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Debbie Thiele

Debbie Thiele

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

In 1994 South Australian farmer Debbie Thiele won the inaugural ABC Radio Australian Rural Woman of the Year Award. The event received substantial coverage across all forms of media and Thiele received much public recognition as a woman who shared equal partnership with her husband, Anton, in her farming business.

The news, however, seemed to have escaped the attention of a travelling salesman who came to the farm gate, not long after she had been announced the national winner. Thiele's account of the meeting, according to a journalist from the Australian Financial Review, went something like this:

Still basking a little in her victory, Mrs Thiele was interrupted by a knock on the door from a travelling sales representative.

'Is the man of the house around?' he asked.

The woman who had been so publicly recognised for being an equal partner in a farming business was slightly affronted but politely asked if she could help in her husband's absence.

The salesman thought not. 'You wouldn't know anything about chemical wetting agents,' he said.

The visitor did not make a saleā€¦

As Thiele observed, 'companies servicing the rural sector who still see farm women only as farmers' wives do so at their peril.'

In 1994, Debbie Thiele co-owned and managed a cereal/ sheep enterprise, near Loxton in the Northern Murray Mallee in South Australia. She worked in all areas of the business, from classing the clip and marketing the wool to tractor work, seeding, harrowing, operating the header and trucking the grain to the silo. At the time, she liked 'nothing more than trucking grain to the silos and preaching reform to stick-in-the-mud men of the land' just like the unsuccessful chemical salesman. Reform, in her business with her husband, involved adopting practices that helped them, in her words, to 'farm smarter', not bigger, and to diversify. It also involved adopting sustainable practices. Says Deb, 'You are a guardian of the land, rather than the owner, and you should pass it on in better nick than you inherited it'.

The oldest of three children, Debbie was brought up on the land in the irrigation are of Waikerie, on the Murray River in South Australia. She says that growing up on the river is probably one of the biggest influences in her life; she and her siblings 'have river water running in our veins'. Her father worked very hard as an owner and/or manager of a number of properties in the district, building up a big and successful business. The children worked on the farm for pocket money as children, cutting apricots and picking oranges, but they were always encouraged by their parents to chase other opportunities as they arose. Luckily, an excellent education at Waikere High School prepared her well for making the most of the opportunities she chose to chase. She was a good student who fully immersed herself in a range of extra-curricular activities.

There was pressure on her during her final year of school from her boyfriend to marry and settle down but her parents were in her words 'dead against that.' They did not not want her to stay at home; they wanted her to make her way in the world. So instead of staying home to marry, she went to university to learn to be a science teacher. This led, in a roundabout way, to her enrolling in Roseworthy Agricultural College where, in 1981, she was one of the first women to go through the course.

The 1970s, Deb recalls, was a good time for farmers. A lot of agricultural science teachers bought land and quit their jobs, because they could do a lot better for themselves as farmers than as teachers. This led to a massive shortage in agricultural science teachers. Deb successfully applied for a scholarship and completed a postgraduate year in agricultural science at Roseworthy. She was the only woman in her intake.

Upon graduation, she was sent to Kadina Memorial High School, in the middle of traditional farming country in the heart of York Peninsula. She enjoyed the experience there although it highlighted to her how things were stacked against female students who wanted a career in agriculture. One anecdote involved a young, female student who wanted to do work experience in a stock firm and the enormous trouble the school had finding a placement for her. Things were only marginally better in 1994. After winning the ABC award she was asked to speak to all Wesfarmers and Dalgety's state managers:

I said to all of them 'How many of you have had females doing work experience in your offices'. All but two, so that's about twenty-eight out of the thirty put their hands up. I went on to say, 'How many of you had them doing saleyard work and going out and visiting farmers?' and I think I might have got one hand. We're in a process of evolution.

After completing a year teaching in Kadina, Deb did what she always promised herself she would do before settling down; she bought a round the world ticket and a backpack and set off. She worked with Highland cattle in Scotland, on a kibbutz in Israel, travelled to Canada and then back again to Europe. The time away was eye-opening and gave her a new appreciation of rural Australia and the opportunities is presented to people with intelligence and drive. 'Having been out there and done that' she says, "I know thought, Gee, the grass is green here!'

Travel also produced an attitudinal change in that she became more ambitious in her career as a teacher. She applied for a senior position for agricultural science in the Department of Education, and became the first female to hold that position. She was much more engaged in developing curriculum materials, not just delivering them. As she said she 'got stuck into things a bit more'.

Getting stuck in also involved getting involved in agri-politics. By this time, she had met her husband Anton, and became immersed in the business of farming. The impact of a variety of legislative changes mobilised her to action. She got involved in the Farmer's Federation in the 1980s in response to all the stresses that period produced, working her way through to the point where she held positions of influence and authority as a section chairman of community services, a governing councillor and a member of the executive. She was the SA Farmers' Federation first female zone chairman. Deb continued her involvement in politics into the late 2000s. She stood as a National Party candidate in the Upper House in the 2006 South Australian State Elections and was the NP candidate for Barker in the 2007 Federal Elections.

As the first winner of the ABC Rural Woman of the Year Award, Debbie Thiele says, "I don't go for 'firsts' - life just evolves. One thing rolls on from the other and as you go for one thing, you end up doing the next.' Being the ABC Rural Woman or the Year wasn't something she set out to achieve, but it was a great honour, nonetheless. And it was an important job, because she hopes that through learning about her experience, other women in agriculture developed the confidence to get involved and speak up. As a 'guardian of the land', she wants to make sure that women who want to work it are given that chance. 'I would be livid if my daughter's weren't given [that] opportunity.'