We are all in this together
By Fleur Chapman

You would never think it now, but Mae Connelly grew up in the heart of Melbourne – a city girl right through childhood – with no real intention of changing that. She visited extended family on their farms over the school holidays and loved every minute of the experience, but the city was home.

When it came to apply for university, Mae was still uncertain as to what she wanted do, just that science was on her radar. After sifting through the tonne of information delivered at various university open days, she had her lightbulb moment; her path was in agriculture. This would allow her to pursue her love of science, but in a practical, hands-on way.

Just like her first foray into the world of agriculture, her next step – transcribing this experience and know-how into the financial services sector – was also by chance. After completing university and satisfying the post-school itchy feet, Mae scored a job at the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) in the call centre over harvest time. This was intended to be only few months’ work to get into the workforce and earn a little money.

However, day two of her new job happened to be on September 11, 2001, when the world stopped.

The AWB went into crisis mode, frantically trying to chase down farmers in New York and keep on top of the crashing markets. In the call centre, Mae and her colleagues saw first-hand what was needed to protect assets and were front and centre to the action. It was a learning experience like no other – and one that sparked a new passion and career for Mae.

“Within that one day, I went from something I thought I would do for a few months, to thinking holy cow, what goes into grain markets is really incredible”

Nearly 20 years on, that is the industry she has stayed.

Over the coming few years, the AWB provided Mae with a great deal of training and offered her the opportunity to live and work in regional areas. Being originally from a large city, this experience was invaluable to her professional development and allowed her to really get to know the prominent issues and needs of rural and regional people. She worked in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales before being sent to Lake Grace for a one-year stint. That was in 2003 and she still calls the area home! The sense of community, welcoming nature and they way regional and rural people band together in good times and bad struck a chord with Mae, and she instantly knew she belonged there.

“The day I arrived I was dragged along to hockey training and made 20 friends, and the rest is history”.

Once she was settled in WA, Mae moved on to work for another company for a few years before being head-hunted by Farmanco. She voluntarily undertook post-graduate studies in financial services – a testament to her passion and commitment to the field – and her career has blossomed ever since. Interestingly, after the Banking Royal Commission began, a massive spotlight has been shone on financial advisers and educational requirements have been raised. Now, all financial advisers must undertake regular professional development in order to keep their licence. Mae was ahead of the pack in this regard, and is committed to continuing to upskill throughout her working life.

“Things change rapidly in grain marketing, there’s always something new that you need to get on top of”, she said.

As a woman in the industry, Mae finds that if anything, she has slight advantage over her male colleagues. Often, the person on the farm who is doing the grain marketing is the women, so Mae is highly sought-after and able to easily connect with her clients for ongoing, positive relationships. She finds her female colleagues extremely supportive too, and her mentor back at AWB was an inspiring role model as Mae forged her own path in the largely male-dominated world of farming.

“It’s a very small industry, so everyone knows everyone, and especially with women being even lighter on numbers, we certainly bond together.”

Women have always been involved in farming, but recognition across the board for their efforts is becoming better recognised. Mae has seen a positive change towards equity in all farming roles, which is important to her not only from a professional point of view, but as a farm owner herself.

Easier to use machinery, more automation and less reliance on strength and ‘grunt work’ on farms means women of any age or size can manage any jobs that need tackling within the farming environment, from sheep work, to driving headers, to staying up at night doing the spraying. This comes back to what cemented Mae’s passion for regional life – the sense of community, comradery and banding together to get the job done.

“The thing that makes us different in ag is that we are all in it together,” she said.

For example, her all-time favourite moment throughout her farming life was the 2013 season in the southern wheatbelt region where she lives. During the first half of that year, crisis meetings were in full swing as the community had just come off 4-5 years of poor seasons and things were getting desperate. But then, in the second half of the year, the rains came. It ended up being a bumper harvest, and Mae remembers the broad smiles of those around town who were finally enjoying the spoils – together.

In today’s tech-driven world, this sense of community within the farming world is further strengthened by social media. Mae is an avid Twitter user and loves how it brings people together, and allows people to share stories, anecdotes or even ways to make farming life easier. Living on a farm is now does not mean isolation in the same way it used to.

“Social media has its pitfalls, but used well, it is an extremely important tool and incredibly valuable. As farms get bigger and country towns get smaller, social media is becoming increasingly important in helping Aussie farmers through.”

For example, last year’s mass delivery of hay from rural WA to NSW to help drought-stricken farms was primarily organised through Twitter and is a shining example of community spirit and support. In just two weeks, the Rapid Relief Team rounded up 1,200 tonnes (2,300 bales) of the hay to be driven over to the NSW town of Condobolin. This ability to help each other would not have been possible without the connections social media provides.

Mae and her husband run a farm in Pingrup while she also works for Farmanco out of Katanning. From a city girl with little idea where she wanted to head, to a global tragedy sparking a brand new career, Mae has come a very long way. She is now fully immersed in the rural and regional life, with that ever-present and incredibly important sense of community keeping her grounded.