Meet Natalie, GRDC Communications Manager – West

Date: 16 Oct 2020

image of Natalie Lee
Natalie Lee, GRDC Communications Manager – West

Natalie Lee, where did you grow up and where do you live now?

I was born in the Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie, where Dad and his family are from. When I was small, we lived in Kambalda (near Kalgoorlie), Tom Price and then Albany before my parents settled in the South West coastal town of Bunbury when I was six. My parents were young and adventurous, and Dad worked as a boilermaker welder at that time, allowing him to work in different places.

I currently spend most of my time in Perth – where I live with my three sons who are at high school – but home is also south of Kukerin on the broadacre grain, export hay and sheep farm operated by my husband Andrew, and in which I’m a partner.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I didn’t have much idea and still wasn’t sure when I finished my university degree. My first choice for university courses when finishing school was medicine (I was aiming high!) but really, it was probably a good thing I didn’t quite get the marks for that, as I don’t think I was cut out to be a doctor. My second choice was veterinary studies – I did in fact get accepted into that course but decided being a vet wasn’t for me after doing some work experience in Bunbury.

Current description of job with GRDC?

I work closely with others, including the GRDC’s grower relations managers, to develop communication strategies and content for a range of GRDC communication platforms – including media releases, articles, electronic newsletters and social media. I also have some input into the GRDC’s flagship publication GroundCover™ which is now also available online, complementing the print version that’s much loved by many growers.

What has been your career path/journey to this role?

It’s been an indirect route. If you’d asked me 25 years ago where I’d be working today, I’d never have guessed the grains industry. But it has turned out to be a great thing as the work is very interesting and rewarding.

After school, I moved to Perth and started a science degree at The University of WA. This was the time of the 1990s recession Australia ‘had to have’ (in the words of the then Treasurer Paul Keating) and, despite having more aptitude for the humanities, I thought science would be a more practical course with more job prospects.

After a year of maths, chemistry and other science subjects, I realised I was in the wrong place and switched to an arts degree in my second year and ended up majoring in English and History. I loved it and studied subjects that were as varied as possible – feminist literature, Chinese history and Australian politics, to name a few.

When I finished my degree, I applied for a job with the WA Newspaper Group and got my first proper job as a cadet journalist at The Narrogin Observer in the WA’s Upper Great Southern region. That was my first taste of agriculture, with Narrogin being a regional town in a reliable farming district. Those were the days when the paper had a full-time editor, senior journalist plus production staff based onsite. It also had a jobbing printing operation. The paper was printed onsite and I used to literally help put the paper together on printing day.

After a couple of years at the Observer, I worked at the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper and that was another interesting experience. There were daily deadlines which did put the pressure on, and my ‘rounds’ were transport, the pastoral industry, tourism, history, plus some court reporting. I also did some sub-editing.

From Kalgoorlie I moved to Dumbleyung which is near where my now husband farms (I met him during my time at Narrogin). I was fortunate to work remotely from Dumbleyung for the ‘Countryman’ and was its grains writer for three and a half years.

After marriage and three children, I stepped back a bit from work but did freelance writing. In 2009, I took up a position with Cox Inall Communications, working for client GRDC as its western region communicator. In 2018, GRDC took its regional communications positions inhouse and I successfully applied for the position I have today.

What was the worst job you’ve ever done, why was it terrible, and more importantly what did you learn from the experience?

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had a job I’ve really hated. One of my jobs during uni breaks was working as a kitchen hand in a busy Bunbury café/restaurant. One thing I learned was that, while being a kitchen hand was okay for a few months, it wasn’t something I would want to do forever. I also learned that being a chef is not so glamorous. It’s a high-pressure job with unsociable hours.

There were many memorable experiences from my journalism days. One of them was reporting on the Narrogin pig sales – what a smell! Other trying experiences were also animal related. Reporting on a goat sale at Northam one day, I found myself wrestling the cardboard pen dockets (containing all their details) from the mouths of the goats that were happily munching on them. Then there was the time I hit a massive kangaroo while driving in the Wheatbelt – totalling the engine and activating the airbag. Being out of mobile range, I hitched a ride to the nearest town with a truck driver.

What do you see as the key/s to being successful in your current position with GRDC?

Focusing squarely on delivering information to growers that is timely, relevant and useful. Also ensuring they are aware where their GRDC levy dollars are being spent and communicating research outcomes that boost their profitability.

It’s important that I work closely with other GRDC staff members and staying abreast of grower, seasonal and industry issues.

Being a partner in our family’s mixed farm helps me to ‘keep it real’ and stay attuned to the needs of growers.

Who do you admire in the grains industry and why?

The grains industry is full of talented and hardworking people, but I admire my husband for his work ethic, long-term outlook and willingness to try new things. Farming is a rewarding but also very demanding job, and he gives it 100 per cent.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Be open to new opportunities and, if you’re in a position to do so, take them up when they arise – even if the timing is not quite right or you have to step outside your comfort zone. I’ve found opportunities can crop up when you least expect them and, if you follow through on them, they can in turn lead to other interesting and rewarding experiences.

Also, follow your interests and keep your options open.

What advice would you give a graduate/student who is keen to join the grains industry.

Don’t be put off by all the jargon and acronyms (jokes)! But seriously, if you’re from outside the industry (as I once was), it can be hard to get to grips with the terminology.

Ask questions and take opportunities to meet and talk with people in the industry. Despite being a big industry dollar-wise, it’s a small industry in that everyone seems to be connected.

Also, get on to Twitter – many growers and other industry people are on there and it’s a good way of staying abreast of what’s going on in the industry. The GRDC has its own Twitter account and I recommend following it.

And sign up to GRDC’s communications materials!