THE SILVER WOMEN INTERVIEW: Meet Patrice Newell - Organic Farmer-Author- Climate Warrior Dr. Patrice Newell has experienced many different careers - fashion model, journalist, and TV presenter. At the age of 30, she bought a farm, moved to the country, and became a farmer/land manager. Farm life sparked her dedication and advocacy for sustainable farming, and for the past 33 years, this has been her great passion.
Organic Farmer / Author / Climate Warrior
– as told to The Silver Women
WOMEN WHO INSPIRED YOU AS A YOUNG GIRL?
Firstly, my mother Thelma who adopted me with Felix when I was 3 months old. Thelma was a lover of books, especially poetry, hard-working, never complaining, tolerant and kind.
Other women of inspiration were local too. My ballet teacher – who’d been overseas. No one in our circle had and that seemed very glamorous. I didn’t meet what we call today ‘career women’ until I was 13, after being coerced into doing a deportment course. Music lessons and my talented piano teacher was important. I often think it was her that led me to Nina Simone. Hearing her play piano and sing for the first time was an amazement. Tough stories with her strong voice entered my world and I’ve been listening ever since. Seeing her sing in New York in 1980 remains one of the best concerts ever. In Adelaide, where I grew up, we were very proud of our female historical figures – the South Australian Women’s Suffragette League and the work they did to get ALL women the vote. We girls felt sure we could be world leaders even though we were born in Adelaide.
One of the greatest changes in my life came when I was thinking of writing a book on adoption only to discover that my birth mother was an Aboriginal woman who’d lived and died in tragic circumstances. I never had a chance to meet her. Being greatly helped by reuniting with my extended Indigenous family – and their 60,000 years of Aboriginal culture and history has been a story of infinite wonderment getting to know my many relatives especially Libby Clarke, and Bernice Clarke still living on Gunditjmara country. Visiting Budj Bim and standing by ancient stone houses now a UNESCO world heritage site where the eel/fish traps designed thousands of years ago across the landscape prove Aboriginal water management was sophisticated. Although I didn’t grow up identifying as Aboriginal, I feel my Aboriginal DNA has always been very active and may explain why moving to a farm felt like a deeply comforting hug. As if I could finally breathe.
WOMEN WHO INSPIRE YOU NOW?
Usually, it’s the women who are working quietly and thoughtfully in communities everywhere to make the world a safer and kinder place.
These women are leaders in their homes and communities There are thousands of them. I honour them all.
MOST VALUABLE LESSON TAUGHT BY YOUR MOTHER?
Never worry about mean things people say to you.
HAVE YOU MADE CAREER CHANGES OVER THE YEARS?
I’ve made so many changes and changes have made me. From a teenage model in Adelaide to working in New York. Doing a segue to TV researcher, then to a news reader on public television, to co-hosting The Today Show on national commercial TV. Suddenly I’m a farmer – caring for a 4,000-hectare property – and begin my series of books on organic agriculture and the threat of climate change. (In 2007, I even created a fully-fledged political party to contest state and federal elections– the Climate Change Coalition. Alas, none of us were elected). New farming ventures with olive and garlic crops and pioneering online selling of our farm produce. Motherhood. Well, career changes don’t come bigger than that. Finishing a PhD.
Getting the first TV commercial felt epic for a 16-year-old. Reading the news on National Television felt like I’d become a completely different person. Finishing the Ph.D.( A strategic assessment of the potential for a new pyrolysis industry in the Hunter Valley.) and sending it off for examination was a massive intellectual hurdle, even better than receiving the good news that it had passed.
Everything I’ve ever done is connected, even if modeling and bioenergy don’t appear to be.
“Life should be full of career changes.
Forever and ever.
I feel for young people today saying I don’t know what I really want to do…
you don’t have to, life’s a surprise,
go with the flow and the feelings of the day.
THROUGH MY DECADES!
After the deportment course at 13 the unexpected outcome was the start of a modeling career. Back then, modeling wasn’t a life-long career. It was all meant to end at 18, after finishing high school. I’d been accepted to be a trainee nurse at Darwin Hospital. My bags were packed, said my goodbyes, but on Christmas day 1974 Cyclone Tracey flattened the town, including the hospital. My traineeship was canceled. While I waited to be reassigned, I did a few more modeling jobs and was asked by an agent to move to Sydney. Suddenly nursing was left behind. Modeling then took me to New York, which opened up other options, even being an Extra in daytime TV dramas. These were good cash cows when work was slow. By that time, I started to work on a novel and began to play around with the idea of writing professionally.
I came back to Australia for family reasons, and I knew I was over being a clothes horse. A couple of years at University doing an arts degree and freelance writing lead to becoming a researcher at Channel 7, then reporter, newsreader, co-host of The Today Show.
A lot happened in 1986 while doing The Today Show. My father died. My first marriage ended. Life started with Phillip Adams. In February 1987, I moved to the farm Elmswood at Gundy. I was 30 yrs. old and found a profession that felt perfect. Land manager/farmer.
Seven years later, our daughter Aurora was born. Being a mother was and remains the greatest joy. After finishing her HSC at Scone High School, Aurora headed overseas, studied, and now lives and works with her partner Suzi in Paris. While once a mother, always a mother, thankfully. Aurora’s life at home was really only for 17 years, it flashed by very quickly.
It’s now been 33 years.
So incredible is the agricultural profession; writing about it felt like the next chapter.
2000: The Olive Grove.
2003: The River.
2005: Ten Thousand Acres: A Love Story
2007: Tree to Table: Cooking with Australian Olive Oil
2015: My Ph.D. on assessing a new slow pyrolysis technology
2019: Who’s Minding the Farm: in this climate emergency
DO YOU THINK OLDER WOMEN ARE VALUED OR CELEBRATED?
That’s a tough question. UMMM Older? Over 30? Over 50? Over 90? There were plenty of impressive older women around when I grew up. They were matriarchs in their world. I remember hearing their childhood stories but very little about their lives outside the home. Building a home takes skill, learning to cook, preserve, sew, garden. I certainly learned the domestic system-Saturday washing, Sunday afternoon – garden tidy up, etc. I saw these women as multi-skilled and kind. Not publicly celebrated because their lives were domestic. Farm life is domestic too; all meals created every day in your kitchen. Vegetables are grown in your garden—lots of dirty clothes and loads more washing. Farm life is suited to those who prefer the day-life, not the night-life, and enjoy their own company. Across farming communities, the world over, women create homes and keep alive thousands of domestic life skills. (It was fun watching the world rediscover lots of valuable domestic skills when Covid-19 forced us to stay at home). Just knowing I’m part of that community makes me feel happy.
WHAT ARE YOU THE MOST GRATEFUL FOR?
YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES?
People often say I have confidence, but it’s not really true. I usually agree to do things I never feel capable of doing and trust the world to get me through. There are many sleepless nights, loads of anxiety, and some very dark moments. But I do somehow believe in the universe to look after me. There’s nothing scientific about it. Some may call it simply a half-full attitude.
YOUR THOUGHTS ON AGING
I try not to frame any thoughts around aging. It’s just a journey with bumps along the way. And an increase in aches and pains that come and go. They say you grow into yourself. That feels correct. I might be in my sixties but feel ageless inside.
The upside? There’s an ever-growing – what the heck – type attitude. That always feels good. It’s not a ‘I don’t give an F’ attitude. That’s just selfish. It’s more generous than that. Perhaps a type of emotional shedding?
“Our employment will never define us.
Women have always been more than their work.
We are culture builders.”
YOUR ADVICE TO YOUNG WOMEN OF TODAY
We’re better women when we’re standing together. How wonderful that we in the developed world have such opportunities and are likely to lead long and interesting lives. Remember, not all women in the world are so lucky. All careers start and stop. Try and be relaxed about it. Paid work of some kind will always have relevance because financial independence for everyone-men and women matters. Our employment will never define us. Women have always been more than their work. We are culture builders. Get political. Your vote counts and try to get elected just once in your life to a public service. Eventually, we’ll break the patriarchy.
– Patrice Newell
FEW OF MY FAVORITES
Every unique version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Especially Keith Jarrett’s improv at La Scala.
Usually the last book I read. So that would be The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
Prefer TV series these days. Any Scandi Noir.
All the tiny unique native things that flower across the landscape here.
No1. My Farm Elmswood, Gundy, NSW, Australia.
No 2. Gunditjmara country
Everything and anything fresh.
Joni Mitchell, Ellis Rowan
Forget makeup. But Ultra Violette Sunscreen is essential.
Our own fresh Olive Oil is the perfect Vitamin E hit for the skin.
And then I can lick my lips with confidence – an added bonus.
Miriam Rothchild used to make her own clothes – a type of smock –
I thought she was very wise to simplify her clothing so she could focus on the natural world.
Georgia O’Keefe often comes to mind too.
DISCOVER + FOLLOW
Patrice Newell & Elmswood Farm
Patrice Newell Garlic Farm
Patrice photographed by Simone Silverman in Sydney, January 2020
All other images courtesy of Patrice Newell unless credited.