This was written by Natalie Bowman.
Natalie Bowman is a Farmer, Mother and Community Leader in the region of Esperance, where she spent eight years on the local council.
I was born in Albany and is the eldest of 3 children. I have a brother and a sister. We moved from Albany to Perth when I was a baby, so I began my kindergarten and school life in the city. My parents divorced when I was young, and my mum remarried, and Dennis (my stepfather) had five children of his own, who lived with him as well, so we became the brady bunch for a few years, and I went from being the eldest to one of the youngest in the bunch. In 1973 (I was 5), the 5 of us (mum, Dennis and the 3 of us) moved to Esperance for a fresh start.
We started living with relations in Esperance, and I went to Nulsen primary school for a little while. Eventually, we moved into a house of our own in Castletown. Where my childhood and high school days were spent. Mum was the cleaner at Castletown Primary school for many years.
I joined a Catholic youth group (I was 16 and not catholic, but there were boys there!) The friends I made in this group have become lifelong friends who we still spend time today. I also met Leon (who would later become my husband), which is funny because he isn’t catholic either, but went ‘because there were girls there. The youth group was mostly filled with cascade, grass patch and salmon gums farmers, and so became my first taste of farming life as we spent many weekends together hanging out on farms. I went to university and became an early childhood teacher graduating in 1988.
I applied to teach in the Esperance region and ended up in Kambalda West at the offsite pre-primary. I thoroughly enjoyed my year there but spent most weekends back on Leon’s farm in Grass Patch. Kambalda was basically a 2 ½ hour drive from the farm, so I would head down when I finished work on a Friday afternoon and drive back Sunday afternoons. We got engaged later that year, and I applied for a transfer to Grass Patch Primary school. (I always say that I am one of those teachers who comes to town, marries a farmer and never leaves!)
I moved to Grass Patch in 1990 and lived in the teacher’s house for three months until we were married in April. And we then moved onto the family farm and lived with Leon’s parents for the rest of that year. We rented a house on Poverty Lane and moved there to start our lives together, and it was the perfect location because it was halfway between Salmon Gums and Grass Patch, where I taught day about in each school. I just had to remember which day it was to turn left or right when I reached the highway.
I loved being a part of the family farming business, which at the time was Leon’s parents, Leon and his brother, in partnership. I had a lot to learn about farming, as I was a townie and didn’t know a thing. I remember looking out the window of our poverty lane house one day into the neighbour’s paddock and wondering why they were towing a broken header around the paddock. I asked Leon that night when he got home, ‘Surely it made more sense to take it back to the workshop and fix it rather than continuing to tow it around the paddock harvesting?’ After Leon finished laughing and could speak again, he told me about tow along with headers and how they worked.
My Second son Murray was born in 1994, and I went back to teaching a couple of years later, part-time. I continued teaching until a few days before Ash was born, so learning about farming mostly happened on weekends and during the week from the pre-primary kids! They were pretty good at educating me, and they didn’t laugh at my dumb questions; instead loved that they knew more than the teacher! In 1993 we bought Glen Hartley (the property we still live on today) and moved into our place. It was wonderful to finally live where we worked as it meant more time could be spent together and more chance of wandering over to the shed to see what was happening. The boys would go to work with dad and hang out with their grandma while working.
Leon and I did the budgeting and the cashbook, beginning with a manual cashbook. We then upgraded to an excel spreadsheet that I created to make the adding up quickly. I enjoyed the challenge of the office and made it my mission to streamline it and make it as easy as possible. Both Leon and I loved to learn, and over the years, we did many training programmes, leadership courses and went on study tours to try and see how we could make our business better. Leon did the Rabobank Executive Development Programme in Sydney and came back full of grand plans for change and improvement. A couple of years later, our bank manager asked me if I was interested in going, and I decided to give it a go.
Once I had said yes and was accepted, I was then terrified about going because I knew it would be full of a majority of men who had been farming for years, and I didn’t even know how to drive a tractor, so how on earth was I going to cope! Looking back, it was the best thing I could ever have done, and it made me realise that I knew a lot more about our business than I thought I did, and I was more than capable of speaking to other farmers about farming.
A big part of the programme was succession planning. At the time, our farming business was going through some significant upheaval with Leon’s brother going through a divorce and moving away from farming, so learning about succession and knowing what questions to ask as we went through it was extremely important useful. In 2004 Leon and I took over the family business, completely buying out his brother, and his parents retired. We had a farm advisory board in place since 2003, and it continues today. Its focus is on helping us work on the business rather than in the business. Looking at our plans, thinking outside the box and always looking for improvement opportunities. One great surprise advantage of the board has been their ability to make us celebrate our achievements. It is easy to get busy every day and not realize how far you have come and what you have achieved. Having a group of people come together from outside the business three times a year really
encourages us to celebrate our achievements along the way.
I have always been very heavily involved with our local community in Grass patch, and whatever was going on. I have held positions on just about every committee that was going at one time or another and am currently back on the Grass Patch CDA as secretary. Everyone needs to step up and take on jobs in a small community, then rest and take them on again; otherwise, things don’t happen. Over the years, we have had a couple of members on the council from Grass Patch, Tony Ietto and Julie Starcevich, whom I have worked with various times on various committees. They both asked me numerous times to become a councillor, but at the time, I still had children at school and wanted to focus on their needs rather than my own. I am a firm believer that if you are going to take on a job, you need to be able to give it your full attention and not do things by halves.