That's the Spirit: Camilla Herbig - Collie NSW

By her own admission, Collie’s Camilla Herbig has an “extensive hat collection”, wearing many professional and community caps at any given point in time. She works in rural mental health, is a founding member of Collie’s evening CWA branch, a former Royal Agricultural Society Showgirl, a Rural Young Woman of the Year finalist, a farmer and a staunch advocate for the wellbeing of rural communities. Being involved in a number of state- and region-wide organisations and voluntary activities has given the born-and-bred local a voice and she’s not afraid to use it in the pursuit of a stronger future for regional Australia. That’s the Spirit’s Jen Cowley managed to get Camilla to sit still long enough for a chat about what drives her faith in small communities. 

Jen: You’re a born-and-bred local, one of the driving forces behind the newly formed Collie evening branch of the CWA (Country Women’s Association), a former Royal Agricultural Society Showgirl and you were also one of the finalists in the 2018-2019 Rural Young Woman of the Year and you’re part of a family farming operation…so you wear a few hats.

Camilla: An extensive hat collection (laughs)! I grew up on a farm at Mendooran then our family moved to Gilgandra. I went to school and uni in Sydney but moved home (to the district) in 2011. I married a farmer at Collie – that’s what brought me out here.

Jen: So your roots and your heart are here in the regional areas – and you work in rural mental health support, so you really are embedded regionally. Tell me what was the driving force behind getting Collie CWA evening branch up and running?

Camilla: The Collie CWA evening branch came about because a couple of local women recognised there had been so many young women coming into the area and there wasn’t anything else to force us to get together other than catching up at the pub – which we do very, very well (laughs)! – but I think it’s nice to have something more structured. Our inaugural President, Prue Freeth, was the driving force to establishing the branch, and the CWA has provided an opportunity for all the young women in the region to get together in a bit more of a structured but still relaxed format.

It’s provided a really good forum to get together. For the mums who have new bubs, they know that Thursday evening once a month is when the husband is going to look after the kids and they get to come into Collie with a bottle of wine and a cheese platter to just have time to themselves with other women and the evening is not about the kids. They’ve all said that’s been really good.

I think the landscape of Collie has certainly changed over the past nine years that I’ve been there. Back when my (now) husband and I first got together, I was pretty much the only female in the pub. I’d sit there next to the boys talking about machinery and almost rote learning what kind of tractor and planter we have. I really didn’t care but I just sat there anyway (laughs)! Now it has completely shifted to having a girls’ table and we have our prosecco and rosé in the fridge and really, really strong female companionship and camaraderie.

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Camilla Herbig, Collie NSW

Jen: The CWA has a long history of being an agency of change in rural Australia – is there an element of combining that social aspect with the community service part of things as well?

Camilla: The social component has been the initial and driving force, but there has certainly been a push in the community aspect and I think the drought certainly highlighted and strengthened that. The CWA has been a pretty important key in helping to coordinate social events for the community to improve social connection – it was pivotal with the distribution of hampers, gift cards, cash and information during the drought as well.

Previously, getting information out within the Collie community about those sorts of things was pretty disjointed. Now, through the CWA, it’s a bit more coordinated and you know what’s coming into the town, what’s needed, where are the gaps, and everyone is working together to try to meet those needs. We work in conjunction with the CWA day branch as well, which is important for us all.

Jen: I imagine you’ve borrowed and built on a lot of the intellectual capital that has been established within the day branch of the CWA, and with the history of the organisation in the region.  

Camilla: We do, and they’ve been really supportive of the formation of the evening branch. I don’t think we would be where we are without them – we’d just be a group of women who catch up for wine for no real purpose (laughs). Helen Murray, the secretary of the day branch, has been instrumental in helping us, particularly to link us into CWA at that broader level and make sure we have the right governance structures and that we understand what’s possible. We’ve had someone come and help run us through the things we really need to be doing and making sure we’re functioning at the level CWA need us to be, while still maintaining the social aspect and making sure our members are getting out of it what they’re needing at a personal level.

Jen: It must be nice for the members of the older contingent of CWA to feel their legacy and work is being continued. That mentoring is important.

Camilla: It’s been good. Making it an evening branch has probably helped in that respect because it demonstrates that while we’re all part of the overarching CWA, we are very different – we’re not trying to push out the older generation but we just physically cannot join them. They meet for morning tea on a weekday – I don’t think there is anyone in our evening branch who could logistically do that because we work or we have young kids so making an evening branch has helped to separate the two but certainly still continue the legacy. Things like holding our Christmas party and making sure we invite the day branch members and when you see them come along to our events, which are very different from the events they host, you can see they get quite excited about the community coming back together.

Jen: The example of the way in which the CWA has evolved – is that evolution something you see happening in other organisations and across regional communities in general? Is it the new face of small communities in regional Australia?

Camilla:  I think it might be, particularly for women. Gone are the days where you married a farmer and you sat on the farm for the rest of your life looking after kids and packing lunches. Most of the women, particularly in our community, once they’ve had kids they’re straight back in the workforce or they have their own businesses, they have so many things happening. I think the ability for organisations like the CWA to change and evolve, whether it’s having evening meetings or weekend meetings or virtual meetings or whatever it might be, has been really beneficial.

We’re moving away from some aspects of what the CWA traditionally is in terms of cooking classes and handicraft and those sorts of things, but we can make a mean cheese platter and we’re connoisseurs of red wine and prosecco (laughs) – it’s nice that we can maintain traditions but evolve, and you certainly see that in other areas of the community.

In my role with show societies, we’re certainly seeing that – any show committee that thinks it can stay with 100 per cent tradition and just keep doing things the way they have always been done is completely kidding itself. At a local, state, national and international level that’s been recognised. We need to maintain traditions and understand why we have shows and why they are valuable to our regional communities, and work out how that looks in a new evolving landscape. How do we build in technology? How do we bring in young people? How do we diversify our meetings and what’s our community wanting from our event? It can’t just be simply about showing produce anymore. It must now also be about how we actually teach people about the produce and bring them in for the social component. It’s as much about education as just being a showcase. I think that evolution is important. You can see that anyone who is resistant to this evolution isn’t going ahead too well. You can extrapolate that across communities as a whole, the idea that small rural communities need to evolve and change the way they do things in order to survive.

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Camilla Herbig, Collie NSW

Jen: You step up into a number of different roles in the community and at a regional and wider level. What drives you to do this and what do you gain from it personally?

Camilla: It’s an interesting thing to ponder. We had a state-wide team meeting (for work) recently, and a lady came to talk to us about compassion fatigue and other challenges we’re likely to experience in our roles (in mental health support).

One activity she asked us to do was to define our “why”.

We all tend to think, “Oh yeah, I know why I do things”, and my motivation is to do with the greater good and the fact that everyone has the capacity to be more, so if we can contribute to that, it’s really fulfilling for other people but also for me.

The exercise really got us to flesh it out and it was quite an emotive experience. My motivation for doing what I do both with work and in volunteer roles comes down to the fact that I like to contribute, not just to the community but to other individuals to helping them to expand their knowledge or skillset or confidence. We all have the right to that opportunity.

I don’t want to just be sitting on a committee for the sake of sitting on a committee. If that’s what it looks like, then there’s a good chance I’ll say, “See you later!”, but if I can see that my involvement is going to have a genuine and positive impact to the organisation itself and its future operations and the individuals within it, I’m more than willing to put in 110 per cent in to actually achieve that goal.

Whether it’s using my governance and meeting experience with helping to form the (Collie evening) CWA branch so we can be a progressive and well-functioning committee, or using my contacts and knowledge from work to help inform social connectedness or how to access cash to run an event… the motivation is the same.

I’m also involved with the Agricultural Societies Council of NSW Next Generation Committee, which is essentially the youth group of NSW shows with a state-wide reach across NSW. I’m one of three Vice Presidents and I have quite a “behind the scenes” role.

I’m not out there beating our drum and going to events and doing talks, but I’m doing a lot of behind the scenes work like writing our induction manual and position descriptions, helping with supporting the president on certain issues, and assisting with decision making and keeping everyone informed.  

I enjoy doing that sort of thing and I enjoy then seeing the success of other individuals, such as mentoring showgirls. I love seeing a showgirl get up and make a speech, and seeing how her confidence has flourished and for her to become so much more through the experience. I find that really fulfilling.

Jen: Acknowledging that you were nominated and became a finalist in the NSW Young Woman of the Year awards for 2019 – it seems you are really ensuring that regional Australia achieves and maintains a strong voice. Do you believe that?

Camilla: I think it’s crucial that we have that voice. We have so much potential and so many people out here with so much give, and I don’t think location or distance is really an excuse or a barrier anymore, not to the degree it once was.

We were talking previously about the impact of the Coronavirus and one potential, if unintended, positive consequence of it is going to be demonstrating the capacity of our remote workforce and how you don’t need to be sitting in the city, whether it be Dubbo or Sydney, to have a contributing role in a workplace or community group or cause.

You can be anywhere, given access to technology, and I think that rings true for our rural community. There are some phenomenal people out here, and if we can really support them, both in terms of building their skills but also their confidence and their voice, rural NSW and rural Australia is going to continue to be phenomenal.

I think we can help bring a bit of balance and reality to the misconceptions that can fester in the city sometimes. We need level-headed, strong voices to advocate for our community so it’s not left to social media to tell our stories.

Jen: You work in the rural mental health, particularly in adversity, and you are also a farmer and a long-term local, so you’ve seen the challenges that come and go. What do you think are some of the myths about regional Australia, and particularly life in small communities, that need to be challenged?

Camilla: I think the image of regional people to start with. We know farmers aren’t just the 50- to 60-year-old male in the bib-and-brace overalls with straw hanging out of their mouth. There are blokes in their 20s flying drones and using technology, and you have women at the forefront of the industry at well. The stereotype of agriculture being a farmer ploughing his field is not correct. There are so many other people who contribute to regional Australia and have a role to play in both ag itself but also the rural community.

Creating a bit of clearer story about what our rural community is, is really important – Coonamble’s Jill Kelly is a great example of that. Traditionally you’d think that a vet is an older middle-aged bloke – but here you have this phenomenal young woman who does post-mortems by day and paints watercolours and wears glitter and tulle by night. She’s breaking stereotypes but is connecting really well with her community. She’s not some crazy outcast – people really love and value her. I think we’re becoming a lot more open-minded and accepting to the reality that we’re so diverse and we don’t need to be pigeon-holed.

Jen: Why do you love where you live?


Camilla: The community – 110 per cent. The people are just warm and friendly. I absolutely love going into town (Gilgandra), walking down the street and knowing at least 50 per cent of the people who walk past – going into the supermarket and catching up with someone, going into the butcher. A quick trip to town for groceries can be a day-long expedition because of the conversations. A lot of people would probably see that as a nightmare but I just love that part. Having those connections and people genuinely caring for one another is not a tokenistic thing and it’s not about thinking, “How can I leverage this connection?”, or how you can use it, it’s about genuine connection. It’s the same as sitting at the pub – you have the farmers and the teachers and the nurses and someone who works in the corporate world and someone who works in the media, but when you’re sitting there, everyone’s an equal.

The connection is real and that’s not prominent in the city. For instance, when I was at uni, things were much more segregated into your work friends or your uni friends. Groups in the city don’t mix too well, whereas out here, if you’re not willing to mix you’re probably pretty alone, and even across age groups as well.

Jen: Why do you have faith in rural and small communities and in the future of regional Australia?


Camilla: I guess I’ve not been on this earth for that long, so I don’t know what things used to be like back in the day, but my perception is that people are willing to back their community. They’ll go, “Actually, we’re not willing to settle for second best.”

If you look at health services, people are willing to go in to fight for their local doctor or nurse. They get a real fire in their belly. They think, “We don’t deserve second best and we aren’t second best, so treat us like an equal” and that drives them. I think that’s really nice to see.

You can see that fire being stoked and when people use it for good, they rally around one another whether it’s because of personal disaster or adversity, or natural disaster or drought – in rural communities you see people band together and support one another and network and become stronger, whereas in some other areas, you see it become really divisive and people start to feel very alone.

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2015 Dubbo Showgirl, Camilla Herbig. Photo by Steve Cowley.

Jen: So the flames of that fire in the belly for small communities are actually fanned by adversity – in a perverse way it makes them stronger?

Camilla: I think so, and with things like drought, you’ve certainly seen it chip away at people in a really negative, insidious, horrendous way, but through that communities build so much more. For instance, the dust storms – oh my gosh – I think that was enough to break anyone, and that would be a topic of conversation in our social groups. I vividly remember a conversation with someone just before Christmas about which dust storm broke you, and it went like this:

“Oh remember that really thick one that came in on a Sunday and it rolled through, sending the sky dark and I had just finished mopping and the floor was still we and the dust came through and just stuck to the wet mopped floor… and that’s what broke me.”  

And then someone else said, “Oh well no, I was fine with that one, but the one that broke me was when I had just come back from being away on the coast, coming home to find the house a complete mess…”

So people were just feeling at their wit’s end and it was absolutely horrendous. This disgusting, insidious, horrid experience was shared and brought people closer together, and gave us a bit of a mentality of “bugger it – we can get through anything”.

Ideas started coming up about when the dust storms were all over, we should start having a cleaning roster and get six of us together and go to each other’s houses – that it didn’t matter what your place looked like, we’d just get in and do a deep clean and remove the bush glitter… then next we’d go to someone else’s house and so on.

The point is, you don’t often see rural people sitting there going, “Oh woe is me, someone come save me” – It’s more like, “Right, this is ridiculous – what are we going to do about it?”.

NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020. ​​

Click here to order a copy of the 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book.