Sherrill Stivano was raised on a cattle property north of Roma.
Agriculture is in her blood and it’s an industry she knows and understands intimately.
But while Australian farmers are good at producing healthy, safe food for the nation, Sherrill realised they weren’t so good at communicating what they did and how they did it.
In fact their communication skills with the customers – most of them city-based – was so poor that the work farmers did was being devalued and key decisions affecting the industry were being driven by city-based politicians and lobby groups.
Sherrill, like many cattle farmers, made this realisation during the Live Export Crisis and it prompted a group of producers to launch an online forum for consumers to ask questions direct to farmers.
Ask an Aussie Farmer is conducted via Facebook and Twitter and enables farmers to have a direct voice with customers on everything from livestock handling to the supermarket price wars.
Sherrill is one of the producers behind the effort, which now boasts more than 16,500 online.
She and husband Justin run Bellevue Feedlot near Roma and have the capacity to run 1000 head of cattle at a time and are in the process of expanding.
“It was through Ask an Aussie Farmer that I first gained an awareness of the disconnect between consumers and farmers,” she explains.
“There wasn’t just a disconnect but also a genuine interest from average consumers about their food and where it came from.
“There’s an American statistic which shows that in the 1960s and 1970s, about 70 per cent of the American population had a direct connection to a farm or farming practices. Now 70 per cent of Americans have never been near a farm and I think in Australia you’d find it would be similar.”
Sherrill’s work as an ‘agvocate’ was noticed within her industry and earlier this year she was named Queensland Rural Woman of the Year by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).
The award has encouraged Sherrill to continue on her work to connect city and country and now she’s focused on introducing a single labeling system and assurance program to Australia, in line with the UK’s Red Tractor system.
In the UK locally-produced, accredited products are stamped with a red tractor, making it easy for customers to spot the brands which offer safe, ethically-produced food that supports local jobs. The system also enables customers to trace their food from farm to fork.
“Consumers over there can walk down the aisle and look for the red tractor,” explains Sherrill.
“On social media there’s a #trustthetractor campaign. The red tractor assurance program was founded in 2000 off the back of food security issues with horse meat. It was a way of ensuring farmers were complying with the rules, but also ensured safety for consumers.”
In November the vice chair of Red Tractor UK, Andrew Blenkiron, will visit Australia to speak at forums in Roma and Canberra.
Sherrill hopes the visit will lead to a similar system being developed here.
“I want to see a label developed for Australian farmers and I want greater consumer awareness of how good our farmers are and how many things we have to comply with to ensure we have the best food and fibre in the world,” she says.
“Our consumers trust Australian farmers but they don’t really know why. If we can bring all of Australia’s agricultural industries to the table and have them unified for a single purpose we can become a powerful, united group.”
Read Sherrill’s blog
PADDOCK TO PLATE
Feedlotting: We don’t own the cattle that are in our feedlot. Farmers send their cattle to us for between 70 and 100 days. Most cattle spend about 15 per cent of their lives on feedlots. We’re custom feeders so people consign their cattle to us to feed and fatten before they’re sent to the abattoir.
Weight Gain: The end goal for a lot feeder is to have maximum weight gain with minimum consumption. Your feed is the main component but if your stock aren’t happy and well cared for they’re not going to gain weight.
Markets: The cattle we feed aren’t sold for live export but what happens in live export still affects our business. At the moment beef prices are extremely good. I think it’s related to the national herd size and the lack of supply due to drought.
Lifestyle: I don’t like to hear people saying they choose farming because of the lifestyle. At times I’m effectively a single mother because my husband leaves for work so early. In fact my parents told me to pursue a life off farm because I’d have a better lifestyle. I do love life on the farm though. I love the freedom that comes from having space around and the peace that comes from working with livestock, it’s really therapeutic. There’s also a sense of achievement from what we do.