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”.