Who or what makes a farmer?

Yesterday, while rounding up the cows, Zoe announced: “When I grow up, I want to be a farmer and have two children.”.

“True? How come?”

“So I can be like you, Mama.”

It gets into the blood of farm kids early. Much earlier, I suspect, than the children of, say, accountants or writers. At six, our little girl knows when a paddock is ready to graze and has that sixth sense for when a cow seems not her normal self. Because she’s already a farmer.

Since I don’t have religious faith, I don’t believe any of this is God’s doing. Take a look at this ad, which just made its debut during the Superbowl.

This evangelical message has got farmers around the world twittering with delight. It’s nice to get a pat on the back once in a while. But I have a confession: it simultaneously makes me proud and embarrassed.

Why must we farmers talk so much about how hard we work? Yes, it is a farming fact of life but, no, it does not make us saints or martyrs. We do it because we want to.

And when I asked Zoe what she thought would be great about being just like me, it came down to this: “I can have fun with the cows every day!”. Perfect!

The tractor, the toddler and the ejector seat

The neighbours will think I have gone mad or won Tattslotto. The Macdonald farm is not known for gleaming machinery but, in the last few days, an updated tractor has arrived, followed by a new feedout cart.

The reality is that our ancient tractor was getting so tired I just had to trade it for a 6-year-old replacement. Then, in spectacular fashion, the geriatric feedout cart snapped a structural member and twisted itself into an irredeemable mangle. We’re currently feeding the cows 4 tonnes of hay and silage per day and, without it, the feeding regime would take at least an extra two hours that Wayne just doesn’t have.

The tractor may not be brand new but it’s seen barely any work in its former life as a parks and gardens curator and has gleaming paintwork teamed with dark tinted windows that instantly captures a milkmaid’s heart. Fortunately, there was urgent and important work to be done, so with toddler strapped to chest and dog in hot pursuit, I set off to christen the Green Machine and its pristine bucket.

And, oh, the experience was indeed rapturous! The new tractor was clearly designed by another child-wearing tractor driver. Alex cannot reach the forward-neutral-reverse lever on this model and a single, aptly-named joystick controls the front end loader’s up-down and tilt all at once, eliminating even more hazardous handholds!

Christening the Green Machine

Christening the Green Machine

The only thing that got me out of the tractor seat was the little man’s demands for food.

The next day, Wayne got his turn. Had to do some customisation. There was a cumbersome box to remove, the little spray tank that obscured the view, the radio key to re-enter, the steering wheel positioning and the ejector seat to adjust.

Me: (Distracted by toddler attempting to wear potty as a hat) “Hang on – what did you say?”

Him: “It was nearly impossible to squeeze in behind the steering wheel, so I had to get it up out of the way. You can see where the council blokes have been wearing the upholstery away trying to push their big…”

Me: (Hastily) “No swearing in front of Alex! What was that about the seat?”

Him: “Oh that…Yeah, well, I’d put the steering wheel up nice and high but that meant the seat was too low so I had to get it up too.”

“There’s a button between your legs to push and – can you believe it? – a little compressor starts up ‘brrrrrr’ and I’m being lifted up towards the roof! Problem is, the seat carries you away from the button and, pretty soon, you’ve got your head between your knees trying to keep your finger on the thing.”

“As you’ll no doubt remind me, my perfectly proportioned arms don’t reach all that far, so once I couldn’t touch the button any more, I let go and sat up to have a look. All I could see – right before my eyes – were the air-conditioning controls.”

Me: (Laughing) “Those ceiling-mounted knobs? Did you hit your head?”

Him: “Yep, it’s the world’s slowest ejector seat. Put that in your OHS manual.”

Grand plans

Dream big

Dream big

Dad loved the Grand Plan. So do I.

I don’t know why he decided not to finish the building of this bridge but there’s a feeling of romance about it. There would have been hours of planning, sourcing of materials, chattering about the project and, then, the wondrous day the pylons were driven. Perhaps it all got too hard or funds dried up with a scorching season.

It doesn’t matter really. The incomplete bridge is a symbol of progress because, for every white elephant, there were three glittering successes.

On one hand, farmers these days are often cast as peasants and, in some ways, we are – living at the whim of nature, commodity markets and the duopoly. On the other, few Australians are more empowered to bring their Grand Plans to life.

Angry mob stages a mootiny

They were right. There simply wasn’t enough grass left in the paddock for a repeat visit and, in the wash up of a riotously great 6-year-old birthday party, we were late on the scene.

We arrived on the river flats to find the first 50 or so cows out of the dairy staging a “stand-in” outside the entrance to the rejected paddock. I turned to set up an alternative just 100 metres the other direction and they marched towards us, disgusted to find I had taped off the lane behind us. While I set everything up and my little party-goer took a siesta, a few members of the mob broke ranks and began to filter in to graze the drabs.

After the party

She’d partied hard.

Of course, that meant we had to get them out and that’s when the trouble really started. Everyone else followed us in and were totally confused when we wheeled around and tried to push the surging mob back out from whence they came. Well, it took five minutes and a lot of determination to move them 40 metres.

Then they went the wrong way up the lane and it was my tough little farmer who convinced them to, very reluctantly, turn once again.

Angry mob of dairy cows

The ragged party goer came to life when presented with a challenge and was there behind them in the dust

A heartbeat after I took this pic, the leaders saw the opening to the fresh paddock and, like a stampede of New Years’ Day shoppers, they were off.

A challenge for the Gruen Transfer

Farmer: The salt of the earth; rich whinger; straw-chewing simpleton; or oik in the bush who only wants to joyride in a very thirsty V8, drink excessive quantities of Bundy’n’Coke, shoot guns at one another and abuse women?

I’m sure one or more of us fits into any one (or more) of those categories. Some of us won’t fit any of them. We’re just people after all.

There’s also a lot of talk about how we can attract young people into agriculture. ABC journalist, Warwick Long, asked Twitter how it can be made sexy enough and Graeme Nicoll (@Hoddlecows) responded with this:

“If you’re looking 4 a sexy job buy fish net stockings,if u want a job at the cutting edge of technology &the enviro get into ag”

I think Graeme’s hit the nail on the head. You just have to love the outdoors. It’s not glamorous but it is great.

Carbon tax misfires

I imagined there would be riots when the average Australian family faced a 10% cut in income as a result of the carbon tax. But for some reason, nobody seems to be making a big deal about it.

I suspect it’s pretty quiet because although mine is a very average family (two kids and a dog), we’re not on the political radar.

The carbon tax is expected to slug us around $5000 per year – a whopping 10% of the average dairy farm family’s income. As reported in The Land and the Australian Financial Review:

The three majors that will pay the new tax from July 1 are already investing in low-carbon technologies but Murray Goulburn Co-operative estimates rising electricity prices will cut the annual income of the average farmer by $5000 a year, The Australian Financial Review reports.

“Profit in the average dairy business in recent years has averaged $50,000,” one MGC general manager, Robert Poole, said. “So that represents a 10 per cent cut. For the average dairy farmer, the tax is going to cut hard into their profits.”

How can this be? Well, because even though I plant 1000 trees or more on the farm every year and have built some of the most carbon-rich soils in the country (up to 22% organic matter content), I cannot participate in the poorly framed Carbon Farming Initiative.

The milk processor we supply, Murray Goulburn, will face increased costs of $10 million per annum and will pass those costs onto farmers – guaranteed. It is guaranteed to do so because MG is 100% farmer-owned so the buck quite literally stops with us. Our fertiliser, fuel and electricity prices will also rise.

Ironically, if MG was spewing out far more greenhouse gases, we might not face this crippling tax because “emission intensive” businesses that export just 10% of their products are considered “trade exposed” and given special concessions. MG exports around half of our milk but because it’s not that “emission intensive” (aka dirty), it misses out on concessions.

Please, can somebody explain the logic behind this?

What do you get the farmer who has it all? A stripper?

I am obviously a hard woman to buy for. For my 30th, Wayne had me thrown out of an aeroplane. For my 40th, he sent me into a tank full of sharks. This Christmas, he got me a stripper. One way or the other, he wants me to have a heart attack!

The stripper came in very handy today though and performed in ways I would never have imagined were possible. In fact, I think you could say the whole experience has rekindled my interest in wiring repairs.


This thing made my heart skip a beat today

I have pathetically weak hands but this amazing tool allowed me to whip the insulation off in no time like a pro. The knurled portions grasp the insulation and wrench it straight off the copper wire. To make matters even better, Wayne paired the stripper with a ratcheted crimper, so getting a good connection was equally as easy for the feeble-fingered.

Before you begin to worry, by the way, I would never attempt to do the work of an electrician and risk electrocuting myself. All strictly fencing units and so forth (but now that I have the stripper, where do I sign up for an apprenticeship…?).

Why not have a whinge when we deserve it, after all?

On Tuesday, I was given the opportunity to have a really good cathartic whinge on Melbourne radio and I almost took it. The announcement of an increase in public transport fares prompted 774ABC radio host Mark Holden to ask for examples of what’s gotten cheaper.

The obvious answer is milk, of course! So I rang in and said consumers were getting a great deal on milk, which is at 1992 prices. He wanted to know whether farmers are doing it tough as a result. Now the answer to that question is complex and I wasn’t going to try to explain it all in five seconds so I said that, yes, one in three dairy farmers had left the land since deregulation but that Australians are among the world’s most efficient dairy farmers and that allowed us to deliver low prices. Now that’s a strange message, isn’t it?

It means that instead of whingeing about low prices, we can be incredibly proud of being able to deliver them. Most importantly, we can be incredibly proud of the shape we’re in: we haven’t succumbed to a factory farming model.

  • 98 per cent of Australian dairy farms are family farms rather than corporations
  • The average herd size is 220 (small enough to know every cow)
  • Our cows enjoy “cowness”, as Tammi Jonas would put it, free to roam the paddocks

In other words, our farming practices have become more and more professional without compromising the ethics that guide all the farming families I know: love of animals, love of land. We have a great story to tell and we should shout it from the rooftops!

Why female elephants are called cows

“The problem with farmers is that they use all their vehicles as observation platforms,” someone told me recently and it’s true. We are always on the lookout for our animals, often without even realising it.

If the Bobcat is an observation platform, the house must be command central, so when I gazed out the kitchen window last night and saw this, I had to investigate.

Spying on the cows from the garden

Spying on the cows from the garden

The cows were gathering around a water trough rather than going into a truly delectable paddock of long yet succulent cocksfoot right nearby. This meant trouble. Either it was an empty water trough or the gate wasn’t open.

When Alex and I arrived, we found the trough brim-full and the gate wide open but the cows were angry. Angry cows mill about, urinate all over the place and sound very disgruntled. Could they have missed the open gate? I drove the Bobcat into the paddock and the mooing just got louder.

Cows outside the gate

Were the cows holding a stop work meeting?

I came back out for a “chat” and a delegate presented herself.

cow delegation

"We have an OHS issue"

It appeared there was an OHS issue to resolve. Now I know why elephants are called cows: because, like their bovine counterparts, they never forget.

During the big wet, the gateway had turned to porridge – a gooey mud that cows hate – and it was cow 33’s duty to inform me that she and her colleagues were having none of it this time. So I walked on it and she followed. As you can see, cow 33 is a young Friesian Jersey crossbred and these little cows have chutzpah beyond their years.

Once 33 had okayed the worksite, everyone else followed.

Cows entering paddock

It's good to go, girls!

Animal welfare is not just about dairy farmers doing the right thing

“If not appropriately handled, animal welfare concerns could threaten the long-term viability of several livestock industries. Even though the industries operate within their legislated requirements, there is a real risk they could lose public acceptance.”

This excerpt reportedly from a brief by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Department for the incoming Minister Ludwig makes sense. Farmers don’t have a monopoly on caring about animals and everyone has a right to feel comfortable that the food they’re eating is ethical. At the moment, much of that is based on trust that we farmers will do the right thing but when that trust is sufficiently shaken, Aussies will understandably demand that we are made to do the right thing.

In the wake of the Indonesian cruelty revelations, who could blame urban Australians for asking more questions about animal welfare, whether at the abattoir on the farm? Rather than being defensive about farming practices, I think it’s time to open the “farm gates” and show everyone what really goes on so they can judge how we are doing for themselves.