Inspiring Victorian finalists in 2020 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

We meet the four finalists to find out about their projects and how they help create connection and resilience in rural Victorian communities.

Personal experience with mental illness and a passion for working with animals inspired Kelly Barnes’ dream of setting up a working-dog training school to offer small-group learning for farmers in rural Victoria.

Kelly is one of four Victorian finalists in the 2020 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, which recognises innovative ideas to support rural and regional communities. The award encourages Australian women to develop their skills to benefit their industries and communities, including Victoria’s $14.9 billion agriculture sector.

Kelly joins Victorian finalists Kerryn Wildenburg, from Kyneton, who wants to create a permaculture ‘Food Forest’ to provide vulnerable community members with a place where they can learn to grow and cook healthy food; Jackie Elliott, from Byaduk, who aims to create a toolkit to help regional communities to host their own International Rural Women’s Day celebrations to connect rural women and address isolation; and Katrina van Eyk, from Pyramid Hill, who plans to expand her affordable eight-week summer learn-to-swim program in regional communities to boost physical and mental health.

Kelly BarnesKelly said social isolation was a major contributor to poor mental health outcomes in rural Australia with farmers often working alone for long periods.

“I truly believe my love of animals, but especially the close bond I have had with my working dogs over the years, has helped me through the toughest of days,” Kelly said. “I am passionate about providing pathways for rural people to build resilience through social connection and increased self-esteem.”

Kelly’s working-dog training school project would provide low-stress stock-handling techniques, create a bond between dog and owner, and create a networking opportunity for a small local group over 12-months. It would help build the confidence of participants to support their peers, contributing to personal and community resilience. This in turn would increase productivity on farms and help to maintain a healthy rural community.

Kerryn WildenburgKyneton’s Kerryn Wildenburg also draws on personal experience with anxiety and depression. After overcoming mental health challenges in 2011, Kerryn set out to empower others to create change by establishing resilient, regenerative food sources for the most vulnerable people in our communities.

“When I was a kid, I absolutely loved exploring in my Nana’s garden; it was wonderland where my imagination could run wild,” Kerryn said. “I have a vision of creating a landscape where not only children can lose themselves in nature, but adults can reconnect with themselves.”

As well as creating a permaculture ‘Food Forest’, where people can learn to grow and cook healthy food, the project would make a valuable contribution to the community food bank.

“I am passionate about implementing holistic management systems that enrich habitat and restore land to its former glory so the next generation can discover the wonders of our rural environment,” Kerryn said.

Katrina van EykImproving physical and mental wellbeing is also the goal of swimming teacher Katrina van Eyk, from Pyramid Hill, who hopes to expand an affordable learn-to-swim program in regional communities, using community swimming pools.

In 2015, Katrina launched an eight-week summer swim school for 15 students through her business, Regional Swim Clinics. The program has now grown to 55 students across two venues, with classes for infants, beginners, intermediate, mini squad, advanced and adults. She also runs school swimming programs for five regional schools, ranging from foundation to year 12 students.

Katrina now hopes to expand her program into other regional communities.

“Swimming improves both your physical and mental health and by providing swimming programs in regional and rural communities we are doing our bit to positively impact the health and longevity of our country residents,” Katrina said.

As well as re-establishing local swimming pools as a community meeting place, the program would improve basic swimming skills in people of all ages, supporting them to make informed decisions about safety and reducing high drowning rates in inland waterways.

“By running the eight-week learn-to-swim program in regional and rural communities we also minimise the burden of travel for families trying to attend bigger aquatic centres. Minimising travel time also is a major benefit for country schools.”

Jackie ElliottReducing social isolation is the motivation for Jackie Elliott, from Byaduk, who wants to create a toolkit for other regional communities to host their own International Rural Women’s Day celebrations to help connect rural women.

On 15 October last year, Jackie hosted a successful one-day event in Western Victoria  with 140 attendees, providing valuable networking and development opportunities for women in her region.

“I would love to see Rural Women’s Day celebrated in communities across Australia,” Jackie said. “Having this annual event for the Western District is an important start to support local women. It has the ability to be extended far beyond a one-day event for rural and regional women; our men of the district need to be supported and celebrated too.”

Supported by Agriculture Victoria, the state winner will be announced later this month and will receive a $10,000 Westpac bursary to implement her project. A national winner will be named at a dinner in Canberra in September.

Find out more about the awards on the AgriFutures Australia website.

Update 24 March 2020

Kelly Barnes was named the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award winner. She’s now in the running to become the national winner, who will be announced in Canberra this September.