A brush with fire

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It’s all a little surreal. We are still being urged to take shelter from a fast-moving bushfire but the cows are in for the evening milking and the kids are watching Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom. Over a howling south-westerly, I can hear the thudding blades of water bombing helicopters.

All in all, it’s a miracle. After an anxious day spent with friends in town, I can breathe again.

The fires are only about 5kms away but they’re upwind. Just to be sure, the cars are still packed to the gills with our most precious belongings and every few minutes, I trot outside to survey the fire activity.

The cows spent the day in a closely grazed paddock with access to the river and will stay by the dam tonight, in case we lose power and can’t refill the troughs.

That south-westerly change was our salvation but we know it will have been someone else’s menace. Take care.

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Filed under Climate

The last time I applied for drought assistance

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I was scared. The earth was scorched bare, cockchafers had decimated our paddocks and feed was at record prices. I’d been brought up on the land but was new to the experience of actually holding the reins.

I didn’t want to let my husband know how scared I was, either. He was new to farming altogether and we were betting everything we had on my skills, the international commodity price cycle and the weather.

When we became eligible to apply for exceptional circumstances funding, I sought guidance from a counsellor then locked myself in the office for two long days and sweated over the paperwork.

The first envelope in return said my application had been rejected because I was not a farmer. I was, and still am, earning some off-farm income to feed the family and the assessing officer had decided that, since I would naturally be working 38 hours a week in total, and I was clearly spending time non-farming, I was not farming at all. The reality was that I was working into the small hours to survive. After a lot of persuasion and quoting industry statistics, he conceded that, yes, perhaps I was a farmer.

The next envelope said my application had been rejected because our farm was unviable. He told me I had to show we could pay back all our loans in 10 years as well as achieving an 8% return on investment to prove my viability. My bank manager just laughed when I told him. “I don’t think of any of my clients could achieve all that,” he said.

I gave up.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there are a whole lot of people out there under the impression that drought aid is dished out like boiled lollies. Maybe I went about it the wrong way. Maybe I hit a particularly tough assessor having a tough time. But don’t tell me it’s easy pickings.

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Just keep putting one foot in front of the other

I woke to the alarming smell of smoke this morning and immediately felt anxious.

But a gentle breeze stirs only the leaves of the eucalypts and there are no malevolent plumes on the horizon. We’re safe for now. The haze blanketing the farm most likely contains the ghosts of the great trees burning at Goongerah, far to our east. There, like here, it is tinder dry and just about everything is flammable.

All the same, the dry here is nothing compared to the drought conditions in New South Wales, where, judging by the news reports, there would be little left to burn.

Wayne shrank back in his seat last night as pictures of gaunt cattle hung on the screen and muttered, “Well, we’ve got nothing to complain about then”.

Just now, I came across an opinion piece titled Australian farmers should not be treated as a protected species and found it painful to read. A drought is like a fire that goes on and on and on and on, eating through a farmer’s soul over months and years. The economics of it – the main focus of the article – are like burns: the real hurt goes much deeper and lasts far longer. Buried in the comments that follow the story is this, from “Australian Pride”:

Well, speaking as a genuine Australian farmer, things couldn’t really get much worse right now.

The seasons have been poor for years now, the climate has gone to hell and it’s getting harder and harder to keep the soil nitrogenised. Morale is pretty bloody low to be honest.

I would think about packing it all in, but farming is all I know. Farming is hard, I lost my father Chaffey was crushed to death while he was fixing some equipment in November. I suppose I feel that I have to go on for him, but when do I say enough is enough eh? That cold beer at the end of the day doesn’t taste so good when you know that your crops are dying and the hand-outs are all you have to live on.

I have kids of my own. One of them watched their grandfather getting crushed in the machinery. How can I tell them that the farm is the best place for them? What kind of future are they going to have? Sometimes I despair. Maybe we should just give it all back to the aborigines?

I wish I had the heart to illustrate so eloquently what the story’s author could not see. But farmers do get through it, somehow. My Dad used simply to say: “You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other”.

Please, don’t say you no longer care.

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Filed under Farm, People

A better snake trap for the Drover’s Wife

The twist of a tail was all it took to drive me and the kids indoors. Normally, prematurely extracting them from the sandpit is a big job but even an ebullient two-year-old can sense the importance of a “Don’t panic but…” message from his mum.

A snake (most likely a copper-head or tiger) had appeared at the bottom of Alex’s favourite climbing tree, just inches from the verandah and the children and I sat frozen in silence, listening to it swish through the dry leaves. And I am not Henry Lawson’s gutsy Drover’s Wife, for I am yellow to the core.

The drover’s wife makes the children stand together near the dog-house while she watches for the snake. She gets two small dishes of milk and sets them down near the wall to tempt it to come out; but an hour goes by and it does not show itself.

Instead, I send the kids scurrying indoors while I deploy my secret weapon: the Snake Trap. Purchased a couple of summers ago after another close encounter of the scaly kind, the trap has been waiting for just this moment.

She brings the children in, and makes them get on this table. They are two boys and two girls – mere babies. She gives some supper, and then, before it gets dark, she goes into house, and snatches up some pillows and bedclothes – expecting to see or lay or hand on the snake any minute. She makes a bed on the kitchen table for the children, and sits down beside it to watch all night.

Like a large corflute pizza box, the Snake Trap has a little trap door that leads to an internal spiral wall, which guides the snake in pursuit of an imaginary rodent evidenced by a trail of scenting media (mice and rat detritis).

Inside the Snake Safe Snake Trap

Inside the Snake Safe Snake Trap

Check the trigger, the trap door and deploy.

She has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal. She has brought the dog into the room.

It’s sitting there now, nestled in the leaves by the sandpit.

Graeme, the man behind the Snake Trap, reckons I will be lucky to catch my snake. They’re generally just passing through, he says, and the idea of the Snake Trap is to set it up at the start of snake season to waylay any casual unwelcome visitors. But I’m watching that trap door and time spent in the sand pit is a little less carefree than it was.

It must be near daylight now. The room is very close and hot because of the fire. Alligator still watches the wall from time to time. Suddenly he becomes greatly interested; he draws himself a few inches nearer the partition, and a thrill runs though his body. The hair on the back of neck begins to bristle, and the battle-light is in his yellow eyes. She knows what this means, and lays her hand on the stick. The lower end of one of the partition slabs has a large crack on both sides. An evil pair of small, bright bead-like eyes glisten at one of these holes. The snake – a black one – comes slowly out, about a foot, and moves its head up and down. The dog lies still, and the woman sits as one fascinated. The snake comes out a foot further. She lifts her stick, and the reptile, as though suddenly aware of danger, sticks his head in through the crack on the other side of the slab, and hurries to get his tail round after him. Alligator springs, and his jaws come together with a snap. He misses, for his nose is large, and the snake’s body close down on the angle formed by the slabs and the floor. He snaps again as the tail comes round. He has the snake now, and tugs it out eighteen inches. Thud, thud. Alligator gives another pull and he has the snake out – a black brute, five feet long. The head rises to dart about, but the dog has the enemy close to the neck. He is a big, heavy dog, but quick as a terrier. He shakes the snake as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind. The eldest boy wakes up, seizes his stick, and tries to get out of bed, but his mother forces him back with a grip of iron. Thud, thud – the snake’s back is broken in several places. Thud, thud – it’s head is crushed, and Alligator’s nose skinned again.

She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in; then piles on the wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and the dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the fierce, angry light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quieted, and presently go to sleep. The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, throwing his arms around her neck exclaims:

“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’ blarst me if I do!”

And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over bush.

SnakePit

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Filed under Family and parenting

What inspires a young man to become a dairy farmer?

We received an unusual phone call the other week. A vet student with no family connections to dairy, Andrew Dallimore rang out of the blue saying he was keen to become a dairy farmer and wondered if he could ask us a few questions.

Well, what a series of questions! What were the challenges we faced becoming dairy farmers, why did we choose it, the ups and downs, where we look for knowledge and what are the pros and cons of raising children on a farm? At least, these are the ones I remember. And he took notes.

It felt like being at confessional, somehow. You have to be totally honest with someone so earnestly and diligently researching his future. Wayne and I were both immensely impressed, then gobsmacked when he offered to do a few hours work on the farm with the payment of just our thoughts and a banana!

Later, I had a look at the extraordinary “project” Andrew undertook last year and was impressed all over again. Andrew is a truly remarkable Australian so I was very pleased when he agreed to write a guest post about what inspires him to become a dairy farmer. Maybe we can learn a little about how to attract other young Aussies to follow in his footsteps. If you’re on Twitter, follow Andrew on @Farmer_vet.

Aspiring dairy farmer, Andrew Dallimore

Aspiring dairy farmer, Andrew Dallimore

I admit, that when Marian asked me if I would like to write a post for her blog that I was flattered, albeit worried. If you’ve read any of the content on here, you’ll realise that she is a bit of a bright spark (not that she’ll admit it). So hopefully I don’t kill too many of your brain cells (with my drivel) that you have spent so much time refining.

As a vet student at the University of Melbourne I have had the privilege to visit many different agricultural enterprises. Yet, dairy farmers and their families standout as some of the most inspiring people in Australia. It’s not their dashing flannelette shirts, crap splattered wellies, or even their everlasting pursuit to race the sun up every morning (and beat it!), but something else extraordinary.

Over the past 3 months I have been on a pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve been hunting down dairy farmers to hear about their pathway to farming. I feel inextricably drawn to dairy, and I’ve found these people are to be tough, dedicated, and generous beyond measure. Without knowing me from a bar of soap, dairy farmers have welcomed me into their homes, sat down and had targeted chinwags with me, and treated me as an equal while their kids watched telly, ate their tea, or just run amok.

Any question I had, as basic as it was, they answered and discussed enthusiastically. Eagerly, I listened to the trials and triumphs they went through to be successful while working, raising a family, settling into a completely different lifestyle, or turning a rundown farm into a thriving business and family home. From inherited farms, to sea-changers, and sharefarmers, they all shared similar traits. The stories were incredible.

For example, on a farm I visited up in northern Victoria I was completely blown away. A family of four milking about 300 cows on an inherited farm, with grins bigger than you can measure were some of the most astounding farmers I had met. It wasn’t the adults (who were the typical intelligent, driven, and happy dairy farmers), but the kids!

At the ripe old age of 14 their son had well over $10K in his bank from selling cow poo by the roadside, a part-time employee who helped him bag up the stuff (one of the kids from school, who unfortunately got the sack after his 3rd warning for not filling up the sacks properly), and a brilliant work ethic. His younger sister, at age 11, was being given orphaned merino lambs to her by farmers (otherwise the poor little buggers usually die in the paddock), was rearing them at home, and then selling them back to the farmers for a good profit.

These kids had impeccable manners, were bright, charismatic, and treated people as respectful equals.

Hearing and reading about people’s pathways to dairy farming has made me realise something incredible. Dairy farming isn’t just a way of life; it is life itself. It is survival by learning, adapting, producing, recycling, cooperating, and teaching on a day-to-day basis.

It is working with spectacular animals to feed the world sustainably, and support Australia. It is about raising a strong, healthy, intelligent, and generous family with humane ethics and values. There are few causes in our country that are greater than these.

Marian asked me what inspired to me start pursuing a life in dairy, and the answer is simple: Dairy farmers.

Marian also asked me what my dream is, and this answer more complex: I want to own and run my own rural veterinary practice; help run a dairy farm; heavily invest in the community I live with; and raise a strong, healthy, intelligent, and generous family on the land.

How I will get there on the other hand, is another question altogether… Hopefully with a large smile, a strong work ethic, good mentors, a little time, and plenty of elbow grease!

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It’s late

The story of Cliffy Young has just finished on the tele but Wayne is still slogging through his own ultra-marathon at the dairy. It’s 10pm and it’s been a tough day that started at 5am.

As I was rattling the kids around the house in readiness for Nippers this morning, Wayne was having some youngster trouble of his own. A freshly-calved heifer simply sat down on the milking platform behind her neighbour. Now, if you’ve worked in or watched a herringbone dairy in action, you’ll say that doesn’t happen.

dairydisaster

It did.

The cows are lined up at right angles to the pit we stand in to position the cups, with their buttocks against a “bum rail” that’s designed to guide them into position for milking and prevent a cow from falling onto a milk maid.

It didn’t.

A cow spooked by her reclining sister leapt up and backwards, falling rear-first into the pit, brushing Wayne’s cheek with her hoof on the way down as a weld in the bum rail gave way under the strain of this 550kg crowd-surfer. Thankfully, Wayne and the two cows-a-leaping are fine but the machinery was not. With four machines out and the broken bum-rail, milking took hours longer than normal and the clean-up and repair job was a 6-hour undertaking.

I’m really grateful to Clarkie, who broke his long weekend to come and help wield a welding stick, feed the cows and round up at 6pm.

Wayne will up again at 5am tomorrow. It’s 10.30pm now and, finally, the dairy lights have gone out. What will tomorrow bring, I wonder?

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Filed under Cows, Farm, People

Protecting farmers from ourselves

Apparently farmers cannot be trusted with anything. Not even to want the highest farm gate milk price for ourselves.

Bega has just sold its stake in Warrnambool Cheese & Butter to Saputo, putting the Canadian billionaire on the brink of controlling WCB even though a higher price was on offer from Aussie farmer co-op, MG.

This happened because our co-op hasn’t been allowed to bid during the bidding period.

Australian farmers who want to invest in their own futures and who are willing to pay the highest price for WCB have been stymied by a government artifice in the name of protecting…you guessed it…farmers from themselves. Apparently, another processor that thrives on a low farmgate milk price is better for us farmers than having an efficient farmer-owned co-op.

This Aussie dairy farmer will never forgive Joe Hockey for sitting by and watching.

So, where to now? That, my fellow source of low-cost milk, is up to us, for although Saputo can buy WCB’s stainless steel, it cannot buy our future. Only Australia’s dairy farmers decide where our milk flows and our fortunes lie.

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Filed under Community, Farm, Warrnambool Cheese and Butter