April 14, 2016

Women on farms go digital with national idea-sharing network

Anna-Lisa Newman, Chair of Women in Farming Enterprises, explains how this social and professional network is helping women to share their knowledge and experience.

Seven years ago, a group of women sat around a kitchen table discussing the challenges of running a farm business.

“On the surface we had little in common – but we were all playing a crucial role on a farm and had a desire to get together to share ideas,” says Anna-Lisa Newman, Chair of Women in Farming Enterprises (WIFE). “That’s how WIFE began.”

WIFE is now a social and professional network with 116 members and five regional branches across Western Australia.

“WIFE members get together to share stories and suggestions for coping with farm issues, large and small,” Newman continues. “We answer each other’s questions when we can and search out expert advice when we can’t. It’s a very supportive environment.”

Despite the name, members don’t have to be married or even work on a farm.

“While most of us have a passion for our farm business we welcome any woman who can benefit from being part of the group,” says Newman.

Building a network

For two years after its inception, WIFE progressed by trial and error.

“We didn’t have a model to learn from so we had to find out for ourselves what worked and what didn’t,” Newman says. “But, gradually, we became more structured and gained confidence in the direction we were taking.”

In 2012, they decided to organise a seminar.

“We invited guest speakers to discuss the big issues that kept on cropping up at group meetings, such as human resource management and strategies for long-term profitability,” says Newman. “We also hoped to gain wider exposure for the organisation.”

The seminar proved to be a turning point.

“It was such a success that we felt confident enough to incorporate WIFE and apply for funding,” says Newman. “We also started getting inquiries from women throughout the wheat belt who wanted to be part of a group like ours.”

Encouragement and support

Newman describes the WIFE model as similar to a franchise.

“A committee called WIFE Inc. provides the brand, the overarching governance structure and other systems such as accounting and data processing,” she says. “We make it as easy as we can for our groups by sharing our experience as well as our systems.”

Each group holds 10 face-to-face meetings a year. To ensure the time is used effectively they draw on five central themes: Farming with Family and Staff; Improving Office Management, Systems and Procedures; Income Management; Finance, Risk Management and Decision-making; and Caring for Family and Self. Occasional guest speakers help to fill any knowledge gaps or expand on areas of particular interest.

Between meetings, the women use a private Facebook page to stay in touch with their local group and members across the state.

“Our farm is in quite a small and isolated part of the wheat belt, but now it’s easy for me to contact like-minded women who live hundreds of kilometres away,” says Newman.

Technology is also helping the committee to run the organisation including organising the seminar, which is now an annual event.

“Everyone on the committee is a volunteer, but we’re all busy with our families and our farms so we need to save time where we can,” says Newman. “Travel is a major consideration – some of the members live over 300 kilometres away – so we’ve started holding our committee meetings online. Cloud-based filing systems are also helping us to operate and share information more efficiently.”

Expanding the reach

Newman would like WIFE to reach more women in Western Australia – but volunteers donate an enormous amount of time to the group and, as it grows, the demands on the core committee become heavier and heavier.

“We’re now looking for more financial support from sponsors to cover the cost of a part-time administrator,” says Newman. “Our existing sponsors appreciate the unique insight we provide into the issues and concerns of farm businesses – we’re looking forward to working closely with them this year.”

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