That's the Spirit: Angie Armstrong - Buddabadah
Angie Armstrong is essentially a city girl turned passionate country advocate; a dedicated “foodie” and tourism entrepreneur who, together with fourth generation farmer husband Michael, is developing a tourism hub at Callubri Station, an historic working farming and grazing operation at Buddabadah (between Nyngan and Tottenham) that has been in the family for 140 years.
That’s the Spirit’s JEN COWLEY spent some time at Callubri Station to speak with Angie and her husband Michael.
Jen: What drives you to take on such a big project?
Angie: You reach a stage in your life where you want to do something that matters – what we’re about to do here is quite risky, but I feel passionately about it. I think it can make a real difference and I want to get to the end of my life and feel as though I’ve made a difference, put my stamp on the world.
We’re hoping it will support other rural business women and people in small towns around the region that may not get the through-traffic.
One of the things we’re looking at doing is partnering with other producers who share our ethic and philosophy, and establishing a “producer trail” from Melbourne and Sydney – bringing city folk on an old-school road trip to the bush.
Jen: You’re a city girl who essentially went on the ultimate road trip and never went back. Is there an element of wanting to share the love you’ve found here for the rural lifestyle?
Angie: Exactly! But yes, people are hungry for the real story – not the polished version or end product. I think to be authentic, we need to tell people about the journey and discussing the hardships as well as the wins. It’s about celebrating what you’re doing to get to somewhere, not about where you’re going to be in 10- or 15-years’ time.
I’ve seen people go through life threatening illnesses and suddenly review their life and decide to celebrate the now. I think it’s sad that we tend to wait until we’re really sick or there’s a crisis of some kind before we take stock of what’s really important.
So we’re grabbing the here and now and we’ll roll with it and see where it takes us.
Jen: Apart from the obvious, what did you fall in love with here?
Angie: I battled with it for ten years. I sort of tried hard NOT to fall in love with it here because I knew how challenging it would be but it got me in the end. Now I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
It’s certainly been hard at times, though. I am quite a bubbly person and I bounce off other people’s energy but out here, it’s quite isolated in that regard. It’s a lot more conservative here than I’d been used to and I’m quite gung-ho in many ways. I’m also quite an impatient person, and out here, patience definitely is a virtue.
So defining who I was going to be out here – my identity – was a challenge. When I first met Michael and moved here, I was very aware of establishing my own identity, not just being known as Michael’s wife. Although I called my catering business The Cocky’s Wife, (laughs) I was really aware of finding my own path and not getting stuck in a career that wasn’t me. That can be a bumpy path, and I’ve kind of bounced around a bit to find where I fit, but I’m pretty excited now because I feel like I’ve found my path.
Jen: You’ve talked about making this venture a hub of sorts for women. Is this a consciousness of the value of the sisterhood between regional women, and in particular from small communities?
Angie: There is absolutely a sisterhood, and I finally feel like I have found my tribe after 12 years! In the past I had found it quite a struggle at times. I got myself involved with a few charity balls and things like that but because I’m a bit different and I’m from the city, I often felt I didn’t fit in. It can make it hard to find your foothold when you’re not from the region, and so I’d like to do whatever I can to make that path a little easier for those women that follow.
Marrying into a farm, whether you’re male or female, can be very challenging because you’re often coming into an established business and family, and into a town where everyone already knows everyone. That can be quite a challenge – to find your own thing and be passionate about that thing, particularly in the face of doubt. That’s been hard for me.
Jen: Michael – you spent quite a bit of time living and working away, including abroad. What drew you back here?
Michael: I’m more of the straight-down-the-line, level-headed type of person – Angie has the energy and the ideas and the drive, whereas I’m driven to build and make those ideas happen.
But what really drew me back was that I was in a job in the city, in the UK, that was really uncertain and I just took a look at things and thought, “Who do I want to be working for, for the rest of my life? Where do I really want to be?” And I knew that here, I’d be working for myself and that every ounce of energy I put in here would be for us. Ultimately, the reward here is knowing the outcome of all the work you put in is yours.
Jen: It shows great faith in this region for you both to make such a commitment here.
Angie: It’s not just a case of the lights still being on here in this region, I think there’s still so many lights that haven’t even been lit yet. There’s so much potential here. But it’s a hard path – there’s not a pre-determined formula for success.
We’re both quite excited about the timing of this venture of ours because people are genuinely rediscovering an interest in their food and where it comes from and provenance and getting back to their roots. People are hungry for experiences that are authentic in this day and age where everyone’s attached to their screens.
Now, I go back to the city for a visit and think, “Oh, God – is this what it was like when I left?” because people are just so engrossed in their technology and things that are quite detached. It really surprises me.
So I think there’s a pushback against that and people are really longing for real stories and authenticity and feeling the dirt beneath their boots.
And getting that real experience isn’t that easy these days. Unless you know someone who lives on a farm or someone who knows someone who knows someone.
Michael: I think that’s one of the things that’s really driving us with this venture – knowing that people are hungering for that experience. We have an extensive network of city friends and every time they come out here they’re just blown away and they keep coming back. So we know that yearning is there.
Angie: Yes, when you see it in your own friends and networks it makes it more realistic a goal and makes you think it’s a market you will understand. I came out here 12 years ago, and Michael has often been surprised at the things I find interesting or that I’m fascinated by, but really, it’s just that mine was a fresh pair of eyes.
That’s where we have such a great combination with what we’re doing – Mike has this amazing family history here, and this beautiful property and great knowledge of and passion for the farming side of things. And then I’ve come in with fresh eyes, and I can see how outsiders will see it and see the romance of the bush in it – but I also know they’re still going to want some creature comforts like flushing loos! I think it’s important to have that combination of skills so that you can make sure you give people the right experience.
Jen: Is there still a future for farming and primary production in the region?
Michael: Yes, of course – and more to the point, a profitable future. Certainly the past 15 years have been, on average, profitable so it’s still a very good place to be. Droughts break and they come and go.
Angie: I think you have to be pragmatic or you won’t survive.
Michael: We have a drought every ten years and we have dry spells even in between droughts – it’s a very normal thing here. What’s not normal is the longevity of this particular drought.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions about life on the land and about being part of a small community?
Angie: I think there’s loads of misconceptions and that’s one of the reasons we’re going into this tourism venture – to help dispel some of the myths. Those misconceptions are no-one’s fault, there’s just a big disconnect. And I think part of that is agriculture perhaps not telling the right story, and part of it is consumers trying to understand. If the information isn’t out there, it’s really confusing.
Trying to be a consumer with a social conscience is really difficult these days. You go to the supermarket and you try to buy the “right” things and much of the time you’re not.
A lot of people think rural areas are backward in many ways, and while yes, rural people can be conservative in their views, that’s not necessarily “backward”.
There’s huge opportunity out here and it’s just a matter of being brave and giving it a shot, but at the same time tempering that with a bit of common sense.
Michael: One of the greatest challenges, which is inherent in the system unfortunately, is that as a general rule we get more conservative in our thinking as we age, and again, as a general rule, the farming community tends to be of an older demographic as a whole than the more vocal city people. So we’re almost always on the back foot – we’re in a conservative bracket and hitting up against the brick wall of a younger progressive generation that wants to see greater standards and wants to understand their food. I think that’s where there’s a fundamental disconnect with agriculture and it’s going to take a lot of progression on the part of the industry.
Angie: One of our challenges with opening up to tourism, particularly at this point in time, is looking very carefully at who you bring onto the farm. I’m an idealist and I’d love to have an open gate policy and say, “hey, everyone is welcome” but that’s very risky. In this day and age, social media is our very best friend (when it comes to marketing) but it can also be our very worst enemy. How we control that risk while remaining authentic and true to what we do and how we do it… that’s really hard because I want people to be able to make their own decisions.
Jen: Do you ever feel as though you need to apologise for what you do?
Angie: No, but there’s a lot of explaining. And so much of that is explaining the journey. There’s a of focus on the box ticking that comes at the end of the journey: for instance, are you organic? Are (your sheep) non-mulesed? Are you, do you, have you XYZ? So much of it that’s presented to consumers at the end of the journey is just about that tick-box at the end – we don’t tell the story nearly well enough about why we might still be mulesing or why we’re not organic. There’s still not enough of a connection between city and country.
Jen: Has anyone said to you, with regard to the venture you’re embarking on, “You’re in the middle of a roaring drought - what on earth are you thinking?”
Angie: (Laughs) Oh, plenty of people. In fact, pretty much everyone.
Michael: So we just don’t talk to people (laughs).
Angie: In all seriousness, though, as an industry we could do a lot more to be on the front foot of telling the positive stories and addressing some of the misconceptions. As an industry (primary production) we seem to always be responding to the negative and defending ourselves and you can never make a strong argument from that position. Marketing and advertising and social media are just tools and they’re just as accessible to us as farmers as they are to, say, the animal rights groups. And to give them credit, they use those tools well. We could use them just as well as an industry – we just need to be more on the front foot with telling the positive side and explaining the journey a bit more so that people understand it all better.
I believe that if people see things first-hand and can make up their own minds, that’s coming from a much more solid form of information on which to base an argument than just telling someone something.
When things get hard, you can either go backwards or just get cracking and give it your best shot. That way, you know you’ve at least given it a good go. I never want to die wondering. I look at the older women in my life and they’ve all been able to look back and know they’ve given everything a good shot. I want to do the same. I don’t want to have regrets about things I didn’t do. But time is our biggest enemy out here.
Jen: And yet some people might think you have plenty of it.
Angie: It’s funny because every time I go back to the city, people say, “Oh, you must be loving the country lifestyle – so relaxing and laidback…” Ha! You’ve gotta be kidding!