Next generation

The 2021 Young Farmer of the Year Emma Ayliffe is an inspirational advocate for agriculture.

Story Mandy McKeesick | Photos Grace Dillon

Hair pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail under a once-white hat, dirt smeared across a face adorned with a habitual smile, Emma Ayliffe strides down a row of cotton bushes near Griffith in southern NSW. She shakes hands in a way that leaves no doubt this is a fair-dinkum country girl. But don’t pigeonhole her. At 30 Emma is a successful business owner, a nationally recognised agronomist, a farm owner, an in-demand public speaker and a role model to a cohort of young people looking to follow her into agriculture.

In 2017/2018 she was named runner-up in crop protection company ADAMA’s nationwide recognition of young agronomists, and last year was named Kondinin Group’s Young Australian Farmer of the Year. 'I think there is a generic mindset that the farmer is the guy in the paddock with the big hat who drives a LandCruiser his Dad bought him,' Emma says. 'Winning this award shows you don’t have to fit that mould.'

Emma’s childhood was spent tailing Merinos on rangeland stations between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy, SA. On leaving university with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science, she began her agronomy career on Tandou Limited’s irrigated cotton project on the Menindee (NSW) lakebeds, learning her craft, volunteering her time with industry bodies and developing a love for research.

In 2016 she was headhunted by Elders agronomist Heath McWhirter and the partnership was so successful that the duo branched out on their own, founding agricultural consultancy Summit Ag in 2017. 'Em’s a workhorse. She doesn’t stop,' Heath says. 'She’s good at communicating with groups and is particularly good at talking with young people and especially girls [who want to be part of agriculture]. I think some of the older farmers still find it challenging to have a young female agronomist, because her energy level is always high and she wants to get things done 110%, but once they understand her and realise she has the experience and knows what she is talking about, they get on well. She pushes them pretty hard and brings new ideas, which is what they’re paying for.'

In order to fast-track her career, Emma sought professional development early with Action4Agriculture’s Young Farming Champions program. 'YFC gave me the skills to articulate my story – skills you’re not going to get sitting in a paddock all day,' she says. 'The program pushed me out of my comfort zone, connected me with people and resources, and taught me to pick my battles.'