Institute advisory board
member and now adjunct
research associate Cathy
McGowan, AO, is very
much a “voice for the community.”
Her life’s work demonstrates that, as does the fact that she has recently been appointed to the National Rural Research and Development Council (NRRDC), the Government’s key advisory body on rural research and development. “On the Council I’m the voice for communities, and food, and an innovative look at the future of food,” says Cathy. “We’ve got to have food that works for people so we need to think about what it will look like and how can we produce it in a way that works for our communities and our environment. There has been an enormous change in people’s perceptions around food in the last 10 years. I’m very conscious of the fact that Australia knows about the production aspects of commodities but how do we become a leading producer of quality food? I have some very clear ideas about the research agenda, the people agenda, the agriculture agenda and the food agenda.”
Cathy, who has run her own rural consultancy business for 31 years, is the first to admit she is who she is, and does what she does, because of her family background and its influences on her
life. “I am very much a product of an environment,” says Cathy, who, at 55 years of age, is a child of the fifties. Her father was an agricultural scientist from Melbourne who met her mother, who came from a farming background, through the Rutherglen Research Institute in North-East Victoria. The two married and began dairy farming in nearby Indigo Valley where Cathy, one of the eldest of a
large family, grew up.
“My love and interest in agriculture has been there since the very
beginning,” says Cathy who still lives in the Indigo Valley where she
runs a prime lamb enterprise on 40ha that she bought in her late
20s. “Us kids would help out with the milking, looking after the
calves and mum had the luscious vegetable garden and poultry…
we had a very traditional agricultural farming up-bringing. There
was nothing unusual in that. What was unusual was my mum and
dad’s commitment to education.” This commitment stemmed from
Cathy’s paternal grandfather who had fought in the First World War
where he had seen people lose everything. He passed on the belief
that if you had a solid education behind you, you could survive anything
life threw at you. “So it wasn’t just about agriculture, you had
to go and learn about things and keep on learning,” says Cathy. “It
wasn’t just formal learning; it was hands-on, practical learning as
Another family influence was that, to help supplement the farm’s income, Cathy’s father set up an agricultural consultancy business in the early 1960s. By the end of the 1960s the company had international contracts in places such as Argentina, Iran, Kenya and the South Pacific. “Dad would be away for months at a time, sending us letters, which gave me a sense of agriculture in the world,” says
Cathy who went to work on a project in Kenya when she was about 20 years of age. “That just fed my soul.” A third influence, which came from her mother’s side, was a strong sense of community
responsibility. This left Cathy with a love of rural communities and a desire to help them reach their potential and/or make them better.
“Communities are as good as the people in them, so get in there and add,” says Cathy who would go with her dad to landcare, fire brigade meetings etc. After she finished her schooling, Cathy did an
Arts Degree at Monash University majoring in history and economics. While she did some teaching, it was her job as a research assistant for the Federal member for Indi, Ewen Cameron, which gave
her the skills of “community activism” that she uses in her rural consultancy business today i.e. how to work with Government and communities to bring about change. Prior to that she had been one
of the team that worked with the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, State and Federal Governments, to set up the circus’s school as it is today in Albury.
Cathy’s loves of farming and community came together when she did her Masters in Applied Science in Agricultural and Rural Development from the University of Western Sydney at Hawkesbury in
1993. “I learnt about rural development and the art of working with rural communities or community engagement, and I thought this is fantastic; this is what I want to do,” says Cathy. As a way of learning
more about how to farm on her own property, Cathy joined local farm groups and often sought advice from other farming women. This lead to her becoming a key player in the establishment of
Women in Agriculture in 1994. Its inaugural secretary, she has had various roles within the organisation including president in 1998. “There were lots of women looking for opportunities to become more involved in different aspects of agriculture, including leadership,”
says Cathy who, after successfully applying to the Dairy Research and Development Corporation, ran the first women in dairy leadership program in 1995.
Over the following years, she set up further national networks for women in the sugar and horticulture industries; and assisted with programs for women in the grains and cotton industries. Parallel to
this has been Cathy’s involvement with Women in Agriculture at an international level. She was very involved in the first international conference for Women in Agriculture which Australia hosted in Melbourne in 1994; team leader for the 100 Australian women who attended the second conference in Washington, USA, in 1998; and was also very involved in the third conference held in Spain in 2003
which 150 Australian women attended. As a result, she was invited to help set up an Irish Women in Agriculture (from 2003 to 2007), now a very active group. Since 2006 she has been helping establish
Women in Agriculture in Papua New Guinea which is going “really, really well.”
Cathy enjoys being self-employed, running her own business from home and combining that with farming. “I’ve met lots of other women who have married into agriculture with really diverse skills
and I thought wouldn’t it be great if we could network together, get contracts together and invest in rural Australia. So, rather than just being adjuncts to agriculture, we could really add to agriculture in
Australia,” says Cathy. With that goal in mind last year she, with two other women, obtained funding from Horticulture Australia to run a pilot training program for women who wanted to set up home based businesses that brokered skills and training in their local communities.
The outcome of that is a series of workshops Cathy and three other women are currently running in Beechworth with funding from the Commonwealth Government’s Women’s Leadership Program
for women on setting up farm-based businesses. “I’d really love to run that program right around Australia,” says Cathy.
As well as her recent three year appointment to NRRDC (which is charged with developing a national funding plan for research and development in Australia) Cathy is on the WAW Credit Union Board and chair of Catholic Education Wodonga. And then there’s her association with Charles Sturt University. An inaugural advisory board member for one of the Institute’s predecessors, the Centre for Rural Social Research, now, as an Institute adjunct research associate Cathy says there are opportunities for others in the Institute to link up with her for special projects where her networking skills would be useful. “I’m really interested in the way the research done by the Institute plays out on the ground, how it can benefit regional communities,” says Cathy. The best way to reach Cathy is by email on firstname.lastname@example.org