Caitlin McConnel was born into a sixth generation farming family that will be celebrating its 180th anniversary in 2021. Founded in 1841, Cressbrook Station in Toogoolawah is a remarkable property that has a deep connection to Australian history and was settled before Queensland was even registered as a State, by her great, great, great grandfather. Now, it is recognised as Queensland’s oldest residence and oldest identified family business, as well as one of the third oldest identified family businesses in Australia.
When you are born into an intergenerational farming family of this stature, you’re born into a high-pressure environment that naturally carries some difficult circumstances. In this episode, Caitlin unpacks the impact that the concessions of the business had on her parents as they navigated through issues like family succession planning, the deregulation of the dairy industry, the millennium Australian drought and ongoing challenge of carrying the weight of responsibility to uphold their family legacy. As a by-product from living and breathing through the stresses that her parents were experiencing, Caitlin had a jarring relationship with the farm from an early age. She had to steer through cloudy territory where she felt both an unrivalled connection and passion for the land, but also a distaste for farming life and the burdens it can bring.
After years of overcoming various adversities, getting life experience, working hard and seeking professional support, Caitlin found her feet again in the agriculture industry and returned to back to her roots on the family farm. Caitlin’s story is an inspiring piece that teaches us the important age-old lesson of listening to our inner voice and speaking up if we don’t feel right.
About Caitlin McConnel
Caitlin is a young woman that has a big smile and contagious warmth. However in her own life, she has faced three bouts of clinical depression and some incredibly low periods. Her mental health struggles occurred from as early as her high school days right up to more recently in her corporate career as a litigator at Australian law firm, Clayton Utz. Outside of her job, Caitlin is a high-achieving agriculturist who has a lot on her plate. She’s the Chair of the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland (RNA) Future Directions Committee, a Director of the RNA Foundation and a Non-Executive Director of the Future Farmers Network. The combination of her busy life, unique childhood, family situation and pressure for success had an enormous impact on Caitlin’s emotional wellbeing and ultimately led to her mental health suffering.
Intergenerational Mental Health
Caitlin’s story is highly compelling because most would assume that being raised in a long-standing family business would provide a solid foundation for a carefree, happy upbringing. However beyond the rich history of the commemorated property were a family who were constantly running an uphill battle and working strenuously hard to manage their business that was regularly in a state of unpredictability. This experience had a deterrent effect on Caitlin’s feelings toward the farm which led her to take time away and explore new areas.
“When I was young I actually had no interest in going home because I could see the difficulties that Mum and Dad were having, the stresses on the relationship and conversely the effect it was having on me as a child and a teenager,” said Caitlin.
Times were undeniably tough for the McConnel family. Caitlin candidly opens up about some of her darkest moments, such as days where she truly believed that her presence was not good enough. Caitlin shared “because of the issues associated with our family’s succession planning over generations, there were actually times when I thought that Mum and Dad would be better off without me around.”
It’s hard to hear, but it just goes to show what level of impact people can experience from the calamities of life on the land. Caitlin highlights how anyone within the agriculture industry tends to be working at such high-pressured levels consistently which can predispose them to the very traits that link to mental illness. This is why it is all the more important to start the conversation, share our stories and check in with our mates.
Caitlin recalls a moment during one of her second rounds of clinical depression where her Dad stepped up to make sure that she was okay. “It was a very powerful moment to actually have Dad, who I'd seen struggling forever to not comprehend really what was going on in his life, to then ask me if I'm okay and actually to tell me that he did want me around. That was pretty powerful,” said Caitlin.
As a high achiever, it was difficult for Caitlin to summon the strength to speak up, however she eventually realised “if I don’t speak, no one else will.”
“I really used that year to also get to know my local community again"
Sense of belonging
Caitlin’s turning point was when she had finished university and decided to go home and spend time on the farm again. As a young adult, Caitlin learnt a lot more about her history and instantly felt re-connected to the property. When talking about the moment her sense of belonging was reignited, Caitlin said she realised the farm was an intrinsic part of her own identity. “You realize that it is as much of a part of you, as you are of it. I realized that it was indeed an integral part of who I am and what I do and why I do it.”
“I really used that year to also get to know my local community again. I took that opportunity to reacquaint myself with the community and people now, who I have a great relationship with and I adore, and they do exceptional things in the area. It was really that year that made me realize that I had to be involved in agriculture and my home and by extension, our community, going forward.”
A common theme for people who grow up in small communities is that innate sense of connection to their land and community. It’s hard to find anything that beats the tight-knit, spirit that exists between families, and also the sense of belonging that always keeps you coming back. It is that sense of community that Caitlin is also grateful to experience at Clayton Utz.
As a result of being involved in two highly different careers, Caitlin has a profound appreciation for the true simplicities of what farm life can bring. “In the corporate world you do tend to get lost in your computer screen. You can get lost from reality. I think going home and building a fence or working in the yard, or just digging in the dirt in the garden brings me back to nature, and brings me back really to what is necessary in life. It makes you think about what you actually need in life, to survive. All I need is a patch of dirt, my beautiful family and my friends around me.”
To listen to the podcast, head to the Humans of Agriculture channel on Apple or Spotify and select Episode 37 “HoA: ‘A career in Law & Farming’ with Caitlin McConnel”.
By Lucy Ziesemer
I’m writing this on Sunday night feeling oddly optimistic.
I know all the ‘be your best self’ gurus would advocate we use the weekend to fill our hypothetical cups instead of draining the more hold-in-your-hand variety, but I’m a realist and know most of you aren’t opposed to the celebratory clink of champagne glasses and beer bottle necks. In my experience and much to my continued dismay (insert eye roll here), Sunday nights are usually wrought with the ick, where the thought of Monday morning sans friends, fun and folklore far from blows your hair back. No matter how much you love your day job, the weekend exists for a reason. Now I’m no TED talk fiend, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised it’s possible and actually quite an organic process to fill both one’s life cup and their beverage cup simultaneously. It’s all down to the people you share “here’s cheers” with, and with my marriage to a Western Man only a couple of months away, I’m now unwrapping deeper layers of what it is to be a woman on the land thanks to snippets of insight shared over beverages of all kinds (Bushells tea, Pimms, a good old fashioned red- you name it) by women who really know the drill.
I’ve always been quite independent and sure of my abilities and direction. Living in the bush, you learn to handle certain things yourself rather than wait days, weeks, maybe even months for perpetually “flat out” professionals to sort it for you. I specify ‘certain things’ because I would rather dig a 4 foot deep long drop in the paddock than go to the toilet with a frog in the bowl. It’s called being resourceful. But as I discovered this weekend, independence is only sustainable with a support network of likeminded individuals lingering in far flung fringes out of sight but certainly not out of mind.
On Saturday, I was introduced to a group of women, some who travelled 700 odd kilometres, to celebrate and welcome me to the “wild western women’s club.” Without exaggeration, I was starstruck. These ladies offered me pearls of wisdom money couldn’t buy about what it takes to stay married to a Western Man. More than “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach...” who knew?!
(N.b- I’ve learned that ‘Western Man’ is actually a proper noun and widely used by long married women residing in rural and remote areas of Queensland, hence the capitalisation.)
While the effort the ladies went to to be there did not escape me, it was clear they truly wouldn’t have been anywhere else. And the big resounding lightbulb moment from all of this, was that women on the land are a force to be reckoned with. In my young life I’ve experienced one significant drought. In theirs they’d endured dozens. They’d surmounted isolation, hardship, and no doubt numerous uphill battles and revelled in joyous victories, small wins and happy days in equal measure. Garth Brooks (up there with Shania Twain in my books) sings a song he dubbed “The River.” It describes life for the ebb and flow that it is, be it rapids roaring and dragging with an invisible undercurrent daring you to lose your balance, or a gentle ripple where a leaf could fall and float undisturbed, peaceful. The western women reminded me that we are unique, multipurpose vessels of strength, hope, humour, love, determination, passion and power. They reinforced the importance of connection in order to combat the oxymoronic feeling of being smothered by so much space. They encouraged things I already knew, like not losing sight of what’s important and using nature as a source of energy- a practice I try to employ daily.
Western Women, and yes they can be a proper noun too, are a breed of their own. Not better than Eastern Women, but maybe different in minuscule ways the naked eye or otherwise concerned wouldn’t recognise. The best metaphor I can conjure is that Western Women are chameleons, equally comfortable serving party pies at tuck shop, on their annual salt and sand craving pilgrimage to the coast, or branding calves and changing the oil in crusty rust bucket Toyotas at home.
I feel honoured to be inducted into the club- it’s a cool one. Honoured and grateful, to the strong woman who raised me, the strong women who’ve featured in my life thus far, and the strong women I now call friends into the future. How lucky we are to live where we live and do what we do- a distant, out of touch dream for so many.
~ So here I am, happy on a Monday morning!
Raised in Hughensville in regional Northern QLD, Sam Fryer is a bloke that had a supportive upbringing, received a good education and is now involved in the operations of his family-owned property. With a wife and two children of his own, Sam’s life seems to look and sound pretty good on paper. As we have discovered, it’s important to dig a little deeper. Beneath the unassuming happy-go-lucky life of Sam, is the story of a man who has faced more life challenges than he can count on one hand.
In this episode, Sam opens up and shares some incredibly heart-wrenching tales that he went through from his childhood, right up to the present day as a devoted dad. Through facing testing hardships like growing up with a sister who had special needs, managing mental health demons, seeing the loss of a close mate, suffering serious injuries and navigating the challenges of family succession planning, Sam has been on a tough and turbulent journey.
One of the reasons that makes Sam’s story so great is how he has chosen to use his life experiences as a catalyst to be more positive and appreciative. Despite all that he has been through, Sam has a profound optimism and zest for life that is simply infectious.
Sam came onto our radar during Movember last year when he was looking for an agriculture related team to support. After a chat, we were immediately blown away by his story and knew it had to be shared with the Humans of Agriculture audience. Sam is a true storyteller who will steal your undivided attention and leave you feeling grateful for the simplest things in life, like your arms and legs.
Following on from last week, if you need someone to talk to or you're worried about a friend or family member you can reach out to the TIACS support line and either text or call them on 0488 846 988.
Disabilities in the bush
An area that is rarely mentioned or given the attention it deserves is disabilities in the bush. Being in a remote location can make things more difficult in terms of barriers like healthcare accessibility and support. Sam's family faced these circumstances head on with his younger sister Alex being born with cerebral palsy. For the Fryer family, that meant regularly taking the 4-hour trip to Townsville for appointments with specialists while still trying to manage the family farm, bring in an income and raise three kids.
For their family and the community, it was a normal and accepted part of their lives as they never knew any different. Sam reflects that the support of neighbours and locals really helped their family manage the challenges. “Where we lived, we had some amazing people just down the road that would come up and help Mum on the place when Dad was away. Without the community around us I don’t know how they would have done it.”
The role of the local community in supporting families just like the Fryers is critical, whether that is checking in, helping with school drop offs or checking water. Sam credits these years as fundamentally shaping him and is passionate about giving back to those around him.
"It's a massive part of who I am and who my parents are. We are involved in a lot in the community and with events, it's one way for us to say thankful for those years when I was younger" he said.
Another topic woven throughout the discussion is around mental health and specifically the role and exposure people working in agriculture and Rural Australia have to it. For an industry where workers can often be isolated and spend time alone, it has become increasingly important for mates to watch out for each other and ask if they’re okay. With Sam connecting with HoA for Movember – it was clear that advocating for mental health was an important issue close to his heart.
Sam reflects that even from a young age, he felt the heavy weight of his life challenges taking a toll on him. “I needed to see someone and needed to talk to someone,” Sam recalls, after his move to boarding school as a young adolescent. “I came from a school of five to a school of 1,500 and I had just lost my best mate. I just wish I had of had someone to talk to during that time.”
Through his very own up and down roller coaster, Sam shares the insight and wisdom he learnt on how to overcome his struggles and help his mates beat theirs too. He is a beacon of knowledge, who really positions you to stop and realise that we all have a part to play in helping those around us and starting conversations.
“It can’t just be a couple times a year that we decide to call our mate and see if they’re okay, it’s all during the year. If you know something’s wrong with your mates you should be able to give them a buzz.”
After seeking professional support and having a network of loved ones, Sam shared that he has reached a really strong point in his life. This is significantly noticeable through the way he speaks and shares his ideas. After a tumultuous set of circumstances, it remains his priority to focus on the positives and be grateful for the little things.
In the podcast, you’ll hear Sam touch on his idea that he actually feels lucky. It’s a powerful moment that highlights how we can give ourselves so much strength through the way we process the bad times. Sam said, “I’m very lucky, I suppose I probably keep saying that but mate I’ve got two legs and I can walk around, and you know I’ve got both my arms still which is pretty lucky on another level. The experience I’ve had has made me the person I am today. I am thankful for that. it changes my view on the world and makes me appreciate everything a bit more because I’m still here.”
To listen to the podcast, head to the Humans of Agriculture channel on Apple or Spotify and select Episode 36 “HoA ‘I’m lucky’ with Sam Fryer”.
By Lucy Ziesemer
How else could I start this post than HAPPY NEW YEAR?! Here in the sticks as beef producers we were largely exempt from the trials and tribulations of the Covid-19 saga and thankfully for us were able to watch the pandemic unfold from afar. Of course, our little towns closed down and our usually sleepy streets went into full blown comas, but when you’re used to the peace and quiet of rural life an exaggeration of that isn’t too hard to cop.
Take nothing away from the small businesses that felt the full force of 2020- our hearts are still with those families doing it tough because we’ve all been there.
We branded the last mob of calves at Taroom this morning and sweat out every last morsel of the silly season- no juice cleanse required! Our biggest mob in both numbers and size, it was a tough slog to end on.. kind of like the way 2020 ended for a lot of people really.
HOWEVER! Let’s be the glass half full types and look back at what went right hey?!
In short, the cattle market skyrocketed and it rained - jackpot!
Still, what I enjoyed seeing most in 2020 was the general public’s brand new appreciation for food! It was as though we were watching the human race awaken from a spell, where Covid-19 forced people to think beyond the fridges of Coles and even beyond the trucks that stock those fridges. Forgive me, but wasn’t it fantastic to see the thought process evolve, see families buying veggie seedlings and planting herbs on their windowsills? People bought chooks! There was a two month wait on laying hens!
Demand for Aussie grown proteins jumped because finally, the luxury of popping to the deli and picking up a pack of t-bones was out of reach and everybody looked up from their phones while grocery shopping to say “hang on, where am I going to get my steak?”
Private, grass roots butcher shops have become as popular as Pizza Hut and we’re seeing Aussies opt for locally grown produce as opposed to imported goods. I can’t explain the joy this brings me.
Australia is an oasis for food production - we truly live in a salad bowl where almost any delicacy can be harvested one day and dished up the next. I’m grateful, truly, for Covid having such a profound effect on Aussie agriculture. I wish it hadn’t taken such a massive kick up the bum to change perspectives but as they say, you gotta do what you gotta do.
To me, this year is like the first page of a new book, or the ‘this book belongs to’ page with a line for you to write your name."
I’ve often wondered what it would cost to make agriculture relatable and had numerous conversations where the general consensus has been “teach them what it’s like to go without.” Statements like these aren’t malicious, but there’s only so many times news stories about food production can be ignored before those in the hypothetical backstage crew start clutching at straws. As it turned out, we didn’t need to go on strike and the hens were free to keep up the good work as consumers saw the world through new eyes organically and of their own accord.
What we need now is to not forget how far we’ve come. It’s so important. We love growing food and we love that shoppers love dining on it. It is an extremely rewarding experience sending a load of prime grass fed steers to slaughter knowing that beef will be enjoyed in ritzy restaurants, first class steak houses, over the counter at surf clubs and hot off the backyard barbeque. To me, this year is like the first page of a new book, or the ‘this book belongs to’ page with a line for you to write your name. When you make your mark on this, the first year of a new decade, don’t just write your name. Make your mark as an active, enlightened consumer of Australian agricultural produce. Buy your groceries with eyes wide open and aim to learn something as you wander the aisles. A fun fact.. lots of fresh produce actually has the name of the farm and its location detailed on the label, which I reckon is pretty cool!
So welcome 2021, you barefaced, clean slate beauty! This year I desperately hope everyone’s veggie gardens thrive, their chooks don’t go clucky and we keep supporting the Aussie farmers who will never let our fellow Australians’ fridges go bare.