Karyn Cassar and Carissa Wolfe operate a commercial dairy farm at Hannam Vale on the Mid North Coast
The pair say they don’t know of any other lesbian couple running a commercial dairy in the world
While they feel accepted by their local community, they say there’s been some challenges
That’s not the only thing that makes this female-farming duo unique, they are also openly gay and have been so for 21 years.
“We don’t know any other female couples that run a commercial dairy operation in the world,” Carissa said.
After living in metropolitan areas for several years, the pair relocated to start Benmar Farm seven years ago.
“It’s definitely more isolated in rural Australia as a gay couple,” Carissa said.
“There’s just not the same community here that there was when we lived in the city, a lot of our friends in the city were also gay.”
Nonetheless, the community of Hannam Vale has embraced the pair with open arms.
The country town is home to several intergenerational families of the original settlers of the valley and in more recent years, has become a popular spot for both Sydneysiders to retire and young families interested in regenerative farming to reside.
“It is a very open community and we do feel very supported by the community of Hannam Vale,” Karyn said.
Being different can be difficult
The biggest challenge the couple face as female farmers is people’s confusion surrounding gender roles on the farm, not their same-sex relationship.
“Just as female farmers we are always questioned,” Karyn said.
“[People have said] ‘well how are you going to lift fence posts?'”
The pair say they were once asked if they owned a quad bike, which they didn’t at the time, and felt it implied they were not capable of running the farm without one.
But that certainly isn’t the case at Benmar Farm, where the pair manage 130 heifers and produce 7,000 litres of milk each week for their local community.
“We get it done, as women we just have to work smarter, not harder,” Karyn said.
The couple doesn’t shy away from questions about their relationship.
“We’ve had someone say to Karyn, you can’t be gay [because] you shave your legs and have long hair,” Carissa said.
“It really doesn’t matter if it’s a silly question or a silly statement or an uneducated statement, the fact that person was even willing to be open about that conversation is better than avoiding it like an elephant in the room.”
Being female benefits the business
Carissa and Karyn believe as women they approach farming differently and that they incorporate a range of different skills and experiences they’ve gained from previous jobs.
“I think being a female-only managed farm, we definitely bring a different perspective to the way that we farm and different techniques,” Carissa said.
“In terms of the animal engagement, there’s a different interaction with the cows.
“With my background as a mum, but also a lactation consultant and as a doula, those are all things that come into the way that I interact with the cows knowing that they’re also a lactating mammal that’s gestating and having babies and all part of that cycle.”
Their philosophy is to care for and nurture their animals like individuals, treating their milk like a reciprocal gift.
Business and life partners
Working with a significant other can be dangerous territory for anyone, but Carissa says she’s hit the jackpot with Karyn as they are “in step with each other.”
“As business partners and you know life partners, I think we’re really fortunate in the fact that we make a really, really great team,” she said.
While Karyn enjoys the physical aspects of farming like managing cattle and driving the tractor, Carissa’s passion is in animal health and she draws on her accounting background for the business.
“We have strengths that complement each other and works for the business,” Carissa said.
“We are definitely both more outdoor-minded and activity minded and it’s a standing joke that we need a housewife.”
Connection with female farming community
While the LGBTQI+ community presence is scarce on the Mid North Coast, the pair have do not feel alienated.
“We have friends, but they are predominantly hetero couples,” Karyn said.
“While we don’t have that kind of [LGBTQI+] community around us, we’re definitely not isolated because we’ve found our tribe both in our personal friendships and with our local Women in Dairy group,” Carissa said.
The group connects females who are associated with a farm in one way or another, they are people Karyn and Carissa can relate to.
“Some of them drive tractors, some of them are involved in the paperwork but they are all engaged in their farm operation, so that means we have a real commonality as women who are farming,” Karyn said.
“We are very fortunate to have amazing friends in this group, but it would be nice to speak to other [lesbian farmers] that understand what we go through.
“So if you’re a lesbian farmer out there it’d cool to catch up.”