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Barbara Scott

Barbara Scott

More information about Barbara Scott including publications and resources used to write this essay can be found in the Australian Women's Register.

In 1996, Barbara Scott, of Coonabarabran in north-west New South Wales, won the ABC Radio Rural Woman of the Year Award. What came with the award was a steep learning curve for her, but then, she was used to climbing steep learning curves. By her own admission, when she and her husband went into partnership in a property near Coonabarabran in 1984, the school teacher by training had 'absolutely no experience' with farming. For the first few years of her life on the land, 'she was the gopher' and her husband, John, made all the decisions. 'We discussed them,' she said, 'but I demurred, I was frightened, and I was really terrified of living on the land.'

Barbara was lucky, in that she had a partner who persisted in seeking her opinion on matters relating to the farming business. As the years went by she realised that what she had to offer was 'a different mentality, a different way of looking at things.' In her business partnership, this was a commodity of high value, especially when drought and the collapse of the wool price in the early 1990s conspired to make the farming enterprise unprofitable and unviable. She and John needed to find a different way of looking at their wool growing business.

1993 was the third year of what turned out to be a six year drought in Coonabarabran. Sheep were being shot because of lack of feed and wool prices had crashed from $13.20 per kg to $3.20 per kg. The crash had forced Barbara and John to hoard three years worth of wool clip, and there was no real end to the adversity in sight. Added to these climatic and economic trials were some significant family tragedies and disappointments. Barbara's father in South Australia died, her brother-in-law was retrenched and Barbara herself suffered a severe illness.

At this point, she and John decided they needed to look at things differently. For each negative, they found a positive. Her father's death provided the opportunity to move her mother from South Australia to New South Wales. Her brother-in-law's retrenchment provided them with additional farm labour and important funds to support a new business venture. The hoarded wool clip was significant raw material to which value could be added. And her illness gave her time to sit back 'watch the flowers grow' and think about options. Or, as she puts it:

And so through having that time to contemplate, and work out where I was going, I developed a vision for my future, for my rural future, and also for the community and for Australia. I wanted to see development in rural communities where the commodities are. I wanted to see our rural kids not disappearing to the cities, and never coming back with their expertise after their education. I wanted to see access to education in country areas whether it be by satellite or teleconferencing, or electronic whiteboards, or television, it didn't matter. I didn't see that we had to be geared to universities, that we could still be geared toward technical education in rural communities and make a difference.

Within six months, and after clearing several hurdles erected along the way by the community, bureaucrats, and individual 'knockers', the family had established a wool manufacturing business. In the first instance, The Wool 'n' Yarn Company was intended as a means of providing employment for their family and find a use for their own wool clip. Initially selling a range of doonas, the business was expanded to clothing lines. By 1996, they had made substantial in roads into overseas markets. Bloomingdales department stories in the United States commissioned her to provide a selection of wool products for its mail order catalogues. Barbara had also received contracts with a number of stores in Texas.

Design aspects firmly rooted in the Australian outback helped to establish the Wool 'n' Yarn Company's presence in the highly competitive fashion market. Before farming, Barbara had been an adult literacy teacher with Central Australian Aboriginal communities. Pitjantjatjara women gave her grounding in colour .The range of 40 fine wool products draws on the natural hues of soil, plants, grasses, nuts and leaves in the 'red country' of the Musgrave ranges and the white lime of the Nullabor.

The enterprise was also characterised by its commitment to employing and developing the skills of the local Coonabarabran community. A family enterprise, it was also important to Barbara that they be part of something that 'made things happen' in a community that was at risk of dying, due to loss of services and industry.

The loss of industry also had consequences for the TAFE sector in the region, a problem that Barbara was particularly concerned about. 'We also saw our TAFE colleges across NSW being decimated because rural areas do not have industry,' she observed, 'and with a TAFE policy that says that TAFE will work to industry, we suddenly saw classes closing down, we saw whole rooms of equipment being left vacant, and under-utilised.' Barbara and the team at the Wool 'n' Yarn Company were determined 'to keep our TAFE service, to keep our employment, to keep a viable industry in country NSW. They designed an Industrial Sewing Techniques course with the Coonabarabran School of Fashion. They became skilled to the point where they were able to use the TAFE facilities when they were under-utilised and run their own factory and their own contract work.

In addition to running the business, Barbara and John have continued to manage their own property in accordance with sustainable agricultural practices. They developed a once-eroded property into a luscious mixed farm of cropping, fruit orcharding, vineyard and sheep and wool growing through irrigation, farm grazing management and the re-introduction of native flora. Barbara planted over 4,500 trees in ten years encouraging native wildlife, including over 30 varieties of birds, to return to the property.

When awarding Barbara in 1996, the judges observed that it was 'Barbara's commitment to quality value added products through her wool garment business, and her involvement in sustainable agriculture practices made her the judges' choice' along with her determination to promote the wool industry and her understanding of the issues affecting rural women.' She would be an 'outstanding spokesperson and representative for rural women' throughout the course of the year. The following extract from one of her own speeches, roughly eight months into the job, endorses their view:

For many, many years, rural women have been seen as the silent partner, they have been seen as the bookkeeper, the office keeper, but let me tell you it's not the case any longer. Rural women now are running massive value-adding ventures. They are running rural consultancies, they are exporting their products to the world, they are developing in partnership or alone viable enterprises in rural Australia, and without them, many, many farms would not have survived…What is happening now is that rural women are becoming committed to being seen and heard, becoming part of agriculture, being recognised for their talents, their abilities and their contribution…They will lead and they will follow, but they will no longer be gophers. They will recognise their talents and they will encourage other women to get up and have a go.