By Chloe Kent
FARMING isn’t easy – there are good years and bad, prices hit highs and lows, and most can weather the storm – even if by a thread.
But in Australia, throw in a natural disaster, or price crisis, and you see the real strength and determination of our farmers.
On one side of the table sits the town boy, Pete, who married the farm girl, Melanie; on the other, the town girl, Mandy, who married the farm boy Brendan.
Together they are the generation who took on the family farms, weathered the storms, and came out the other side.
“I grew up around farming and my grandparents had a dairy farm,” Pete explained.
“I ended up as a dairy trainee running my in-law’s family farm.”
For Melanie, a third-generation farmer on stunning hills north of Kongwak, finding her match was the perfect pairing.
Working since he was a young chap, with Brendan’s grandfather purchasing the beautiful land in 1921 before the main road cut through, Brendan juggled farm life and school.
“My father broke his leg and I was milking night and day and still going to school. Not long after, aged 16, I left school and have been here ever since.”
For Wonthaggi girl, Mandy, the dairy roots were also in her DNA.
“My grandparents and great-grandparents had a dairy farm in Mirboo North.”
But on April 27, 2016, the lives of all four dairy farmers were turned upside down.
It was the day the Australian Stock Exchange announced the immediate cut of milk prices – Murray Goulburn would now pay farmers below the cost of production.
“I remember looking at the first cheque that came through after Fonterra followed Murray Goulburn. It went from $10,000 to $3000,” Brendan stated, the disbelief still evident in his eyes.
“It dropped from 42c a litre to 12c. Our wages effectively dropped from $42 an hour to $12 an hour overnight,” Mandy added.
“Milk dropped, but fuel didn’t, nor any other costs. Fertiliser, fuel, how do you explain it to the bank?
“It pushed the good farmers out. People lost their livelihood.”
A seven-day-a-week job, you have to virtually be dead to stop.
“Little farms cannot afford to employ people anymore; 15 or 20 years ago a large farm was 200 head. Now, 300 cows is small, and one-to-two individuals run it,” Pete stated.
“The margin is so small you have to be milking a lot.”
And, whilst the dairy crisis rattled these two couples, their girls are the most important.
“Production is the first way of knowing if there is an issue,” Mandy exclaimed.
“I remember mum nearly killed me one year. I put 350 (fertiliser) to the acre – 25 tonne or something,” Brendan laughed.
“I always thought we were not putting enough. Pete Matthews nearly fell out of his chair when I said that’s what I wanted. It worked – we didn’t have to put any the following years.
“You do have fun times. But if you make a mistake, you have to wear it, and it can cost you for years,” Pete added.
“When the price goes down, you can never make it back up, no matter what you do.”
“No-one came out of the dairy crisis unscathed,” Mandy concluded.
For Pete and Mel, the opportunity to convert from dairy to beef was jumped upon.
“I get a weekend. I can pick up extra farm work. After 25 years without it, it gets old,” Pete explained.
“Mandy, the family and I went near Yarram, a day out. We got home about 4pm and the last thing you think of is wanting to milk, but it has to be done,” Brendan explained by comparison.
“We are pretty lucky as we don’t feed in the bale. The cows come of their own will.”
“But a lot of share farmers, those who have left bills unpaid and disappear, give smaller farmers a bad name.”
Their message is simple: if you want to stay in the game, you have to get bigger, and for some farmers this isn’t feasible – physically, financially or mentally.
“You live, breath, eat, 24 hours, 7 days a week milking. A cow calving – you may be up until 3am, then the alarm goes off to milk. You cannot sleep in.”
Farmers are amongst the most hardworking individuals around the world. To put milk in your coffee, or grain in your cereal, many go without for years on end.
For Brendan and Mandy, two holidays since their honeymoon in 1990 have been had, including one to Darwin when they woke at 5am each morning.
Pete and Mel escaped on a cruise just after the dairy crisis – the girls were dry and the few still milking a born and bred city boy, but avid farm lover, came down to step up.
“$1000 on board later – acupuncture, a massage – Pete was finally starting to relax. I was ready to knock him off!” Mel laughed.
But, sitting around the kitchen table, each experiencing heartache and the highs and lows that come with farming, even a sliding door joke that if Mandy married Pete they would be sitting in a waterfront three-storey home in Inverloch, they agree they wouldn’t change a thing.
Where to from here?
Pete and Mel have just transitioned from dairy to beef, and Brendan and Mandy have their three-year plan as they slowly undertake a similar transition.
“We’re just sick of the ups and downs, and the instability.”
“The new generation are seeing the struggles – it’s an industry that relies on multi-generation, it’s not an industry that people generally gravitate towards,” Pete summed up.
And for their girls?
On the Durkin farm, it was never a question of ‘Last’ going.
“She always came in last – the last to arrive from the calves, the last to be in the dairy – she was the best cow at breaking in the heifers,” Pete states.
Seeing out her days, Last remains one of two dairy girls on the farm, surrounded by Kimba, cats, cows, horses, goats, and chickens to name but a few.
And having less time in the dairy means more time for cuddles and games.
For Mandy and Brendan, time will tell, but don’t be surprised if a few faces stay.
“We do it because we love the contact with our animals.” Brendan smiled.
“You rear from day old to 13-14 years old.
“There’s no gold watch in the industry.”
What makes these four people incredible individuals is their generous spirit and willingness to jump in and help each other, and their friends and family out.
“We have some of the most fertile, agricultural land – why are we importing?” Mel stated.
“Why do we rely on product from around the world? Why are we exporting all our top products? Townsfolk are asking how they can buy direct from the farm?
“The increase in farmers markets shows that Australians want to buy local, buy organic.”
Next time you’re buying food, clothes or anything for that matter, ask yourself am I supporting Australian farmers? Because you may be saving someone’s farm and livelihood.