The opportunities Sharna Holman received as part of her high school education led this city girl to a career in agriculture.

“Growing up I had aspirations of being a vet – I’d kept cats, dogs, birds, goldfish and even hermit crabs as pets – and my dreams were straight out of Saddle Club,” Sharna Holman laughs as she reflects on her journey from Sydney, New South Wales to Emerald, Queensland. Sharna came from a family unfamiliar with agriculture but through her secondary education at Muirfield High School she became involved with farms, the Sydney Royal Easter Show and The Archibull Prize – all three contributing to her transition from urban schoolgirl to extension officer with the cotton industry.

With an interest in all animals, even hermit crabs, Sharna chose agriculture as an elective at high school. “The school had a four hectare farm which allowed us to have cattle, sheep, alpacas, pigs, chickens, beehives, and of course the obligatory vegetable patches, but I soon found I loved learning more about the links between farming and food, and all about agricultural production,” she says.

School agricultural camps to Camden and Bathurst further opened her eyes as she gained hands-on exposure to the industry; learning about issues such as erosion, livestock sales and animal husbandry and health. And she took this world home to the city. “Agriculture is a bit of a foreign world to my family but my parents really liked that I was studying agriculture because it was something I came home from school so excited about,” she says. “They were happy I was following something I was radiant about – all I could talk about was ag.”

Through Muirfield Sharna became involved with the Sydney Royal Easter Show as the school participated in the Junior District Exhibits. For three years she was part of a team, including art and technology students, who designed and orchestrated the vivid displays, telling agriculture’s story and prompting audience discussions around the importance of farmers and farms.

She also read about the antics of Sydney Show volunteers and signed up to lend her hand. “Everyone you talked to at the show had a story to tell and they were all so different and interesting. The thing that resonated for me was that everyone loved what they did and they were living a life that made a real difference,” she says. “The Sydney Royal Easter Show is where, as a city girl, I could go and see the work of our farmers and know they don’t stop working once the show is over. The Sydney Royal Easter Show gives them an opportunity to be proud of the work they have done over the past year, and proud of everyone, in all parts of the agricultural industry.”

The Archibull Prize was the third avenue directing Sharna’s future choice of career. 2011 was only the second year of the competition and using Australian icons and social media to bridge the rural and urban communication gap the school created “Cowlie Moonogue” – an Archie representing the beef and meat industries. So inspired was Sharna by The Archibull Prize that even after leaving high school she returned to Muirfield to mentor students and aid them in garnishing their life-sized fibreglass cow.

By now this city girl was entranced with Australian agriculture and she commenced a Bachelor of Science (Agriculture) at Sydney University to give herself even more exposure to the many and varied aspects of the sector. In 2014 Sharna was awarded a Cotton Australia scholarship and, despite not having laid eyes on a cotton plant, attended the 17th Australian Cotton Conference on the Gold Coast and embarked upon an honours project at Narrabri studying the pest helicoverpa moth with the Australian Cotton Research Institute. From there it was a short step to Emerald.

“As an extension officer with Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and with Cottoninfo, which is the cotton industry’s extension program, I help growers connect with current information and research,” Sharna says. “I work with researchers on trials, compile factsheets – for example on disease or biosecurity, organise and facilitate workshops and meetings and anything that assists with the wider goal of driving practice change. And I’m absolutely loving it.”

At 23 Sharna has completed the first twelve months of her agricultural career and is already keen for others to follow in her footsteps. While she has missed the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 2017 she is now involved in the local Emerald Show and in 2016 she became a Young Farming Champion with Art4Agriculture. “The YFC workshops have really helped me professionally, especially in the extension side of my work, allowing me to speak confidently to a wide range of people,” she says and as a YFC Sharna went to Brisbane’s Moreton Downs State School to talk to students about cotton as part of The Archibull Prize.

“I believe anyone can find a role within the agricultural industry, whether that be within research, business, marketing, farm management, mechanics or even robotics – there are so many different career paths,” Sharna says. “However for someone without an agricultural background, often agriculture is misunderstood and people only see the surface. Opportunities like participating in events (or volunteering) at agricultural shows and the Art4Agriculture’s Archibull Prize allow you to get a hands-on view and see the exciting agriculture sector I see – with boundless cutting edge career opportunities.”

This story was first published in Leading Agriculture Issue 23.

Featured image: Sharna Holman