Life-long learner Linda Wirf explores gender in ag

| Posted Dec 08,2023

Soil CRC PhD student Linda Wirf’s passion for social justice and a desire for life-long learning has guided her on an inspiring journey of discovery.

Linda’s somewhat nomadic childhood exposed her to diverse cultures and landscapes from an early age. Her family picked up stumps every seven years or so, which led to a breadth of experience and a depth of learning only real-world exposure can bring.

“I was born on Kaurna Country in Tarntanyangga (Adelaide, South Australia), then moved with my family to Port Pirie in South Australia, then Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, and then to Darwin at the Top End of Australia, which is where I opted to stay when my family next moved to Tennant Creek in Central Australia,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Linda’s formal education was also quite diverse and disrupted. After finishing Year 12 in Darwin, she travelled around Australia for a while, living an alternative lifestyle.

“I eventually settled back in Darwin where I married and had two children,” she said. “We decided to move into the rural area outside of Darwin—which was mostly natural bush back then—and hand-built various houses from natural materials.”

It was at this time that she discovered spinning and weaving, which she enjoyed so much that she turned it into a career, exhibiting her creations and teaching the craft to others. But Linda’s desire to continue learning led her down yet another path.

“When my children were older, I decided to enrol at Charles Darwin University in an undergraduate degree, and here I am now, nearly twenty years later, doing a PhD at Charles Sturt University,” she enthused.

When asked what inspires her, Linda said she has always been interested in issues around social justice. When she was around six years old, she filled her dolls pram with toys and gave it to a little girl who was living in the migrant hostel down the road, because she thought it unfair that this girl didn’t have any dolls.

“My major work for my Visual Arts Associate Diploma was about empowering older women to reject the social norms and media portrayals of ageing women, long before I was an older woman myself.”

During her time living in Darwin, Linda said she was heavily involved in campaigns around Indigenous people’s rights and found her niche at Charles Darwin University when she enrolled in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies degree, which was based around a social justice framework.

“My Masters research was about empowering Anmatyerre (Central Australia) women’s knowledge in unfair water rights processes that privileged European men’s perspectives. I then worked in a non- government organisation for 10 years which focussed on social justice for marginalised groups in the community.

“One of my key interests in this work was empowering the voices and inclusion of people with lived experience in our programs and projects. Social justice and action for change have always underpinned my world view, along with a love for nature and a commitment to try to live as ecologically sustainably as I can,” she said.

After finishing her Masters studies, Linda said she had no intention of ever doing a PhD. But time passed, and she found herself drawn to academic research again, so she decided to put out feelers for a PhD opportunity.

“I was fortunate to be offered a Soil CRC scholarship and a place at Charles Sturt University,” she said. “My research topic was looking at the role of knowledge sharing in changing agricultural practice.”

Linda is familiar with life on the land. Her mother grew up on and operated a dairy farm, and Linda herself has lived most of her adult life on the land in rural areas.

“I’ve lived among farmers and have seen the environmental impacts of intensive agriculture practices. I’m concerned that this environmental degradation threatens to constrain agriculture practice into the future.

“My approach to my PhD research was shaped by my belief in the need to change agriculture to be more regenerative and environmentally sustainable, and by my belief that women farmers have a key role to play in this transition,” she said.

Linda’s research explores the question ‘How can women’s knowledges contribute to agricultural practice change in Australia?’ She explained that the literature indicates that although women have unique knowledges and perspectives, they are under-represented in agriculture outreach.

“My research is qualitative and aims to provide a deeper understanding of the ways that women and men farmers view agriculture. Through visual analysis of website images, as well as interviews, a focus group, and a World Café, I have been exploring barriers to, and the potential for, including women’s knowledges and perspectives in agriculture in Australia, to facilitate practice change that will support agriculture sustainability in a context of changing weather, soil degradation and increasing complexity.”

Linda found that the women farmers in her study have valuable knowledges and perspectives around agriculture that are different to the men in her study, but the ways that feminine and masculine gender are constructed in rural Australia tend to undervalue women’s knowledges and roles, and create barriers to their participation in agriculture knowledge sharing.

“My thesis argues that reframing the gender hierarchy in agriculture will open a space for including women equally,” she said.

“This research will support a transformation towards more sustainable approaches to agriculture, which will not only benefit farmers directly but will have positive impacts in terms of environmental restoration and climate change mitigation.

“My recommendations for co-creation of knowledge with both women and men will result in a more holistic body of knowledge that can make agriculture resilient into the future. By advocating for transformation in agriculture practice by including women’s knowledges and perspectives, my research will promote innovation and expand the framework for practice change in agriculture.”

Speaking about her PhD experience, Linda said it has been a privilege to be able to focus so intensely on one topic for three years.

“The journey of discovery as my research progressed has been exciting and stimulating. Being connected to, and supported by, an awesome academic community is truly wonderful. I have greatly enjoyed and deeply appreciated the relationship with my supervisors, Professor Catherine Allan, Dr Hanabeth Luke, and Dr Sarina Killam,” she said. 

Linda also credited the support of the Soil CRC, particularly from PhD Program Manager Dr Cassandra Wardle, for helping smooth the path many times along the way.

She said meeting and talking to the farmers who participated in her study was a highlight. “I feel deep respect and gratitude to them, for growing our food, for the struggle that it is in the bad times, for their commitment to a lifestyle that is so constant and demanding. I’m so grateful for them taking time out to be part of my study.”

With her thesis submitted earlier this month, Linda is keen to reconnect with friends and family and will now turn her attention to more ordinary tasks, like restoring her garden and cleaning her house. Along with some less ordinary activities, including honing her juggling skills – something she taught herself when her granddaughter was born and continued to practice as a form of relaxation during her PhD.

As for her research? “I definitely want to communicate the results of my research widely and contribute to ongoing sustainable agriculture practice in Australia, so I’m aiming to write articles based on my research for journal publication,” she said.

We look forward to reading more about Linda’s research soon.

Find out more

Read Linda’s publications:

Visit Linda’s ResearchGate profile