Women in agriculture: How Simone Tully built an organic beef business from the bush
Historically, Australian women in agriculture were often silent participants but that’s changing fast. Today, women are playing a key role in managing rural enterprises and establishing successful on- and off-farm businesses of their own.
Australians who grow up on the land tend to be resilient by nature. For Tully, early life circumstances forced her to become more resourceful and resilient than most. Following the death of her father in a motorbike accident in 1981, she helped her mother, Alison, take the reins at Winnathoola, the family property in rural Queensland. “Mum had four of us to look after and she didn’t know how to balance a cheque book. From the age of 14, I was helping make decisions on the property,” says Tully. “It was a bit of the blind leading the blind but in the end she – we – did really well.”
Those business management skills learnt on the fly came to the fore in the early 1990s when Tully and her new husband, Shane, took on the running of Bingara Station, a 240,000-hectare sheep and cattle station in far western Queensland.
Finding an outlet for her energies quickly became a priority. “I was really motivated to establish a role for myself because I didn’t fancy cooking five meals a day for six station hands and doing that whole support role,” says Tully. Having visited Boulder, Colorado, America’s natural food heartland, as a backpacker in the late 1980s, she was aware of the growing popularity of organically produced food and saw an opportunity for local farmers to enter that market – and up their earnings in the process.
The result was OBE Beef, a collective which, at its peak, represented the interests of more than 30 cattle producers. By the early 2000s, it had become Australia’s largest producer and processor of organic beef, exporting to the US, Japan, Hong Kong and a string of other markets.
Good communication skills and a problem-solving mentality helped Tully bridge the gulf between farmers and consumers and ensure everyone in the supply chain received a fair share of the premium price OBE-branded product was able to command. “I was the original work-from-home pioneer – one of the first people in the far west of Queensland to be on the internet,” she says. “I learnt to trade currency from a bank in Quilpie and ran that business from the station office for six or seven years.”
Since 2003, Tully has championed organic projects and agricultural start-ups, helping many household brands achieve the success and prominence they enjoy today. After divesting her interests in OBE in 2010, Tully spent a year helping Woolworths establish its Macro organics range, while also founding the Australian Organic Meat Group. A network of more than 50 organic lamb and beef producers across Australia, it sells direct to retailers in the USA, Asia, the Middle East and Australia. Meanwhile, New Zealand Organic Meats, an infant joint venture between Tully and a clutch of South Island producers, has found a profitable niche selling organic lamb into various international markets.
International transactions are conducted via WinTrade, Westpac’s secure online platform for managing trade transactions and documentation. “There weren’t many businesses trading currency directly and carrying out complex corporate transactions from rural Australia when we got started,” Tully notes. “Having an efficient way to manage that supply-chain finance really opened up the world for us.”
Though Tully’s experience largely reflects equitable roles for men and women, things have certainly progressed for women in agriculture. “Back in the early nineties, women weren’t even recognised under our farm insurance policies, so we were just off to the side. A lot of blokes came back to the land without that higher education, but often the women had been to university, so they ended up being in the office and doing all the back end of the operations,” she says. “I think women in agriculture have been the quiet achievers. I mean talk about multitasking – it never stops. At one stage, I had two small children, I was building my organic beef networks and I was working for the Sheep and Wool Institute trying to develop a career for myself as well, so I think women are supremely good at multitasking and staying calm under pressure, because there’s so much going on.”
In today’s connected world, there are opportunities aplenty for rural women like Tully to pursue their entrepreneurial interests, on and off the farm. “People have realised that women are very powerful in the decision-making process and they bring impressive skill sets. Daughters and women can manage properties just as easily – and as well – as men,” she says. “The internet has opened up enormous possibilities; it’s allowed us to network more effectively, undertake further training and run fabulous businesses.”
“It’s a much more equal opportunity environment than it used to be and there are so many different paths and roles. You don’t have to be out on a stock horse, in the cattle yards or in the kitchen.” A passion for the land is, however, a must, Tully adds. “There are easier ways to make a living – there’s no doubt about it. But, from my perspective, there’s nothing more noble than feeding the world,” she says.
Women have always been an integral part of the Aussie agriculture industry, but recent years have seen more and more women at the helm of agriculture enterprise and innovation. Reflecting on Tully’s incredible career and hearing her optimism for the future of what’s possible, it’s an exciting time for women in agriculture to continue to forge their own paths in a rapidly developing sector.
This information is general in nature and has been prepared without taking your objectives, needs and overall financial situation into account. For this reason, you should consider the appropriateness of the information to your own circumstances and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.