There are some feminine faces behind one of the Bundaberg Region’s biggest success stories at Austchilli and they’re encouraging more women to consider a career in agriculture.
Austchilli, which supplies fresh and packaged produce across Australia and the world, is bucking the trend of the traditionally male dominated industry, placing women in various technical and leadership roles, including newly appointed Chief Executive Officer Nicole MacDonald.
The company has about 120 employees on the payroll, and just over half are women.
But Nicole said it’s simply a sign of the times as agricultural businesses thrive by evolving alongside advancements in innovation and technology.
“It's not necessarily about equality,” Nicole said.
“It's about skill set and opportunities to utilise those skill sets.”
She said gone were the days where farms simply needed pickers to get their product to market.
“We're talking about key positions such as our new product development team, our research and development ladies that are within our business, our agronomists that are utilising so many different tools and learning and studying at a local university.
“The women that work here at Austchilli are very innovative and bring ideas to creation.
“We're extremely gifted to have a group of women that are passionate about what they do here.”
Austchilli Founder and Managing Director David De Paoli said placing women in leadership roles had introduced a new dynamic to the company.
“The company is something I started from nothing 25 years ago and I want to make sure it continues to grow,” David said.
“If you look at what people did 10 – 20 years ago to what they're doing now I think there’s change and I think you have got to move with the changes.
“It creates equality amongst people and brings different perspectives to the table.”
On an Austchilli avocado orchard spanning 42 hectares you will find Tehlia McCloskey leading the team that nurtures about 30,000 trees.
“I monitor the pest and weed control, the irrigation here, I do the herbicide and the slashing and when it comes to picking season, I pick and then straight after we do the pruning,” Tehlia said.
Born in Bundaberg and from an avocado growing family, Tehlia said office work was never going to be the right fit for her.
“I really enjoy working in the outdoors, just being really hands on and being outside is something that I really enjoy doing.
“I really believe that everyone should support our local farmers [which is why I enjoy] just being able to be a part of it.”
Women in agriculture say give it a go
Tehlia had some picking work under her belt but gained most of her experience on the farm at Austchilli where she has been supported to rise up through the ranks.
She encouraged any women interested in agriculture to take the plunge, especially in Bundaberg where the industry was strong.
“Don't think that you need to have qualifications because there are employers out there that I'm sure will give you a decent go.”
Agronomy assistants Leizl Dorner and Elizabeth Lazell would certainly agree.
They’ve both landed full time roles with Austchilli after seeking work experience as part of their Bachelor of Agriculture studies.
Leizl said the position, based in her hometown, was a dream come true and combined her two passions, science and food.
“I assist with our trials and also day to day operations,” Leizl said.
“All the trials are quite different, a lot of them focus on sustainable solutions.”
Leizl said a lot of her work aimed to find biological solutions for crop maintenance.
“We are a conventional farm but we try to minimise the use of chemicals.
“We want a healthy plant and a healthy plant means that we're getting a more nutritious fruit.”
Elizabeth is a “city girl” but said working in the Bundaberg Region had developed her industry knowledge exponentially.
“Even though I'd had two years of theoretical degree, getting the job here gave me so much practical experience,” Elizabeth said.
“At the moment, I'm working on improving our water quality, so if you have chemicals or trace elements in your water that then goes on to your plants.
“I'm working on improving our water quality to then improve our chillies and avocadoes.”
Now three months into her role as CEO, Nicole said she was excited about the future of Austchilli and working alongside David to grow the family owned and run business.
“I bring a focus on our team to lead the team and to look at our innovation and to ensure that we’re striving ahead in terms of business, optimising our opportunities and strategy planning for the future.
“And that's what we're all about at Austchilli.
“My message for women wanting to work in the agricultural industry would be to do definitely upskill yourself, learn the industry, people are always out there to hire you, knock on some doors, and just be super confident that you can do it.
“Find out your niche within the industry that you're choosing to do to go in.”
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