Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cock your hat - angles are attitudes

I was in Sydney two weeks ago for the Art4Agriculture Young Farming Champions #YFC14 Master Class, taking workshops on media interaction, public speaking, social licensing, and developing value statements and key messages – all in relation to food and fibre production. It was an exceptionally engaging weekend, with so many points sticking in my mind…

“There’s no good/bad/better/worse in food production systems, just different.”

“Trust is driven by confidence, competence and influential others.”

“Confidence comes from value similarity.”

“Consumer trust is driven by shared values rather than skills.”

“Sustainable balance = ethically grounded, scientifically verified and economically viable.”


“Don’t just turn up to the ‘events’ – keep talking in between.”

I especially need to remember that last one. Life gets in the way oftentimes, but it’s important we keep the conversation going.

But there’s one thing that’s really been at the top of my mind since #YFC14 and it came from Canadian Nuffield Scholar Clayton Robins.

Clayton spoke to us about youth development organisation 4-H. It’s awesome. If you haven’t heard of it, you need to. Check out the website for Clayton’s local branch here: http://www.4h.mb.ca/

I’m not being intentionally dismissive of the fabulousness that is 4-H, but I want to move on quickly because that is not what’s been on my mind.

Clayton’s a fourth generation farmer from a mixed beef and cropping enterprise in south-west Manitoba. And according to him, his family farm is a “farm” – rather than a ranch - because he’s a “ball cap guy.”

It’s stereotypical of course, that a farmer wears a baseball cap and a rancher wears a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. (In Australian terms, we’re talking graziers on stations wearing Akubras.) But stereotypes can be useful sometimes, whether they’re right or wrong.

I love hats. And I reckon most farmers do. The right hat on the right person seems to become an extension of personality or an extra limb.

I have mentioned the many metaphorical hats a farmer wears previously. But now I’m talking literal, physical hats.

We have quite the collection of them. It includes lots of baseball caps. Mostly because suppliers and product reps like to give them as gifts. Buy a truck load of poly tanks? Here, have a free cap! Buy a pallet of chemical? Here, have a cap! Buy a grader? Here’s your matching cap!

The most recent addition was these awesome #australianagriculture and Art4Agriculture caps from the YFC workshop in Sydney.

When I presented ST with his, back home, he delightedly announced that this cap would be going straight into the ute to be worn when mustering on the motorbike. This was a good response, because many caps don’t ever make it off the hat rack – forever on the sidelines, never to fulfil their life’s purpose.

We have baseball caps for all occasions. And the funny thing is, that we actually do wear different caps for different occasions. ST has caps that are for mustering, caps that are for social occasions, caps for travelling, flash caps for Town trips, around the house caps, caps for particularly dirty jobs, and of course there are favourite caps, second favourite caps, least favourite caps… and so it goes on…

But generally, every day, we both wear wide-brimmed hats. ST’s is a traditional rabbit skin Akubra, while mine is straw.

It’s not unusual to have both ordinary day-to-day wear wide-brims and “stepping out” wide-brims. To wear while working, and to wear when attending farm themed events or visiting other farm properties, respectively.

It’s important to pick and choose the right hat for the right occasion because if you wear your good hat to the wrong event, your neighbours may never let you live it down. In some settings, too clean a hat can be equated (jokingly) to a lazy worker. The same can be said for boots. It’s all very political, this farmer fashion business.

But let’s get back on track…

If we are mostly wide-brimmed hat wearers, then by Clayton’s definition that means our farm is definitely a station.

We already knew this of course - we call it Burragan Station - but I like having a new data point to draw from.

The thing is… I don’t mind calling it a farm when the circumstances require it. For example, when I visited Hamilton North Public School in Newcastle two months ago. Or on this blog.

I also have no problem with calling myself a farmer (or farmer’s wife), rather than a grazier. I know it may seem like I use the term farmer with total reckless abandon. But it’s a conscious decision. Not the result of being new to station life, or taking advantage of artistic licence and gross commercialisation, as has been suggested to me in the past.

My reason is four-fold.

1) Grazier, to me, is a subcategory of farmer. Farmer is the overarching term which covers all food and fibre production. It’s a bit like someone introducing themselves as a doctor rather than a dermatologist. So I believe farmer is correct - just not as specific.

2) I see the word grazier as being more jargon than is necessary for many of my readers. I have lots of friends who read the blog who have spent most of their lives in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Saying grazier to them rather than farmer would be like a journalist using words like presser, grab or par (press release, quote and sentence) when talking to someone with no media experience. It’s about being less exclusive. Meanwhile, the graziers still know what I'm talking about anyway, so it's no harm to them.

3) To those not in the know, I believe the term grazier can conjure an overly-simplistic idea of livestock grazing on land, while the graziers just sit back and watch. Graziers are every bit a farmer as a farmer who tills the land. We are growing something (wool and lamb) every bit as alive and in need of "farming" as a cropping farmer. We prepare our paddocks and our mobs, we join the ewes and rams at certain times, we monitor the mobs as lambs are born and wool is grown - making sure there are no pests or diseases - we have periods of busy times when lamb marking and crutching, and then our "harvest" of shearing... All of this is the action of "farming.”

4) Last year I asked ST if it bothered him when people called him a farmer rather than a grazier. The conversation went a little something like this…
Bess: "Babe, do you mind when people call you a farmer rather than a grazier?"
ST: "No, why would I?"
Bess: "Well I've noticed a lot of graziers don't like being called farmers, because they say farmers are people who grow crops or plant pastures."
ST: "Well yeah, technically that's what we call a farmer I guess. But we're all farmers, it's just that specifically we have grazing country. I guess it depends what kind of country you have as to what specific type of farmer you are. But in the end aren't we all doing the same thing?"

So if the man calls himself a farmer, then that makes me a farmer's wife!

Meantime, we’ll still be wearing our wide-brimmed hats out in the paddock and our “ball caps” on other occasions. This is Australia after all; sun protection is vital.

"Cock your hat - angles are attitudes." - Frank Sinatra

Sunday, August 3, 2014

They are the Champions - My Young Farming Champion school visit at Hamilton North

I had one of the most fantastic experiences of my life last week. Have you ever walked into a strange place, a place you’ve never been before, full of people you’ve never met, and yet everyone knows your name and is excited to see you?

Last week that happened to me, as soon as I stepped through the school yard gate on my visit to Hamilton North Public School (HNPS), in Newcastle, as their Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) Wool Young Farming Champion for the Archibull Prize.

It was surreal at first. Confronting. And then thrilling. And has had me on a high for all the days since.

As HNPS Archibull coordinator and teacher Mrs Trudy Ramsay explained to the students, I spend most of my year on a relatively remote sheep station and can go for months where the only three other people I see are my husband ST and his mum and dad. To suddenly walk among swarms of children yelling out, “It’s Bessie! She’s here! Bessie’s here! Did you see? Bessie is here!” is… crazy… unreal… exhilarating… and incredibly hard to explain.

A group of students walked me to the office and others came rushing over to introduce themselves and high-five me, hug me and tell me how excited they were to finally have me here. Me? Me! Their Young Farming Champion.

In the background, other students walked by singing ‘She is a champion’ to the tune of ‘We are the champions.” I feel like you probably think I’m making this up. I’m not. It was totally crazy ridiculous. One hundred and eighty primary school students, from the centre of Newcastle, were buzzing with the thrill of having a sheep farmer from Wilcannia visit their school, and the first morning bell hadn’t even rung yet!

The grins on their faces were intoxicating and this glee set the tone for my two amazing days at Hamilton North.

The Art4Agcirulture Young Farming Champion program involves several training and development workshops before we’re allowed to step foot into schools. Through these workshops I’d created a presentation on my life, Burragan, and the wool industry, and my first morning at HNPS was spent touring the classes - first grades 5 and 6, then 3 and 4, and then K, 1 and 2 – and sharing my presentation with the students. This was well received and I ran out of time with each class to answer all their questions. They were enthralled and exceptionally interested in my stories of farming, sheep, and everything to do with how wool makes it from farm to fashion and beyond.

The students had so many questions! They wanted to know everything

Where do the sheep sleep? Do you have to wash them? What kind of position are they in when they’re sleeping? What kind of things are there that can hurt them? Do you have to protect them? Would a ram scare away something that was going to hurt them? How much grass do they eat each day? How much water do they drink each day? Do any of them ever die? Do you have to give them medicine? Do you live near a vet? How do you get water out there? Do they like being shorn? Do you name them? What other animals do you have? Have you ever fallen off your motorbike? How long have you been riding a motorbike for?

Where did your very first sheep come from? Do you ever have to sell any sheep? Can you buy sheep and how do you do that? How do you get them into the shearing shed? How long does it take to shear a sheep? How exactly do you shear a sheep? Does it hurt them? Have you ever shorn a sheep? What’s your favourite animal on the farm? Do the sheep live in families? How many sheep did you say you have again? Wow!

Some questions were easier to answer than others.

The HNPS teachers were equally warm and welcoming, also asking lots of questions, praising my presentation, and hosting a special (and totally delicious) lunch for me in the staff room.

I then accompanied Mrs Ramsay to the school Environment Club meeting. I was exceptionally impressed that the students at HNPS were so environmentally aware. They have “Bin Free Tuesday” where everyone is encouraged to bring food that isn’t pre-packaged, so the bins shouldn’t need to be used on a Tuesday. There are rubbish monitors, bin monitors, worm farm monitors, compost heap monitors, and even chook monitors! Each of these people has to report in at the meeting to discuss the progress of their area or raise any issues. They graph all their results and brainstorm ways to improve things… including the energy usage of the whole school!

HNPS is on a tiny parcel of land, with a very small student catchment area, and it is only a few kilometres from the city centre. Principal Kelly Deakin took me on a school tour. Within this urbanised environment the students and teachers have created a gorgeous oasis, with a real focus on sustainability and community.

As well as a tadpole pond and some gorgeous laying hens who free range through the school grounds (and sometimes into the classes!) after lunch time, the students also grow fruit and vegetables. These are often sold to the local community on market garden days, though sometimes they have cook up days at school too. HNPS is particularly proud of its raspberry patch, its homemade lemonade and is worm-water liquid fertiliser. The latter obviously not used as food so much as for growing food.

After lunch and a tour, I joined the all school assembly where students took the opportunity to ask me more questions that they’d thought of after my classroom presentations. Again, we ran out of time! They wanted to discuss every little detail of farm life and growing wool… such a huge topic to fit into just a few days!

For the rest of the afternoon and the next day I spent time with Mrs Ramsay and five fabulous grade four students who make up the HNPS Archibull Blog Editorial Team: Mable, Hayley, Ava, Bella and Ava. The girls picked my brain for industry knowledge, taking down notes for their compulsory blog topics and discussing more in-depth topics such as different breeds of sheep, a year in the life of a sheep at Burragan and the various properties of wool. Given their interest in the environment, the Editorial Team was particularly delighted to hear that wool is biodegradable.

These girls blew my mind! They were so enthusiastic, attentive and eager to learn. Their grasp of all the concepts we discussed was incredible, as were their technology skills! They each had laptops, typed up their notes, emailed them to Mrs Ramsay and then updated their Archibull Blog right in front of me. It wasn’t that long ago that I finished school, and given that I’m not around children often probably shelters me, but to see these nine and ten year olds use this technology so innately stunned me. Anyone my age who’s had to talk their mother/father through sending an email, over the phone, will understand!

Unfortunately the students actually had to do real school as well, and learn about things other than wool, so my time was up. The school captain and vice-captain presented me with a box of handmade (by one of the student’s dad’s, who owns a restaurant) chocolate truffles before leading their Archibull statue through a line-up of all the students clapping, and I was instructed to follow the parade as the guest of honour! It was so incredibly rock-star, I was stunned. And stoked.

Check out the photos on the HNPS Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=611547785626687&id=492833964164737

Art4Agricultre National Program Director Lynne Strong, and my sponsor Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), received very excited phone calls from me that day, thanking them for the amazing opportunity. I’ve had many genuinely fantastic moments in my life, but aside from meeting and marrying my gorgeous farmer ST, visiting Hamilton North Public School has been one of the very best.

It’s so easy for farmers, especially ones so far removed from cities, consumers and even the rest of the supply chain process, to fall into the habit of feeling unappreciated. My two days at Hamilton North proved the exact opposite. We are so genuinely welcomed, loved and appreciated. Consumers really are interested in hearing our stories and understanding why producing food and fibre is such a vital part of all their lives. I wish all farmers had the opportunity to experience this the way I did.

There are so many people involved in this program who all deserve huge thanks for the tireless work they put into making these special moments happen. My sponsor AWI – and all the other sponsors of the YFCs – need to know how important its financial support is, how much I value it, how their backing has given me one of the most fantastic experiences of my life.

AWI has gone above and beyond in its support of my journey with Hamilton North. Before my visit, Mrs Ramsay mentioned to me that the students would love to visit my farm, but it was simply too far away. I asked AWI if they knew of any wool growers closer to Newcastle who might be willing to host a farm visit. Their response blew me away; AWI went one step further and just a week after my school visit, they took some sheep and a shearer to Hamilton North for a shearing demonstration! Check out HNPS’s blog here to take a look: Hamilton North Archibull Blog

The feedback I’ve heard from the teachers has been outstanding. And if the children’s reaction to being able to touch and feel the wool that I took along to the school is any indication, then I can imagine they would have been absolutely wild with thrill to have real rams and ewes in their classrooms!

To everyone at AWI, thank you, thank you. You have genuinely touched the lives of all the children at Hamilton North, and without a doubt, made my world a brighter one too. The high I’ve experienced through this program is addictive and I hope you’ll let me continue to be involved in future.

To Hamilton North PS, thank you for having me. I loved every second of my visit and I can’t wait to see what you come up with for your Archibull Prize artwork. Good Luck! You’re all already winners. As am I.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Enough with the “lifestyle” already…

THIS IS PROBABLY not the kind of thing I’m supposed to say out loud… but maybe it’s time to break the rules.

If I hear one more person say the best thing about being a farmer is the “lifestyle”… I’m going to hurl my not-quite-CWA-perfected sponge cake across the room. Enough with the “lifestyle” already.

Maybe this needs to come with a disclaimer: I love being a farmer. I love being a farmer’s wife. I absolutely adore Burragan, and our sheep and cattle, and I love my famer husband, his farming family, and our farming life. I love being an ambassador for Australian agriculture. I whole heartedly believe this is a fantastic industry with so, so much to offer young people.

But a picture perfect, magazine worthy, smoko-scones-and-sunset-drinks “lifestyle”, farming is not.

I’m sure my “lifestyle” issue has a lot to do with the last six months of my life being totally over the top whinge worthy. There have been some bottom-of-the-barrel, below-low points – though most of them have nothing to do with farming.

I’m also well aware there’s a very fine line between an amusing gripe and a big fat ol’ pity party. (I do hope you’ll put this in the first category.)

I just can’t keep it to myself anymore. Every time I read a news story or blog or answer to an interview question that says farmers farm for the “lifestyle,” it feels like someone sticks a piece of rusty fencing wire straight into the heart of a little pocket-sized Bessie at Burragan voodoo doll.

Because surely I’m not the only farmer who feels like they don’t have a life? Let alone a “lifestyle.”

Farming is a lot of really great things. It’s a profitable business. It’s extremely satisfying. It’s a worldwide NECESSITY. It’s a way to really connect with and enjoy your environment. It’s fabulous fun, and is different to any other career out there.

But let’s get one thing straight. It is a job. Yes, it’s a job we love, but it is a job. I. Am. At. Work. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, almost 365 days a year.

Can you imagine a doctor who actually LIVES at the hospital saying she or he does it for “lifestyle”…. or a lawyer who actually LIVES at the courthouse saying the best bit is the “lifestyle”… or a teacher!?

Maybe I don’t run in the right circles, but - and it must be added, my father is a teacher - I cannot recall ever hearing a teacher say they teach for the “lifestyle.” And as overworked and underpaid as teachers may be, it can’t be denied that they actually get designated holiday periods.

Nope, most teachers teach because it’s inspiring and interesting and fun and makes a difference to people’s lives. And I just can’t get my head around why the same is not often enough said by farmers. Why do we play the “lifestyle” card?

In just the last few months, my fabulous farming lifestyle has consisted of more than 15,000 (make no mistake about the number of zeroes in that number) kilometres of driving to the city, because our “lifestyle” means we live so far away from its necessary services.

In summer, the lifestyle entails groundhog days of constant water problems, animal rescues, fire threats, fodder feeding, deadly-venomous snakes and hot, hot heat.

In winter, the lifestyle means frozen water pipes, fencing in the sleeting rain, and the excruciating sting of cold knuckles accidentally hitting hard metal in the climb across the sheep yard fences for lamb marking.

During shearing, the pre-dawn to post-dusk lifestyle means I might only get to spend an hour a day, max, with my farmer husband… and we’re both guaranteed to be tired and cranky.

During drought, the lifestyle means constant, constant, constant stress and worry and total helplessness.

And during the good seasons, the lifestyle means we are so freaking busy trying to make a go of it that we don’t even have time to stop and smell the Salvation Jane.

Sure, maybe there are some farmers out there who manage to juggle all this with an actual, real lifestyle… Good on them. I envy them. I also imagine they’re the minority.

I’m not denying that farming comes with a certain way of life. But mostly that’s busy, hard, and tiring.

Sometimes – usually the few times a year friends come to visit - there are scones at smoko time, and drinks at sunset.

But I’m not convinced those so incredibly infrequent “lifestyle” moments are that must-be-total-magic thing that keeps farmers farming…

for entire lifetimes…

and generations…

upon generations…

and generations.

Are you?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Meantime, in my world...

Dear Reader,

Long time, no see. How’ve you been doing since we last chatted?

I’m sorry I just kind of disappeared there for a while. Life got loud. The blog got silent.

And then this morning, after many, many months of feeling like not much at all (aside from a chocolate and a lie down)… I felt I like blogging.

Pretty much all my commitments were abandoned there at one stage...and some still are... including my garden. So I thought I’d ease you, and myself, back into the world by dusting off my loved but long forgotten DSLR and heading outside for a bit of a yard tour.

Here’s what’s happening at my place today:

The sun is shining and the succulents are flowering...

These gorgeously lime Lomandra are waiting to be planted...

Some moss made itself at home in the dirt behind the old laundry shed...

The veggie garden is chugging along, despite being totally neglected. Don't you just love it when food pops up from last year's seed and you don't even have to do anything? I adore this form of lazy gardening!

There's a total over abundance of lemons on my tree... (and I had so many limes that were never picked, they're turning yellow too! Do you think they'd still be good to juice and freeze?)

My passionfruit vines are flowering again. They did this last year and never fruited. Does anyone know the secret? They are both grafted varieties.

Most things are looking a dreary kind of brownish green... but there are still a few pops of vibrant red, if you look for them!

And of course, my best friend and little buddy is still as cheeky as ever! Almost had to edit him out of most pics...

xx Bessie at Burragan

What's been happening in your world?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Chasing water...

It was the water pump that tipped me over the edge. The one that pumps water from the house dam, through a few kilometres of poly pipe, to the overhead tank at the homestead. All week it’s been trying to take me down. Piece by piece.

Ever since its last oil change it’s not quite pumped properly again. I can start the motor alright. It’s the suction that’s just not sucking. Or, actually, it sucks majorly, just not in the way it’s supposed to.

For the fourth time in a week I was down at the house dam, priming the bloody thing with buckets and buckets of water. How much water am I supposed to shove down its throat before I give up? It’s 45 degrees. It’s 6pm. I have a garden dying of thirst. Dogs, chooks and a calf that need to drink. Clothes that need washing. Dinner than needs cooking. And there are two dirty, smelly, tired humans who are over it. Over. It.

I stumble down the bank to fill the bucket a fourth time. The level is low and there’s half a meter of mud to stretch over before I can even reach the water, dangling the bucket on its side, in the tips of my outstretched fingers... reaching… stretching… almost… Ahhh stuff it!

I’m in the bloody dam. Stinking, grey slush up to my shins. Water running around my ankles and into my work boots.

Ahhhh… stuff me! Stuff this! Stuff you! Stuff this whole bloody thing! All I want is normal taps like normal people. Ones where clean, normal water comes out when you turn them on. Is that so hard?

I lug the bucket of dirty liquid back up to the pump and begin the process again.

Unscrew cap. Pour water in until overflowing. Replace cap.

Flick choke left. Pull the starter rope. Motor starts. Flick choke right.

Listen for a change in engine noise… none. Watch poly pipe in the water for change in buoyancy… none.

Open water release tap…

Chug, chug, chug, gurgle, spit. Chug, chug, chug, gurgle, spit.

Spit. Gurgle. Spit.

This is not how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be spraying water at full force, five feet away. Whyyyyyyy, God-all-things-irrigation-related, whyyyy!?

Turn motor off. Start again.

Prime. Choke. Start. Observe… Nothing.

This. Sucks.

This sucks. This sucks, this sucks, this sucks thissucksthissuuuuuucks!

I tell myself I’ll give it one more bucket of water… though I’ve already told myself this twice before.

This time, as I lumber down the dam bank to the water’s edge, my boots lose grip. Hard dirt and stones graze through the palm of my hand as I hit the ground, and angry tears prick my eyes.

I tell myself to suck it up. It’s just a bit of gravel rash. It’s just a bit of mud. It’s just a water pump. And other people have it far worse. At least I’ve got water left in the dam to pump.

But as I cart my full bucket of water back to the pump again, tears stream down my face and snot escapes my nose. I wash my stinging hands in the bucket and wipe my face, mixing tears and snot with blood and mud.

Unscrew cap. Pour water in until overflowing. Replace cap.

Flick choke left. Pull the starter rope. Motor starts. Flick choke right.

Listen for a change in engine noise… none. Watch poly pipe in the water for change in buoyancy… none.

Open water release tap…

This time I walk along the long length of poly pipe, that’s supposed to be sucking the water from the centre of the dam up into the pump, continually lifting it off the ground and dropping it again, trying to displace any airlocks which might be blocking the suction.

It’s searing. The hottest part of the hottest day, of a whole string of weeks that have been 45 degrees plus. Sweat beads on my hairline, dribbling into my eyes. I want to throw myself into the dam, but the muddy exit would ruin any relief or enjoyment.

While I’m trying to get water to our house, just so we can wash our hands, and shower, and flush the toilet, and water our pets and garden, ST is out starting pumps across the property to keep water supplies up to sheep and cattle. I hope he’s having more luck than me. The drive alone, just to start two pumps on the eastern side of Burragan, takes 90 minutes at pace. And that’s not including jobs, or problems, along the way.

I walk back up to the pump and close the water release tap again. Then open it. Then close it. Then open it.

“This is crap,” I growl aloud. Except maybe there’s a few swear words in there too.

And I tell myself to stop whining, again. With added swear words as well. Remember you’ve got it good.

Find the funny side, I urge myself… Come on, you usually can. What’s the funny side? Come on, anything, anything amusing at all? I draw a blank.

Focusing back on the task at hand, I hear the change of engine noise as the suction kicks in properly and the chug, chug, chug, gurgle, spit of liquid from the water release tap transforms suddenly into a magical high pressure gush of water.

Thank Christ! Success! Thank bloody Christ!

I close the release tap, stand by for a few minutes to make sure everything is still pumping properly, and then, dragging my boots through the sand, I head back up the dam bank to where I parked the ute.

I stop at the top of the bank. You… have… got to be kidding me!

Ten meters in front of me, there’s a geyser of water shooting into the air. Sometime between now and last time I was here, two days ago, something has blown a hole in the poly pipe line that leads to the house.

You win, Water Gods, you win.

I move to grumble down the bank and turn the pump off again.

But something stops me, and instead, I walk towards the fountain, turn my face to the sky, and feel it rain down on me.

It’s warm. But it’s wet. And it feels like artificial wishes, recalling how it’s done.