Stepping into history as the NFF’s first female president.
The rich black soil of the northern NSW Liverpool Plains, far from the manicured courtyards of Canberra’s Parliament House, is home to Fiona Simson, the first female president of the National Farmers Federation (NFF).
Representing the interests of tens of thousands of people in agriculture throughout Australia, Fiona has deep ties to the bush, and when she is not crisscrossing the countryside to attend high-level talks or community presentations, you will find her running a mixed farming enterprise including broadacre farming and grassfed cattle with her husband Ed and family.
Growing up on a property near Armidale, NSW, Fiona is passionate about a strong and sustainable future for the agricultural industry and for regional and rural communities.
“No matter how well we run our own businesses, the policies that all tiers of government set can have a massive influence on what we do, and it’s so critical that farmers are actively involved in the consultation and policy setting process,” says Fiona.
After finishing school in Armidale, a Rotary exchange scholarship to Denmark boosted Fiona’s confidence and she went on to study at Canberra University.
She landed herself a corporate job in Sydney, and was introduced to her future husband, a fourth-generation farmer on a property about an hour's drive from Gunnedah, NSW.
They fell in love, she says, and were married within 18 months.
"Four hundred and thirty kilometres was too far away," Fiona says, so she went to live on the farm with Ed.
“Life takes you in unexpected directions,” says Fiona, who has been just as surprised by the twists her career has taken. The patchwork of part-time jobs she took while raising two children on the farm including; acting CEO at the Quirindi TAFE, teaching communications, running courses for indigenous women, selling health products, supervising workplace training and chairing the Top Crop educational program, have all contributed to her success.
“It doesn’t look much on the CV but all of it gave me great networks and confidence,” she says.
Even though when Fiona thought work had dried up for her and she would go back to doing yoga and learning bridge, her career of history-making moments was only about to begin.
In 2006, Fiona found her calling during an unlikely move into activism. Friends from her local region of Caroona invited Fiona to help out attending the odd meeting for a proposed coal mine in the Gunnedah Basin. The Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG) was born, and from day one, Fiona was hooked. She couldn’t believe the process for the awarding of mining licencing and how mining trumps agriculture every time. She couldn’t believe how food security was not even considered and that land holders in the community had no right to appeal, object or be told that their land is being put under exploration. She knew she needed to fight for the property rights of land holders and people to produce food.
The Weekend Australian Magazine described Fiona as “an accidental advocate, a home-grown version of US warrior Erin Brockovich without the short skirts and high heels.”
“I’m fighting for things I care about,” she says. “Leaving an industry legacy of a stronger and more sustainable and resilient sector and community is one of the things that drives me.”
The following year, Fiona's passion for local food production and the growth and sustainability of rural and regional Australia led to a career in local government as an elected member of Liverpool Plains Shire Council and her appointment to the NSW Farmers' Executive Council in 2008. In 2011 she became the first female president of NSW Farmers, retaining that position for a full term from 2011 to 2015.
After a career in local government and leadership of NSW Farmers, Fiona stepped into history as the NFF’s first female president in 2016. She previously served the NFF as Vice President for 2 years and as a Director since 2011.
“It is an honour and privilege to represent Australian farmers at the national level and to be elected as the NFF’s first female president. To me, it’s a great acknowledgement that women contribute tremendously on farm, along the value chain and increasingly as thought leaders and public advocates for agriculture,” Fiona said.
Fiona’s presidential role is changing attitudes when it comes to gender.
“It’s interesting talking to other women leaders. Many of us weren’t what we would call passionate feminists, or particularly understanding of the feminist movement. Many of us simply put up our hands and kept pursuing what we wanted, and eventually got there. But, in actual fact, once you get there, you realise how important it is to have women in these positions, and how important what women before us have done. You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Fiona.
When asked who her role models have been, Fiona says she draws on particular women whose attributes she admires including; Wendy Craik (former NFF CEO) for her very informed, understated and down to earth style, Georgie Somerset (a rural industry leader and strategist in QLD) and Sue Middleton (former Rural Woman of the Year) particularly for their ability to network and connect, Catherine Marriott (CEO of Riverine Plains) “a legend” in terms of her passion, authenticity and strength and lastly, younger trailblazers like Fleur Anderson in QLD for her ability to support other women.
“It’s often said, but my advice for women is to follow your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life. Don’t listen to the little imposter voice inside your head, but put your hand up and have a go. Get involved in your community and industry. Work out what you’re good at, and what you need help with and be honest about it. Seek support and help!” she says.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl reading this will see that this is a country of possibilities.”
Fiona has named her shirt ‘Liverpool Plains’ – as she believes it’s her passion for the Plains that has led her to where she is now. We hope the ‘Liverpool Plains’ shirt story will encourage you to put up your hand and keep pursuing what you want to achieve.