As dairy farm numbers decline, leadership program graduate Roisin Powles believes it’s more important than ever that farmers have confidence to step up into leadership roles.

Roisin, from Gillieston near Tatura, has had her confidence boosted after completing the Fairley (Goulburn Murray) Community Leadership Program in 2020 as a Gardiner Dairy Foundation recipient and hopes other farmers take up similar opportunities.

“It’s important for all farmers to improve their leadership skills to give them the confidence to step up,” she says.

“Farmers are clever people but one thing holding many back is a little bit of confidence. If they were involved in community leadership programs, it would improve their confidence and ability to voice their concerns or their ideas.

“As the number of farmers reduces, the risk is that our voice is harder to hear and decisions will be made by people who don’t necessarily understand farming.”

Roisin farms with her husband Ron and four children and enjoys a great affinity with the land and her community.

Their dairy farm has been certified organic for the past 12 years and Roisin has maintained a lifelong passion for the environment and a healthy local community.

“It’s not a natural thing for farmers to be in opposition to the local ecosystems,” she says. “In dairy we can encourage the wildlife; the birds in the tree belts help with the pastures.”

This passion has led Roisin to volunteer with Landcare and St Vincent de Paul and to help out where needed with other farming and community groups.

With her youngest child now at school, Roisin was keen to reactivate her community commitments, and the opportunity to undertake the Fairley Community Leadership Program was perfectly timed.

“I’d become a bit rusty in my community skills like public speaking, communications and I.T. so getting involved in a course was certainly beneficial,” she said.

While disappointed in some respects that much of the program had to convert to Zoom meetings because of COVID-19, Roisin found the change had an unexpected benefit.

“It was something we had to learn to use anyway so it gave us a push and from that I was able to take our St Vincent de Paul team onto zoom, and help with meetings and communication for some other organic dairy families needing to band together through a tough time.

“Whilst there were losses in some things like public speaking and other in-person conversations, the skills given were put straight into use and they’re going to be incredibly useful going forward regardless of COVID.”

Roisin describes the leadership program as “a perfect learning environment” where people from different walks of life benefit from their interactions.

“They did such a good job of creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable to learn and share,” she said. “It broadened my knowledge of the different community sectors and the challenges they face, and I was proud to present the perspective of the dairy industry,”

“It’s important to be confident to talk the talk with other sectors.”

“One thing I kept coming back to was trying to recognise skills in other people and bringing out the best in them,” she said “That’s especially true of farmers who don’t always have confidence in their own skills so I want to point out to them that they do have really valuable skills and encourage them to step forward.”

The program has inspired Roisin to look at new opportunities to represent the dairy industry or the broader community.

She admits she hadn’t previously considered applying for positions on dairy industry boards, but that might change. “That probably reflected my own confidence level, but after they talked about the structure of boards in the program, and the service board members provide, you look at things through a different lens. I thought board roles were outside my skills set but now I would look at opportunities.”

Roisin urged other farmers to consider applying for a Gardiner Dairy Foundation leadership program scholarship. “When you’re farming, you’re constantly learning and improving; 2020 was challenging but being involved in Fairley made it a whole lot better,” she said.