Women in grain: bridging differences

Margaret Bridgeford

A pivotal event in Margaret Bridgeford's life occurred when she told a blindfolded, rockface-climbing companion to move his right foot, which seemed a simple and reasonable thing to ask. "I can't," he replied. "If I do, I'll lose my balance."

The event happened in the Kimberley region of WA, on part of the 1998-99 Australian Rural Leadership Course, to which Ms Bridgeford had been sponsored by the GRDC. It was during a highly physical phase of the course, with teams of six challenged to climb a rockface. There was water below, so it wasn't really dangerous, but half the team was required to make the climb blindfolded, relying on their fellows to talk them through the ordeal.

"I considered myself astute and articulate enough to be one of the sighted members of the team and able to explain to the blindfolded man following me what he had to do to make the climb," Ms Bridgeford says.

"But I learned, in that incident, that it really doesn't matter how well I can see something; I also still need to see and understand the other person's perspective."

Ms Bridgeford with husband Bill and their three children live on 2,500-hectare 'Kensington' at Warra, 40 km west of Dalby, on Queensland's Darling Downs. The Bridgeford family company, Kensington Holdings, grows some 1,200 hectares of winter and summer crops each year — irrigated and dryland cotton, sorghum, mungbeans, wheat, barley and chickpeas. Mr Bridgeford's parents founded Australia's first registered feedlot, 'Mungala', which is licensed for 2,000 head.

Life beyond the farm

Ms Bridgeford — with qualifications in psychology and industrial relations — began her involvement with industry organisations in the early 1990s, on the education policy committee of the Queensland Graingrowers Association (subsequently merged into AgForce).

While she accepted education as an important area where she could contribute, she appreciates the broader perspective she has now on AgForce's Successful Enterprises policy committee, looking at related issues like taxation, education, finance and transport.

She also appreciates her work — beginning as foundation chairman — with the AgAware Group, a Queensland DPI-initiated, now independent, schools program aiming to raise awareness of agriculture's relevance to society — economically, environmentally, socially and historically.

When facing somewhat contentious issues, Ms Bridgeford has learned to use the analogy of a river, with people on opposite banks. Each has a view of the opposite river bank, but it's a different one. There's a need for a bridge so that each can cross to see their own river bank from the other's point of view.

"Whether it is the issue of reconciliation, or trees, or water, you end up with people on opposite sides of the river. To develop a mutual understanding, the aim is to be the bridge, allowing people to cross, look back at the other side and see an issue both ways," she says. "I really latched onto that piece of advice, and the bridging role is one I like to use."

"AgAware gets back to the analogy of the bridge across the river, in this case setting out to be the bridge between agriculture and education," she says. "Very early I realised the general Australian population is not exposed to agriculture to the same extent as in other countries, and it is one reason why I began my involvement with education issues.

"Most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard and never gets to drive through farming country. "They do that much more in Europe and America, so that, when there are environmental demands from agriculture, people support them.

"At the same time Australian agriculture can't expect and demand standards for itself that are different from what the rest of society lives under.

"We have to have better understanding of each other's points of view."

While Ms Bridgeford would seem to be busy enough, juggling public area activity with the demands of three children and the financial side of the Bridgeford family business, she doesn't rule out advancement in industry or organisational affairs.

For the moment she's content to contribute at her current level, and says that, while she has never felt any level of discrimination or separatism as a woman, she has never pushed the bounds of acceptance either.

"Occasionally I am asked onto committees because they are looking for gender equity, but — on very good advice — I have learned to accept these invitations as opportunities," she says.

Contact: Ms Margaret Bridgeford 07 4668 5175

Region North