My life as a farmer.
This is not a joke. This is true. I have never been a farmer. Yet some of my earliest childhood memories are of farming.
As a toddler, my aunt Pauline likes to remind me, I killed all the hens in the henhouse. I have no memory of this of course, it is something she remembers of my past. I guess I must have watched my parents chop the head of a chicken and thought I could do it as well and help them.
My own memory relating to farming is of visiting my grandparents in Lilydale. They had a few acres on Cavehill Road. On the farm my grandmother used to fatten pigs. They seemed to do well on their twice daily feeds but I do not remember ever eating pork there. She also milked a couple of cows mainly to feed her large family. The farm also held geese, chickens, and turkeys. On the major feasts we were usually fed lamb, or beef. Only on very special days was chicken ever served because hens were kept principally for their eggs. The turkeys and geese must have finished elsewhere.
As a kid in Camperdown our parents had the use of some acres to farm. They also kept cows. Each year we would take a day old calf or two from our neighbours, the Coverdale’s and fatten them up for later sale as young heifers. Not often, but sometimes I would teach the calves to drink from a bucket. To do this you shoved your hand in their mouths and pushed their heads into the milk bucked. They soon learned to drink rather than suffocate and very quickly they managed to drink unaided.
The Evan’s also had a small dairy farm next door. Bill Evans supplemented farm income as a builder and vegetable grower on leased land. He grew a few crops of potatoes and in the holidays I helped bag them. I even attempted to grow a few of my own in an out of the way spot. The ground was uncultivated before my garden and it was in a spot that got too little sunshine so the crop was poor but we did get some tasty fresh spuds for my effort.
The summer holidays were long and to be usefully occupied I would do as the neighbouring kids did and help them and their parents. I learned to repair and build farm fences with the Coverdale’s. With them I would also help with the hay each year. When the hay was dry we build small haystacks from the hay as it came from the hay press in the paddock and help load it first onto a truck and trailer, and then unload it into the barn. Hay stacking was heavy work but it was good bodybuilding exercise as well, and afterwards I always felt very fit.
At home my farm exercise was separating the milk and cream. The separator was a crank driven thing that had to be wound up to speed. Once the correct speed was reached the milk was turned on, and I would keep cranking until the last cream was separated from the milk. I then had to disassemble the machine and wash its parts so they were ready for me the next day.
We had no farm equipment at home except for the separator. I learned to drive a truck and a tractor as a kid on Coverdale’s farm, Renny Hill. But that is all I ever did. I never learned to plough with the tractor. But I did learn to plough with a horse pulled single furrow model. Similarly I never drove a tractor with anything but a three point pickup. These were handy for carrying rocks, tools, sand, in fact anything needed on the farm was easier to load and unload onto the pickup than a utility.
My farming experience was only just beginning. The summer school holidays were a good time to look for farming work and in the Summer of 1962 Bill Woods got me a job at Mt Hesse station near Winchelsea. I had bagged potatoes with Bill Evans. At Mt Hesse I spent a fortnight filling bags of wheat, barley and oats and them sewing them tight so we could load them onto trucks. I got to value the bag loader there as grain bags are quite heavy. None of the work was hard except I developed a total dislike for barley. The grain has an irritating husk that burrows into your flesh at the slightest exposure. I hated the stuff and was very pleased to see the end of the crop. From that experience I earned enough to go out and buy an engagement ring for Jennie. That working holiday has turned out to have been the best investment of my life.
While at Colac High School one May I got a fortnight’s work bagging potatoes on Tirrengower farm in Irrewillipe. The paddock was waterlogged. It was impossible to know where the potatoes were as the stem had rotted away except it was somewhere on the rise between the watery furrows. Being much too wet for a potato digger to tackle the farmer chose about 4 teachers for this job of digging the potato crop with garden forks. The dirt stuck to our boots as we waded along each chilly furrow. It was cold dirty work. When our forks speared a potato it was downgraded and the old fellow employing us was cross. Unsurprisingly many potatoes were ruined. We explained we were doing our best to get as many out of the ground as possible, but the conditions were such we were his only chance of recovering anything, so he eventually accepted his lot.
My next farming experience was again a holiday period. That was dairying with Bill Woods. This lending a hand was not farming either but close enough to the action to learn a little. . My learning was limited as I couldn’t understand how long was need to irrigate a paddock. I did learn how to pull a calf from its struggling mother, and to drive a four wheel bike. I guess my main value was as company for Bill. We got our own first cow from Bill. And it’s first calf was a bull so I taught myself to desex Bandit with the aid of a little rubber band after having seen Bill do it.
My only sheep experience was with our pet lamb Caroline Lamb. I learned a little about wool and Jennie spun it and made raw black woollen jumpers. I did see first hand the terrible damage dogs could cause when left to roam and maul sheep. I also saw how terrible flies are on sheep in the summertime.
At about age nine my grandfather moved to Castella St Lilydale. In his back yard he had a bee hive and I got to see firsthand how he looked after them. Because of their importance in pollination it is obvious bees are more important to humankind than just producers of honey. And so it was with Grandpa. Here was a man of huge size and few words delicately handling the frames in his beehive not so he could harvest their honey so much as to ensure his ladies were healthy and fit to to their natural job.
That early introduction to bees was helpful to me in deciding we should have bees on our block in Anglesea. As a novice I was happy for the beekeeper to manage the hive but I enjoyed watching them come and go about their business. When we moved into suburbia proper I was sorry to leave the bees behind. Now I have a hive at Winchelsea. Hopefully I will be able to add more ladies this spring and we will all get to enjoy some homegrown honey.
I have had great affection for the “ladies” of production on farms. I loved having cows. The bees are fascinating. Coloe our sulphur crested cockatoo gave me great joy when she produced an unfertilised egg each year. Our chooks were also good producers. It is not necessary to anamorphise animal life but it is obvious mankind has made good use of female productive traits across all forms of farming for human good.
My last words on the subject reach back to my earlier life. The fencing experience I had had as a kid came in handy when we settled in Scotsburn as our farmlet needed fences. Our experience milking was also helpful as was the separator job. I never learned when to drench cattle or sheep and I suppose they suffered but to me it was farming based more on seeing than on doing. That’s it really. Farming has been more seeing than doing but farming life, harsh as it is, has everlasting appeal.