Lyn Johnson on the Women on Farms Gathering
Lyn Johnson is a dairy farmer and cheese manufacturer.
She is also a member of the Heritage Committee of the Women on Farms Gathering. In this video interview, Lyn talks about dairy farming, business practices, and the Women on Farms Gathering.
LYN JOHNSON: I'm Lyn Johnson. I was a dairy farmer and a cheese manufacturer here on this farm, Hillcrest at Neerim South. And also, I came from Melbourne, so I had an interesting introduction to farming. But I became involved with the Women on Farms in about 1989.
Well the first one was held in Warragul, and that virtually came out of a group of women who wanted to gain skills-- farming skills like fencing and using chainsaws. But I went along, and I was really surprised to see who was there and how many women were there. It was quite enlightening, really. I'd been farming here for a number of years with my husband Rob. We farm in partnership. And I was keen to perhaps broaden my horizon, just not milking cows-- see what else was happening.
They had workshops. They had speakers, quite inspiring speakers. They had two women from Sea Lake. At that time it was fairly dry, and they'd been having a very hard time. And some of the menfolk were finding very had, struggling on the farms, and some of them were losing their farms. They were fifth or sixth generation farms, and it was a very hard time. Those two women came down and told us about that, and we were very moved by it, really. So the next year, it was decided that that's where the gathering would be held-- at Sea Lake.
So there was 120 women, I think, went to that second Gathering. It was a long way from Gippsland, Sea Lake. They didn't have enough chairs in the town. So everywhere we went, the different meetings, there was a lorry with 120 chairs followed us around the town. It was fun. We had a great time. We found that we had lot in common with those women. We also found that we gained an understanding of the wheat industry, because we came from this area which is dairying.
I've been to 17 gatherings, so it's being quite a journey. I've met some wonderful women, learnt a lot, seen women grow. There's a famous quote of Elaine Payton who says that she went an ordinary farming person and came back a farmer.
A number of the women were already farming on their own due to being widowed or perhaps having suicide in the family or some situation. And I think the Gathering gave them a safe environment to come together with a lot of other women. And it's really a talkfest. The Gatherings are a huge talkfest-- a great sharing of information in a sympathetic type of environment for women to tackle some of the needs, to discuss how hard it is for them perhaps farming on their own or farming in a family if you're a daughter-in-law or something like that that is not a sympathetic environment.
Among the Women on Farms Gathering Heritage Committee, Lisa Dale has been our coordinator, and she's been very, very supportive to Women on Farms. I first met Lisa, I think it was with the Australian Women in Agriculture First International Conference. She came along to a couple of Gatherings and perhaps sensed that here was something that was worth preserving. The women had stories to tell, and we heard stories from older women, a generation ago from us. We heard stories from younger women. And I think Lisa, perhaps, saw that they should be preserved. And I think it's a very fine collection, and it's very well presented.
The other thing that came about were the memory sheets. And women are encouraged to put their memories down of the Gatherings, their experiences.
They're not just memories of someone who's passed. They're living memories.
By the time of the third Gathering, people with thinking more about icons. And the situation there at Numurkah gave rise, I think, to the cow pat and the shovel. So since then, the icons have been weird and wonderful things. Benalla was a wire rose because Benalla's the city of the rose. Sometimes farming can be prickly. Sometimes it can be good. You can have your hard times, your good times. And that symbolized that Gathering.
In 1999, the tenth Gathering was held in Warragul. The theme was success through challenge, and the icon was a boot, like this. The boot actually belonged to Win Macreadie, but this was one of my boots. Success does come from challenge. And we found on our farm here at Neerim South in West Gippsland that we needed to undertake a challenge, because we were getting poor prices for our milk. We had to do something about that.
In 1978, we organized a dairy farmers study tour to America. Well, we went to a goat farm, and the man there was milking 1,500 goats, selling the milk direct to the public. And we thought, what a wonderful idea. Maybe we could do that when we came home. But we couldn't do that. We weren't allowed to do that.
So in 1984, we took another group to Europe. And we saw a Dutch farmer making cheese out of goat's milk and cow's milk and selling that direct to the public and to all the tourists that came to his farm. So we thought, what a wonderful idea. Perhaps we could do that.
It was quite a challenge. It was quite different from being a dairy farmer. Eventually, we came together with Laurie Jensen, who is our partner still to this day. We were now cheese manufacturers. We were sending our product off the farm. We then became price makers, not price takers. And we had some control over our destiny. I think sometimes farmers aren't given credit for being innovators, and we have to be that if we're going to survive in today's climate.
I remember one day my son came home, David, and said, what do you do all day, Mum? And I said, well, I do this. I do that. I go to the dairy. I look after the calves. I look after Dad. I look after you, do the household. And I said, why was this question? And he said, well, the school teacher had asked them to please write down what their parents did, and he couldn't really quantify what I did. If I'd gone out to work nine to five, he would have been quite satisfied and said, my mum works. But because you live on the farm and you're on the job, you're not really deemed to be going out to work.
The Gatherings offer an opportunity to bring back the ideas to the farm. You can even educate your husband or your partner or your parents about tuning the chainsaw or doing the books or using some computer program. Women are great disseminators of information-- the old saying, tell a woman and it'll be spread around. We're not afraid to ask questions.