Farmers’ lives a crop of gripping stories
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.