Farm­ers’ lives a crop of grip­ping sto­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jesse Black­ad­der

Aus­tralian Farm­ing Fam­i­lies: Inspiring True Sto­ries of Life on the Land By Deb Hunt Macmil­lan, 330pp, $29.99 When Lyn French met Daphne Gear off the train on a hot Queens­land day, it was her Mary Pop­pins mo­ment. De­spite hav­ing com­pleted only four years of school­ing, Lyn had been try­ing to teach her three young chil­dren at home on Gil­ber­ton Sta­tion, many kilo­me­tres in­land from Townsville. She had sur­vived an abu­sive child­hood, cer­vi­cal can­cer and a house fire that de­stroyed the fam­ily’s be­long­ings, but teach­ing the chil­dren was be­yond her. The ar­rival of Daphne was a god­send. Not only did the new gov­erness teach the chil­dren to read, she taught Lyn as well and in the process changed her life.

Lyn’s story is one of eight tales in Aus­tralian Farm­ing Fam­i­lies. Au­thor Deb Hunt clocked up thou­sands of kilo­me­tres as she headed into ru­ral and re­mote spots to track down the sto­ries and the peo­ple be­hind the drought head­lines.

Farm­ers are a con­tract­ing breed, with their num­bers hav­ing fallen by more than 40 per cent in the past 30 years ac­cord­ing the Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics. It may be this drop, mean­ing fewer Aus­tralians have di­rect fam­ily links to ru­ral life, that feeds an on­go­ing fas­ci­na­tion with life on the land and the regular crop of books about this in­creas­ingly ex­otic species.

It’s not only farmer num­bers that are fall­ing; a way of life is chang­ing. Farm­ers were long con­sid­ered the pi­o­neers. To­day, they are adapt­ing to chang­ing con­di­tions and adopt­ing new tech­nolo­gies, while mak­ing less from each an­i­mal, crop and hectare than their par­ents did. It is this ten­sion be­tween the mod­ern and the tra­di­tional that makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing read.

May 23-24, 2015 It was poor land: river­less, salt bush coun­try. There was clear­ing and snag­ging and suck­er­ing by the acre. Hard thumb-work. Then the guess-work of rain, of when to get credit and plough, when to move on. There were Sal­va­tion drums, and blokes’ bal­lads thud­ding over the black flats. But you sought qui­eter weight­ings in your line for the balm of green, and flight of wa­ter birds, for chil­dren in the sun­light in the spring. The words you paced that land with turned to melody while death-tinged colours shim­mered in the air.

Hunt freely con­fesses her sen­ti­men­tal­ity about ru­ral Australia and her ig­no­rance of all things agri­cul­tural in the in­tro­duc­tion. Her “city girl” ap­proach (slightly disin­gen­u­ous, given she has also writ­ten a mem­oir about her time living in Bro­ken Hill and work­ing for the Royal Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice) helps bridge the gap be­tween a pre­sumed ur­ban read­er­ship and the larg­erthan-life, al­most un­be­liev­ably re­silient char­ac­ters on the land. And when the tales be­come al­most too tall to be­lieve, Hunt’s ur­ban-dweller be­muse­ment keeps the reader on­side.

The fam­i­lies battle can­cer; lose chil­dren, spouses, friends; go into ter­ri­fy­ing debt; ne­go­ti­ate is­sues of fam­ily farm in­her­i­tance; fight for child­care cen­tres and ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties; love and strug­gle with their par­ents and in-laws; adopt new tech­nolo­gies; and worry about an­i­mal wel­fare and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity. Some are ve­gan, or­ganic or bio­dy­namic; all are main­stream farm­ers bat­tling tight mar­gins, chang­ing cli­mates and in­creased reg­u­la­tion to make their living in a com­plex in­dus­try.

Hunt in­vites read­ers to marvel at the lives of peo­ple such as Tas­ma­nian cou­ple Vir­ginia and Steve Chilcott. Steve spends bit­terly cold nights out­doors check­ing calv­ing cows while Vir­ginia risked ev­ery­thing at age 23 on the pur­chase of a cen­tre-pivot ir­ri­ga­tor to mod­ernise her farm. Their ro­mance has el­e­ments familiar to most ur­ban­ites: a his­tory of un­suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ships, a flurry of texts while court­ing, and the jug­gling of two ca­reers. In the Chilcotts’ case, each owned a farm (80km apart) and the jug­gling in­volved tak­ing turns to overnight, with who­ever didn’t drive do­ing the cooking, and 4.30am de­par­tures. They kept their farm busi­nesses even af­ter the ar­rival of three chil­dren.

The Hughes fam­ily, east of Roma in Queens­land, have tried ev­ery known strat­egy for run­ning a beef en­ter­prise. Philip and Adele Hughes man­aged a sta­tion for the Stan­broke Pas­toral Com­pany, bought their own fam­ily sta­tions, sup­plied farm­ers mar­kets and their own butcher’s shop, and es­tab­lished a pad­dock-to-plate busi­ness pro­duc­ing pre­mium beef. Along the way, they’ve tack­led the tricky ques­tion of farm in­her­i­tance and can still laugh, rue­fully, when Hunt asks if they have made any money.

Jo and Dave Ful­wood met in Mel­bourne. They both loved cafe cul­ture and Jo as­sumed they would live and work in Lon­don. In­stead, a fam­ily cri­sis sent them back to the land, where they now run a hi-tech crop­ping farm in­land from Perth that ‘‘bris­tles with heavy ma­chin­ery run by state-of-the-art GPS’’. Jo, who ini­tially hated the farm and its hot sum­mers, threw her­self into set­ting up a lo­cal child­care cen­tre and suc­ceeded — against the odds, of course.

As the num­ber of farm­ers de­clines, books about ru­ral and out­back life in­crease. Ru­ral ro­mances, bi­ogra­phies, sto­ries of dogs, rab­bits, vets and trac­tors, and tales of or­di­nary life far from the city con­tinue to build the mys­tique of Australia’s re­mote land­scapes and the peo­ple who can live in them and off them. Such peo­ple are un­like city read­ers and just like them.

This book has gaps. Hunt shies away from the ques­tion of what hap­pened when ru­ral set­tlers came face to face with the con­ti­nent’s orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants, de­cid­ing to leave the sub­ject alone in her in­ter­views when it raises its head. It’s doubt­ful th­ese eight farm­ing fam­i­lies are typ­i­cal, if such a thing ex­ists, nor does the book show ru­ral Australia’s cul­tural di­ver­sity. Hunt ad­mits her se­lec­tion rests on her sub­jects’ abil­i­ties to over­come hard­ship. Their sto­ries are in­tense, their lives epic in qual­ity. It’s hard to imag­ine all ru­ral fam­i­lies live like this. But the chal­lenges that ru­ral life im­poses on Aus­tralian farm­ers make for eight grip­ping tales.

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