Emma Ayliffe says agriculture in the outback is the journey of a lifetime

Today’s guest blog from Emma Ayliffe starts on a sheep station in outback South Australia and takes us to the lush lakebed cropping fields of one of New South Wales’s most unique cotton operations. She’s a girl from the bush who’s found her way back again as on-farm agronomist, an enthusiastic photographer and a lover of all things crops and cotton.

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This is Emma’s story…

I have always had a love of the bush and that is where my journey began, on a station in the North-West Pastoral District of South Australia. I spent my childhood riding my horse behind mobs of wild merinos on stations west of Port Augusta and grew up a typical station kid. In between School of the Air lessons my days were spent outside on water runs, mustering and ‘helping’ dad and the station hands out in the shed.

So how exactly does a station girl from half way between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy end up growing cotton on the bottom of the Menindee Lakes…?

My father has always been passionate about agriculture and I guess that rubbed off on my mum and me too. When I was 12 my parents moved me and my two younger sisters closer to a town so we didn’t have to go to boarding school and this opened up a whole new world to us. Along with the introduction of ‘normal’ school we were introduced to world of cropping. And although we had moved from a world of station dust to tractors and green paddocks my father was as keen as always to get us involved where ever possible.

Me with my sisters and ponies

At the end of school I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and began studying a Bachelor of Science (Agricultural Science) at the University of Adelaide. I went into the degree thinking I would end up doing something livestock related but, like most kids, changed my mind. I enjoyed agronomy much more and changed the direction I was heading.

As part of Uni my year helped set up an “Ag Experience” trip overseas. It was a lot of hard work but we successfully got sponsorship for our trip to India and it was amazing. We toured research facilities and met with farmers. We viewed community farming groups and toured rural villages. It was amazing to see the variation in this country from the richest farmers who owned tractors and employed workers, to the poorest of farmers who were still planting their crops by hand. I had a go at cutting rice straw, which is a lot harder than it looks, as well as visiting some of the tourist destinations like the Taj Mahal.

Cutting rice straw

After completing Uni I began working in broad acre agronomy in the mid-north of South Australia and spent a lot of my time in fields of canola and wheat. I had a great boss and mentor who really helped me to get even more excited about the career path that I had chosen. After a little over a year I decided that it was time for a change of scenery and a new challenge, so I began hunting for my next big thing.

Stacking Hay

I stumbled across an advertisement for an on farm cotton agronomist working in the bush, and I though what a perfect combination of the career I have chosen and my love for the outback so I applied. Tandou is an amazing place to see for the first time. I still remember driving out for my interview, 140 kilometres south of Broken Hill, in western NSW, rounding a bend and over a sand hill to see the fields of green…

Tandou Map Google Earth

I had only seen cotton once in my life, so I had no clue about how to grow it, but I got the job, packed up my stuff and moved in to my one bedroom Jayco unit (in the middle of 24 other units!) and had my first experience with irrigation and cotton. Nearly two and a half years later, it is the best decision I have ever made!

I am an on-farm agronomist working at Lake Tandou, 50 kilometres out of Menindee at the bottom of the Menindee Lakes. My job includes everything from rotation and fertiliser programs, irrigation scheduling, insect and weed management and picking through to driving tractors, loading seed trucks, taking people on farm tours and fixing things. It is an amazing job that has helped grow my skills as an agronomist, but also my general life skills. It has also given me the opportunity to meet and work with a range of amazing people!

As part of my job now I have found a love for photography. I spend some time every week taking pictures of the crops and the operations around the farm to document the growing of the crop, as well as the unique operation that we run here at Tandou.

One of my photos of the crop

Cotton is an amazing crop and an an amazing industry to be part of. Coming from SA – and downstream of the Murray-Darling river system – I grew up hearing many misinformed negatives about it. But it’s not until you immerse yourself into this world that you truly appreciate how the industry is so open and excited about sharing its story. There is great comradeliness and flow of information between growers and everyone is willing to help everyone else out and share their success stories.

It is hard not to have love, enthusiasm and motivation for a job that is so diverse in an industry that is at the forefront of many aspects of agriculture and provides so many opportunities to learn, network and get involved. I find myself talking to anyone who will listen about the good stuff and the challenges and the opportunities; I am sure that people must get sick of me talking cotton!

While working here I have also become the secretary of the Menindee and Lower Darling Cotton Growers Association, one of the most unique as we only have one grower, which is us! Through this I have been able to start sharing my love and passion for the job with the future agriculturalists of Australia as we often support events at the local school in Menindee as well as facilitating farm visits for other schools from cities like Mildura. This gives kids an opportunity to see what agriculture is actually about and helps dispel many myths that people still have about the cotton industry.

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 I love my job, I love the outback, I love sharing what I know and enjoying this journey!

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