Few people have a job role created specifically for them, but for 25-year-old Emma Ayliffe it is a step on what is becoming a fast path to agricultural leadership.
Between low rows of cultivated green bushes in a paddock near Griffith NSW stands agronomist Emma Ayliffe – enthusiasm emanating from her.
“This is the most southern mung bean crop in Australia, which is pretty exciting,” she says.
“We will harvest later and we are hoping for really good results.”
That she stands on the cusp of something new and innovative is common ground for Emma who is taking every opportunity to learn about, and share her love of, agronomy and in particular the cotton industry.
Emma’s journey to this point has been a colourful and sweeping exploration of agriculture.
She grew up tailing wild merinos on station country between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy, has hand-cut rice straw in India, worked in expansive fields of wheat and canola, and farmed the lake beds of Menindee; the last a job that propelled her into the world of cotton and research.
In the 1980s Tandou Limited launched a visionary and ambitious plan to irrigate the outback and grow cotton on the lakebeds near Menindee in western NSW.
“Tandou is an amazing place to see for the first time,” Emma says.
“I remember driving out 140km from Broken Hill for my interview and rounding a bend over a red sand hill to be greeted with fields of green. I had only seen cotton once in my life, so I had no clue about how to grow it, but I got the job, packed up my stuff, moved in to my one bedroom Jayco unit and had my first experience with irrigation and cotton.”
Her job at Tandou was multi-facetted; anything from irrigation scheduling and insect management to community liaison and on-farm trials.
She became secretary of the Menindee and Lower Darling Cotton Growers Association, co-launched a Facebook page called Agro Tales from the Field and began her leadership journey by joining Art4Agriculture’s Young Farming Champions program.
As a Young Farming Champion Emma underwent training to improve and refine her communication skills to advocate for agriculture.
“Cotton is an amazing crop and an amazing industry to be part of,” she says. “Coming from SA – and downstream of the Murray-Darling river system – I grew up hearing many misinformed negatives about it but it’s not until you immerse yourself into this world you truly appreciate how the industry is so open and excited about sharing its story.” Emma, too, began sharing the story as she spoke to school students as part of The Archibull Prize.
“Emma always prepares thoroughly for her school visits, contacting each teacher and getting a clear understanding of where the students are at, what lights their fire and how she can tailor her talk to suit the students’ needs,” Art4Agriculture founder Lynne Strong says.
“She makes a point of ensuring she provides a unique and memorable experience every time she visits a school and you know ten years down the track the students will remember her name and her love for what she does.”
Lynne was not the only person becoming aware of Emma’s emerging talents. Over at Griffith Elders agronomist Heath McWhirter was also watching. Impressed with her design and execution of research projects at Tandou he began to imagine a role to harness those talents, and when the opportunity arose offered her a job designed specifically around her.
“This is a unique role within Elders,” Heath says.
“Half of it is doing research, development and extension and the other half is agronomy. Because Emma is off farm she understands the production side of things in the field, and by doing trials the growers are getting the research done on their farm.
“It also works well for the ag-tech companies because if they get a new product we can straight away send it to our client base. Clients seem to get the uptake of the product quicker because of Emma’s role.
“She’s a self-starter, she’s got plenty of drive to make things happen, she always meets deadlines, and she builds relationships really quickly,” Heath continues. “She basically took on my client base to the east of Griffith and within 2-3 weeks all those guys were confident in her and her ability. She can relate to growers in the field. She is above and beyond my expectations when I started the role.”
Emma is working hard in her new role and enjoying all the challenges it presents, and has continued to pursue other avenues that complement and support her career. She is the sponsorship coordinator for the Southern Valleys Cotton Growers Association, is studying for a Masters Degree in agricultural science, and for the last 18 months has been involved with the Future Cotton Leaders Program.
“It has been a process of learning a lot about myself,” Emma says, “and I love learning and then sharing information. I love being able to go out on farm and help growers to do the best job they possibly can.”
“Emma epitomises the ethos that great leaders inspire others to do what inspires them,” Lynne says.
“She has the pivotal skill of being able to read her audience and adapt to new and different situations and communicate in a way that resonates with the people she is reaching out to.
“She also knows communication is a two-way street and being a good listener and asking questions is vital.
For all the accolades perhaps the most telling of Emma’s leadership potential is back in the office at Elders. “The more work we do the more demand we seem to find,” Heath says.
“We’ve actually got enough work to put another graduate on working under Emma.”
A move into mentoring will not faze Emma Ayliffe – a young lady already a leader in her field.
Image: Emma Ayliffe