Laura Phelps wandering path
Laura Phelps proves that, far from being detrimental, a wandering career path can open endless opportunities.
Her eclectic musical tastes stretch from indie-folk band Sons of the East to Roy Orbison, so it comes as no surprise that Laura Phelps has followed a similarly unconventional road through agriculture.
This wandering path is a characteristic of the Millennial Generation and, though it is sometimes frowned upon by elders, Laura is proof of its success; combining exposure to developing nations, producer groups, farming organisations and government to establish a well-rounded and exceptional young career.
“I don’t think I really had a choice about having a career in agriculture,” Laura jokes as she reflects on an early childhood immersed in the wide open spaces of Moree in northern New South Wales. “Dad was a vet and then an agronomy consultant and Mum is an animal scientist who had been championing Climate Change risk management research, extension and adoption since the late 80s. The apple didn’t fall far from those trees.”
She remembers the farm at Moree as a place of far horizons and of storms rolling across vast plains to the Great Dividing Range, which was quite a contrast to the fettered world of a quarantine station near Melbourne to which the family moved when she was ten. But change does not daunt Laura; in fact she welcomes it and from each curve in the road she takes new experiences. “I can put a spin on anything,” she laughs” I’m the eternal optimist. It doesn’t matter if something has gone badly; I think: ‘how can we get a win out of it anyway’.”
Living on a five-acre block on the outskirts of Melbourne Laura started her schooling in the city, but her parents recognised and fostered her love of agriculture and she spent the last two years of high school at Ballarat Grammar. “It had a really good agriculture program and a fantastic agriculture teacher in Dr. Ford. He just loved soil and after I got top marks in the state I was off to university to do a Bachelor of Agriculture with honours in soil science.”
While at The University of Sydney Laura’s eyes were opened to the places a career in agriculture could take her. She visited Indonesia and Laos, touring subsistence farms, community farming projects and commercial coffee plantations and educating locals on the safe use of pesticides. “The difference in agriculture was astounding and the relationship that farmers have with the land is a completely different mindset to the one that Australian farmers have. I was struck with the relationship that all people have with agriculture,” she says. “This experience was unforgettable and ignited in me the understanding that no matter the cultural or language barriers, agriculture transcends these barriers.”
From Asia Laura then found herself in the offices of NSW Farmers when she interned for a week of work experience in conjunction with her degree. “They couldn’t get rid of me after that,” she says and she has continued her involvement with the organisation, now sitting on the NSW Young Farmers committee.
With experience already behind her Laura graduated from university in 2013 but struggled to find work.
“Someone once told me: ‘don’t ever turn down your first job because even if you hate it, the best place to apply for another job is while you are actually working’,” she says as she describes how, with a degree in agriculture, she found herself in the Flight Centre Graduate Program. Her optimistic nature allowed her to quickly adapt to her environment and from this curve in the road she learnt valuable sales and communication skills.
Australian Pork Limited picked her up next and she moved to Canberra to her first agricultural job where she talked to producers, manned the national traceability hotline and developed a deep appreciation for the humble pig. When NSW Farmers offered a sponsored position within the Young Farming Champions (YFC) program Laura jumped at the chance to spread the porcine word. “I don’t think they’d ever had a pork YFC. I really love the pork industry and I saw this as a chance to tell more of the pork story; a young person not necessarily a pork farmer but still really excited about it,” she says. And from the YFC Laura took yet more experience and skills, refining her communication and presentation techniques in a program she describes as revolutionary and brilliant.
The next curve in her road saw Laura enter the world of politics and policy as she took a position with the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture, at first in the animal exports team and now in trade working on non-tariff measures. One of Laura’s mentors at the YFC program, Lynne Strong, believes this step is of great significance. “Laura’s career in policy plays a pivotal role for farmers and the community as policy acts as a blueprint for trade negotiations between Australian and other nations. It also sets the standards for environmental stewardship, animal wellbeing and the safety of food from paddock to plate. Good policy means we can effectively regulate and ensure the integrity of Australian agriculture and consumers can be confident their families are getting premium food that is nutritious and affordable,” Lynne says.
“I enjoy what I do,” Laura says. “I quite like living in capital cities if not large regional centres. I quite like having an easy commute to work and working nine to five in an office. I was never going to be an in-field agronomist. I kill plants. I’m not good at looking after them. What really excites me is the stakeholder and communication side of agriculture and to be able get out and talk to farmers and then come back to the office.”
For now it seems this millennial wanderer is settled. In her 26 years she has seen the dry western plains of NSW, the sometimes snowy hills of the Melbourne fringe, the terraced mountains of Indonesia and the rice paddies of Laos. She has worked with farming organisations, with producer groups and gained skills in an industry foreign to agriculture. She sits on committees and works with the Young Farming Champions program, and she makes an annual pilgrimage to Splendour in the Grass to expand those eclectic musical tastes.
And so where does Laura see her career going? “I have absolutely no idea,” she says. “I can see myself staying in trade for quite a while; but will always keep moving and be open to new opportunities. Plans change and there are new adventures. I have no idea what I want to do and I think that’s a good thing because you never say no to anything.” Not even to curves in the road.