17/06/2010 - 00:00

Farming the future

17/06/2010 - 00:00


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Australia’s rural woman of the year, Sue Middleton, often swaps pig farming for bioenergy and community development.

Farming the future

DESPITE growing up on a farm in Queensland in the 1970s, Sue Middleton had no plans to go into farming herself and certainly couldn’t see herself as a farmer’s wife.

She had seen the challenges that farming presented and, although she wanted to be involved in rural communities, decided that tilling the soil or raising stock wasn’t on the agenda

“I certainly didn’t have plans to marry a farmer. Coming off a farm, I knew it is long hours, it can be physical work and now because of the global pressure it has really become quite a competitive business as well,” Ms Middleton says.

“I think modern agriculture is the most challenging career.”

Nearly 40 years later, she is heavily involved in the Wongan Hills community, running her own community development consultation business, Grass Roots Development, on the side of running a broadacre cropping, piggery and horticulture operation … with her husband.

Ms Middleton says her family was responsible for planting the seed of community values within her mind.

“Dad was the mayor in the community where I grew up. There was a culture in our family of giving and being involved in community,” she says.

“He was really involved in conservation farming. So I had always seen environment and community as the way you live your life.

And so, those values played out in her career.

As a young lady in her early 20s, Ms Middleton chased a career in community development and tourism.

Farming towns were in decline, communities shrinking as a result of drought, and a generation of farmers were pushing their kids to seek higher education in the city.

“I was really passionate about making sure rural communities were still around. In the 1980s and 1990s, rural communities were in real decline. I came in to that with a burning desire to see that rural communities would still be a part of Australia and Australian community,” Ms Middleton says.

“I have a real driving concern, love, and desire to help people make changes in rural communities.”

That much is clear when Ms Middleton speaks of her community development projects.

She says she felt instantly welcomed by “a big family” when she and her husband moved to Wongan Hills. Only later did she recognise that not all people shared this feeling and experience.

“My community childcare was a real issue a few years ago. You couldn’t have a career and have children in Wongan Hills and that is from another era. It’s just a right. So we built our own childcare centre and to this day it is still run by a volunteer group.”

It seems for Ms Middleton the words ‘no’ and ‘can’t’ don’t exist.

“Everyone from all of the government agencies said ‘you are not the right size town, you are not going to be able to sustain it, fund it or build it’. So we funded it, we built it and we have sustained it, because we said we could, we believed we had that capacity as a community,” Ms Middleton says.

Aside from her direct involvement in rural community development through her business, Ms Middleton’s passion for community development has played out in her farming career, steering her towards conservation and bioenergy projects.

She has more recently become heavily involved in developing technology in WA that will turn animal waste in to energy by converting the methane gas by-product.

“That is what is really driving me in terms of this [bioenergy] project. There is a broader opportunity for communities to be producing their own power, harvesting water, becoming more water efficient and becoming more self-sustaining as communities,” she says.

“If we approach this project from the perspective of ‘what’s good for one pig producer’, we may miss the opportunity.

“If I didn’t have a community development background, if I had just always been a farmer, I probably would never have started to say, ‘what about the broader opportunities for waste management?’

This year, Ms Middleton was named Australian Rural Woman of the Year for her work in the field, exploring the feasibility of commercialising the methane conversion technology in Australia.

She hopes the technology will be commercialised within the next three years and picked up by the farming community in that time.

“Imagine getting to the stage where you never actually put anything organic into land fill,’’ she says.

‘‘That would be incredible, and imagine if the Wheatbelt of WA did it first. We would be one of the most sustainable places to live if we could achieve that.”

What five historical or living figures would you invite to dinner?

Robin Williams, Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn, Martin Luther King and for my final one, I want to bring two – Roy and HG, because they make me laugh so much.

What would you most like to see change about our society in your lifetime?

I would love to get up and think ‘every child today is going to have enough to eat, will be free from violence and have a chance to learn’. That would be my ultimate dream, but I don’t possess the imagination to know how to do it.

Words of phrases that you live by?

My daily motto is ‘leave no stone unturned’; keep trying new things, be curious, have a go. A lifetime ago I read this: ‘You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give’. I remind myself of that whenever I feel like giving up, instead I try to give some more. It’s a good philosophy to live by.

Career highlight?

Definitely becoming RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year for 2010. I am very proud to be a spokesperson for a year for my great passion – rural Australia.

Biggest career challenge?

That is happening right now; 60 per cent of the world’s population is in WA’s time zone, and we have barely begun to create value-added opportunities in agriculture in WA to feed that population. My career challenge is to work with my industries to capitalise on that, and the challenge is as big as the opportunity.



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