Generation To Generation
Lots of people aspire to do what their parents did. You hear it all the time in sport and in trades and there are generations and generations of families running agricultural businesses across Australia.
This is, I think, because it is not just a career it is a way of life. Farmers don’t work nine to five, five days a week. Generally, they work with the sun, and during peak periods of seeding and harvest, knock off time barely exists. Because of this the whole family gets involved. Mums and wives take meals out and help move sheep. The kids sit in the tractor and play with the dog at smoko. ‘Family time’ often overlaps with work and there wouldn’t be many family members that mind.
While many are lucky enough to work with their fathers, few have the privilege to have deeper generations involved.
I sat down with my fiancé Mitchell, his dad Wayne and Seymour Taylor affectionately known as Uncle Sandy to chat about how farming has changed and what the relationships are like when running a stressful business. It is honestly fascinating to sit down and have a conversation with all three in one spot, the dynamic is so interesting. One minute Mitchell is in awe of the processes Sandy used to farm with and the next he is revelling in the newest tractor with auto steer and a fridge in the cab to keep his lunch cold. Sharp as a tack Sandy marvels at what Wayne and Mitchell are doing on the farm now. Safe to say things have changed considerably, but it is the love of the land (cliché I know,) and farming that is most obvious.
Farming with horses and a plough and considerably less professional consultation Sandy thrived on the farm. He told me of one time at the tender age of seven when he used to ride his horse eight miles to school on his own.
“One day I tied my horse up and went kicking the football instead of feeding the horse….I got a hiding out of that!”
Sandy returned to the farm at 17 when he started shearing. He tells of a friend who would sneak in a bottle of beer and share it with him.
‘The last of the beer was corked up and returned to the fridge, ‘I used to just about cheer tears of blood.’
When he started farming, a horse’s power was key. Eight horses to be exact. Eight a breast ready to take on the dry, dusty paddocks. Powerful beasts that worked tirelessly, that is before Sandy put four either side of the telegraph pole one day. ‘A bit of a predicament’ he describes. The coupling broke and he untied them all. They were home waiting for him when he got back.
It’s stories like this that light up the room when they all get together and you can see Sandy light up as he tells them.
Of course, horse power is still crucial in today’s processes. Instead of eight actual horses, machinery with 200 horse power are used for common tasks.
There is a lot of joy involved in farming, from appreciating every little drop of rain to finishing another harvest and working with family, you couldn’t be a farmer if you didn’t genuinely enjoy working the land. But truthfully it is tough and many years it doesn’t matter how much effort you put in, how much care you take or how many prayers you make, sometimes it’s just a bad year.
Sandy explains that he thinks wet years were the worst because with their processes and equipment they couldn’t do anything when the ground was soggy.
“We built the house in ‘63 and we got the ground ploughed up and some of it cultivated and that was it. I think we got about 6 loads of wheat.” The next year we didn’t put a grain of wheat in the bin. We couldn’t get on the country. “
“Financially, shearing got you a bit of money, and the costs weren’t there. It was all work, there wasn’t much financial input.”
Truth be told to be a successful farmer these days you probably have to be a few million dollars in debt. I’ve lost count of the amount of times Mitchell has exclaimed ‘You have to spend money to make money!’ These businesses don’t require expensive computers and a hundred staff, they run on multi million dollar machinery and hundreds of thousands of dollars of fertilisers. Without loans farming could not have progressed the way it has since Sandy farmed.
There is still plenty of physical labour involved in running a successful farming business. From picking rocks, fixing machinery and putting up fences there is plenty of blood, sweat and tears going into it, however there is a lot more comfort involved in the bigger tasks such as seeding and harvesting a paddock which now come with airconditioned interiors, suspension and headlights allowing for longer work hours.
I asked Sandy if many people were resistant to the changes in equipment and the introduction of machinery. “I was never so glad to see the backend of those bloody horses.” While they couldn’t have farmed without horses it required a heavy workload and limited work to sunlight hours. The horses required feeding, watering and washing and unlike modern machinery needed rest.
When Wayne took over the family farm at just 17 Sandy became a mentor and father like figure for him. Mitchell has been lucky enough to learn off Wayne and have Sandy to call upon. You could say advice on weather patterns and sheep condition is pretty sound after 94 years and although Sandy no longer farms himself you can often find him climbing into the header to do a few laps and assess the conditions with Mitchell. That or bringing a cake out for smoko.
Mitchell, Uncle Sandy and Wayne during harvest 2019. (Photo Susan Collins.)
Mitchells toughest year since farming was 2016, again a wet, cold year, a year where frost destroyed crops across the entire Wheatbelt and further abroad.
Mitchell recalls a day when Sandy joined him to harvest in 2016 and they went for about 15minutes of silence when Sandy asked “Have you got the elevators working on the header? You better have a look in the box mate.” Mitchell said he didn’t want to turn around.
They didn’t get enough grain to fill a 9litre bucket in that time. Wayne explained they were beautiful looking crops, but there was nothing coming in.
Thankfully it’s not always like that.
A couple of years ago Sandy, Wayne and Mitchell decided to try and restore Sandy’s old Alice Chalmers tractor which had been sitting in their shed for 30 odd years. Amazingly it started up, but it needed some work. Sandy used Alice to drag the tractor to try to get the clutch brakes to separate, when the clutch held strong, Mitchell put the JCB into reverse and Wayne describes seeing Alice’s front wheels come off the ground with Sandy still sitting pretty in the seat!
When your business and livelihoods are highly dependent on the weather there can be challenging times. You just have to look to Eastern Australia where droughts have lasted years and many have struggled to stay afloat (pun not intended) to see how much is out of their hands, even with the technological advances seen in the last two decades.
I sometimes think people are ignorant to the fact that food on the shelves at supermarkets don’t just appear, this is no ones fault in particular, but there is a lack of awareness I believe to what actually goes into creating the loaves of bread, the fruit and veg, the beer!
Generations of farmers put their blood, sweat and tears into farming so that the world can eat. Learning begins from the youngest of ages and never stops. You never really stop being a farmer, just ask Sandy. On the eve of his 95th birthday even with the angst and fear of isolation, Sandy calls Mitchell to reassure him the rain will come and surely enough a week later some did.
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