nodded back. Whatever you say Lindy. She looked like she meant business, in every sense of the word. But her first words to the crowd were a clue as to where her heart lay. “Hello ladies,” she boomed, “have you eaten today?” Yes Lindy. Trademark nod. “Thank a farmer.”
Lindy’s the first to admit she wasn’t always so confident. In fact, she credits her 2013 NEXT Woman of the Year win, in the Business and Innovation category, for giving her the boost she needed to take her message to a wider audience. Her first thought when a colleague suggested entering her into the awards was ‘Why would an urban magazine be interested in me?’ But win she did and she’s never looked back. “Winning gave me an awful lot of confidence. Suddenly people were asking me to speak. It gave me a platform to talk about my story and my belief in women to transform our food production story and to engage with women not in the farming sector. That NEXT win was an affirmation that what I was doing had value. It meant a lot coming from a women’s magazine.”
She’s married to a beef and sheep farmer and lives on an 860 hectare farm in Eketahuna, but Lindy has never been your typical country girl. “I don’t own a Swanndri and I can’t remember when I last wore gumboots,” she laughs. This isn’t a sentence you’d expect someone who in 2015 was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit, for service to agriculture and women, would utter. But that’s what makes Lindy such a fascinating figure in the farming world.
A SQUARE PEG
When she first met her husband, David, the former Wellington nurse had dreams of marrying, settling on his farm, raising children and living happily ever after. David had different ideas. “Six weeks after we married, he sat me down and said, ‘There’s only room for one farmer in this operation and it’s me’,” she said. “Afterwards I walked up the hill and bawled my eyes out. It was very brave of him though. He could see his extremely extroverted, strategic-thinking wife wasn’t the right fit for a farming life.”
Instead she threw herself back into her former career and worked as a Plunket nurse, alternating between part-time and full-time while their three kids were young. Plunket gave her an instant entry into women’s lives. Then, as she got involved in community organisations, she found herself asking why so few women were represented in the industry. “I could
LINDY’S THE FIRST TO POINT OUT SHE’S NEVER BEEN YOUR TYPICAL COUNTRY GIRL
see the difficulties and complexities of their lives. They’d say things like ‘I’m just a farmer’s wife’. There were no women on any boards in the agribusiness sector. I knew the women had skills but I also realised they needed different skills to take on bigger roles. The women were frustrated and wanted to contribute more. I looked at what was out there to promote leadership and governance skills for women, but there was nothing that would change women’s lives.”
Once she identified the problem, Lindy set about finding out what was required. With the support of the Kellogg’s Rural Leadership Programme, she embarked on a project looking at what women needed to rise in agriculture. When the year-long course ended, Lindy kept going, funding the research herself. She ended up doing a three-year project, ‘Unlocking Potential in Rural Women’. During that time she interviewed 50 women – some of who had successfully transitioned into leadership roles – and ran focus groups with women who hadn’t but wanted to. Lindy found the main barriers were education and support.
“It was never my intention to create an organisation. I thought I’d do the research and give it to someone else to do that. But I soon realised if I wanted to see change, I would have to do it myself.”
Together with fellow farmers Jane White, Sue Yerex and Mavis Mullins (well-known Ma¯ori businesswoman; former president of Golden Shears; and chairwoman of Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre), she founded the Agri-Women’s Development Trust (AWDT), of which Mavis is now the patron. Funding was negligible but their enthusiasm was vast. For the first three years, Lindy worked seven days a week without payment. During that time her family weathered drought and the global financial crisis, but she remained committed to her work.
WOMEN DO IT DIFFERENTLY
The first course the AWDT offered was Escalator, a year-long governance and leadership programme for rural women, in 2010. From the get-go the course was oversubscribed. It still is.
“I can still remember the first application for the course. It came on the fax. I read it and burst into tears. That woman fitted our profile perfectly. Her name is Dawn Sangster and she now sits on the board of one of the biggest agribusinesses in the country, the Alliance company. She’d had a career as an accountant, here and overseas, before marrying a farmer.”
That course was joined by Understanding Your Farm Business, offering three days of workshops delivered by industry experts over four months and First Steps, a two-day course followed by monthly meet-ups. Today more than 2000 women have gone through an AWDT course and the organisation contracts over 40 facilitators around the country, half of whom are AWDT graduates. They also employ a core team of eight – all women, of course.
“Our greatest asset is human capital; 50% of that capital is women. Women handle challenges differently from men and we need the way they think and behave to support the sector’s challenges. Originally people thought what we were doing was a nice women’s thing, but now the sector is sitting up and taking notice; from bankers to accountants to our industry bodies, [they] can see women’s involvement has led to the most phenomenal transformation in the agriculture sector.”
FLIPPING THE SCRIPT
Lindy has also built partnerships and sponsorships with DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, Agmardt, FMG and ANZ Bank. But this year the organisation received a huge boost when it was awarded a government grant of almost $300,000 in the latest Sustainable Farming Fund round. The grant requires the AWDT to design and deliver two-year pilot programmes around the country, starting in July. The pilots will focus on three key groups – Ma¯ori women in regional
‘I SOON REALISED IF I WANTED TO SEE CHANGE, I WOULD HAVE TO DO IT MYSELF’
‘Our greatest asset is human capital; 50% of that capital is women’
communities; young women entering agri-sector careers; and women with careers outside agriculture whose expertise can be used within the sector – and will be delivered in key economic development regions including Northland, Bay of Plenty, West Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu/Whanganui.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is flip the script on how women see themselves and how agriculture sees women. With this grant I want to take that to the next level. Women can change the way we produce food for the world. I believe in 15 years’ time people will look at New Zealand and see that economically and environmentally we’re producing quality product. A lot of my graduates are involved in water, organics and the environment. These women are doing things differently.”
THE MEN ARE ON BOARD
Lindy is a passionate advocate for farming and wants nothing more than to change townies’ perceptions of ‘dirty’ dairying as well as improving some of dairying’s own practices. She travels the country spreading the word and when she’s not talking farming, she’s writing about it in a column for the Farmers
Weekly and in her blog on the AWDT Facebook page. I wasn’t surprised to learn she’s never been nervous before a speech. “I just think here’s 500 people who need to know what I know about food.”
The grant will ease some of the pressure Lindy has been under, though success has brought new, albeit, exciting challenges.
“In the early days my big struggle was financial but I was always focused on culture. We were going to deliver three values – standing shoulder-to-shoulder, keeping it real, and meeting people’s needs. If a proposal didn’t meet those three things, we didn’t do it.
“People had to feel it when they came to us. That culture has continued with the employees that have come to us. Most CEOs battle to get that into an organisation. I’m the opposite. Sometimes I’ve had to put a lid on their enthusiasm; there are so many women who want to create amazing change.”
Not just women though. “The success of our work has created men who champion what we do and [who have] given us huge credibility in the sector.”
None more so than her husband. “Thanks to his insight into my talents, I’ve been able to stimulate huge changes in the sector. I’m still farming, not operationally, but in a strategic way.”
Her work has also had a big impact on her own children, all in their mid-20s. Lindy’s daughter Louise was in the air force when she did First Steps – the two-day AWDT course – and realised she longed to connect to her rural values and roots, so her and her husband ended up leaving the air force and moving back to the family farm. The course helped Louise to focus in on what she wanted, which is a common theme for all of the AWDT women, Lindy says.
“What we do is help women find their purpose. This work has strengthened my why. Once you know your why, you’ll work out how to get there.”