Farm Day

Eric Scoble and Janet Mitchell live on one of the prettiest, most carefully tended working farms you’re likely to find. Their property, ‘Laurimar Glen’, lies about an hour and a half north of Melbourne, and is home to a menagerie that includes llamas, deer, horses, chickens, pigs, Canadian elk and Jersey cows in 200 acres of wide tree-lined fields. As well as caring for their animals and home, the couple help run the Kyneton Daffodil and Arts Festival, organise local dances, run the music program at a nearby nursing home (Janet plays piano, Eric sings), and regularly drive long distances to attend the sporting and dance performances of their 24 grandchildren. When they married in their garden in 2003 they had a small gathering of 150 people. They’re busy, and they work hard. But in 2006, Janet saw an article in the local paper about a new scheme called Farm Day, and decided they should make room in their life for one more thing.

‘We like to be involved,’ she laughs. ‘And we thought we had something to offer.’

Eric and Janet signed up to host a city family on their farm, which is how they met high school teacher and single mother Marina McNeil, 45, and her four children, Antony, 14, Stephanie, 13, Olivia, 11, and William, 9.

The farmers admit they felt some trepidation about meeting the McNeils. Janet says: ‘My first reaction was to hope the children wouldn’t run wild. But then we thought okay, a single mum, four kids, we’ll do our best.’ She worried the children, who live in the beachside suburb of Parkdale, might not take to farm life. ‘We hoped they’d like us. We hoped they wouldn’t get bored. You know, we’ve seen the chooks, the horses, now what?’

As it turns out, she needn’t have worried. They found Marina a delight. ‘She’s got more go in her than a V-8 engine,’ Eric says. And the children, Janet says, ‘were wonderful, and interested in everything’. But Janet stresses the first visit was by no means one-sided. ‘Eric and I got a lot out of it.’ Eric explains: ‘Having Marina here gave us an insight into the life of a single mum. Honestly, she gets twelve out of ten from us. She’s reared four children and they have the best manners. We’re as good as grandparents to them now. When they ring up we can’t just speak to Mum, we have to speak to all of them, and an hour and a half later we’re still saying goodbye.’

Staying with Eric and Janet allowed the McNeil family a close-up look at rural life, and the chance to learn from experienced farmers. Eric has lived around Kyneton all his life. Janet was born in Brisbane, spent her childhood in Indonesia, where her father was in the Dutch forces, then moved to Victoria. She has lived on the land for decades. Both have an enormous amount of knowledge about plants and animals and are keen to share it with the next generation.

Drawing on their joint experience as parents and grandparents, they know how to make learning fun. Janet explains to visitors that her soft big-eyed llamas are sold as herd protectors since they’re aggressive enough to kill an attacking dog. She taught Marina’s daughters why pigs’ tails need to be docked (they chew them off one another otherwise), and Eric gave one of Marina’s sons a lesson about the birds and the bees. ‘We took the kids with us to mark the lambs,’ he says. ‘When Antony first caught one, I asked him to tell me whether it was a boy or a girl. He didn’t know, so I said, “have a look”. He took a look and said, “I still don’t know!” Once he’d picked up 50 or 60 lambs he got the idea.’

Eric recalls when Marina phoned to arrange the first visit to the farm. ‘I could hear a little bloke in the background yelling out, “Ask them if they’ve got a pig. Do you have a pig?” We only had one pig at the time and you wouldn’t credit it but she gave birth the very day they arrived. The little fellow, William, wouldn’t leave that pig alone. At one point he came running up and said, “Mum, the pig’s having thousands of babies.” So we went down to the pen and Willy sat with his face right up close, watching it all. We named one of the piglets after him.’

Farm Day also offered Marina the first holiday she’d had in years. ‘It’s so relaxing for me to be there, to enjoy their hospitality, listen to their stories, eat homemade muffins sitting next to the old wood stove.’ Marina came to Australia from Scotland when she was seven years old and has no family here, so meeting Eric and Janet has given her children the chance to spend time with older people, something she regards as invaluable. She says, ‘Eric and Janet are so down to earth. They’re the grandparents everyone should have.’

Eric and Janet relish the opportunity to expose city dwellers to the realities of living in the country. Life has been particularly challenging for them the past few years due to the worsening drought, and Eric’s life-threatening battle with prostate cancer. Last year they had to sell 600 of their merino sheep. Another 400 sheep they’d been breeding for years were taken off their hands as a favour. They’d recently spent $30,000 on buying feed but had no water for the animals.

‘I want city kids to understand the worth in farming, and to know it’s not all milk and honey,’ Eric says. He’s looking forward to meeting their next Farm Day visitors, and wants nearby properties to get involved with the program. ‘There’s an olive farm down the road, and grape farms, cattle, dairy, and potato farms nearby. What children could learn is amazing.’ He says when he first met the McNeil family, the children thought working on a farm was a nine-to-five job. Now they know it’s ‘daylight to dark, seven days a week. The kids learned about manual work – pens have to be cleaned, animals have to be fed, watered, liced. When they see a carton of eggs in the supermarket they know what’s gone into making them.’

Since the first visit in May 2006, the two families have kept in close contact, and Marina brings the children to the farm as often as she can. A while ago, Eric says, ‘We collected the soccer posters that came with the newspaper and put them all in an album for Antony – he plays and he’s done an umpiring course. When we gave the album to him he was overwhelmed, really pleased. I had a few tears in my eyes. They’re a great family. You couldn’t get four better kids.’

City-dwellers Aaron Armstrong, 37, and Orla Thompson, 39, signed up to Farm Day because of their young son Gabriel. Aaron grew up in the rural town of Bourke, and had lived in Dubbo and Golgong before moving to Brisbane to work as a nurse educator. As a boy, he’d taken jobs mustering cattle and picking melons. Orla, a communications consultant, was born in Northern Ireland, and her parents were from farming communities, so as a young girl she made regular outings to the Irish countryside. The couple felt they had an understanding of the realities of rural life, but their three-year-old son had never been to a farm.

When Orla read about Farm Day in her food co-op’s newsletter she thought it offered a great opportunity to show Gabriel some of the animals from his picture books. She says they also wanted to give him ‘a sense of green space under blue skies’. So the family spent a day with Bob and Betty Baker.

The Baker’s 500-acre stud farm, ‘Wundaburra’, lies near Mt Archer between Kilcoy and Woodford, about 80 kilometres out of Brisbane. ‘Wundaburra,’ Betty explains, ‘means between the mountain and the water.’ The mountain is the place where musician Shirley Strachan’s helicopter crashed in 2001, and the water is nearby Neurum Creek.

Here they raise Droughtmaster cattle, a breed especially suited to Australia’s harsh climate. They have approximately 120 cattle, having culled their numbers severely because of the drought. ‘We like our farm,’ Betty says. ‘We’re proud of our cattle and always happy to show off the place.’ Bob was particularly keen to speak to city visitors about the need to buy local food.

The morning Aaron and Orla visited the farm there had been rain, after months of drought. They could still see that the ground had been dry and the dam perilously low. Because of the rain, the cattle weren’t in the yard, but Betty says ‘they still had a lovely time’. The family arrived early, and Gabriel headed straight for the machinery.

‘Orla told us Gabriel liked tractors and anything green,’ Betty says. Fortunately they were able to oblige, having tractors of varying sizes in their shed. Bob took Gabriel for a ride on their John Deere gator – a six-wheel diesel four-wheel drive – which he loved. ‘We take dogs, kids, feed, hay bales in it,’ Betty says. ‘Gabriel thought the gator was marvellous, and the big tractor was brilliant.’

Gabriel was able to get close to the large cattle. ‘Because he was with people who showed no fear, he didn’t have any either,’ Orla says. ‘He walked right up to them.’

Betty says they enjoyed showing off their property. ‘It was so nice to meet this young couple, and to let them see the cattle – the showgirls in particular are quiet and good for children to pat. One of our mums, Jasmine, was pregnant when they were here so after she gave birth we called them and sent photos.’

Orla’s Irish mother, Gabrielle, who has lived in Australia for 30 years, joined them for Farm Day. It was an eye-opener for Orla to see her mother standing next to their farm hosts. ‘My parents, who are roughly the same age as Bob and Betty, have a life of relative ease. Bob and Betty have responsibilities whether it rains, hails or shines. Bob recently had a knee injury, but he still had to work on the farm and look after his animals, despite the pain he was feeling. It’s hard grind running a farm. My parents have had to face other things but they’ve never had to face such financial risks or be so dependent on the weather. Bob and Betty keep going no matter what.’

Since their Farm Day visit, Aaron and Orla have visited the Baker’s several times and seen Bob and Betty in the city. ‘Bob had a scan done on his knee in the hospital where Aaron works,’ Betty says. ‘And afterwards we all met up and they took us to the train station.’ Orla says, ‘We’re happy to help if we can. Farm life can be very isolating. Their four kids and five grandchildren all live elsewhere.’

Two months after the first visit, Aaron, Orla and Gabriel came back for the Baker’s Open Day (organised by the local newspaper). Unlike the one-on-one experience of the farm they had, this day attracted 120 visitors. ‘Loads of prospective buyers, plus people from the area, came to see the stud,’ Orla says. ‘We brought friends along to help out for the day. We poured cups of tea, took turns on the barbeque, and helped with the cleaning.’

Orla says before their farm visit they were careful about using water. ‘But we’re even more aware now. Being on a farm encouraged us to pay attention to what’s happening in rural Australia with water. People in the city complain about restrictions, but we have no idea. This is their livelihood at stake.’

Aaron and Orla also learned what an important role rural shows play for farmers. While the Royal Show (the Exhibition in Queensland) is a place for many of us to shell out for rides and sample bags, for the farming community it’s a place of business. ‘At the shows, farmers build their reputations, their brand. They show their stock to potential clients, and get a chance to see the competition,’ Orla says. Aaron and Orla made sure they were front and centre at the Brisbane Show when the Bakers showed their cattle. ‘I’ve never been to the show at eight in the morning before,’ says Orla. ‘There were only country people there, dressed for the occasion in hats, best dresses, R.M. Williams boots, moleskins and jackets. I felt like a total city slicker. We were really pleased to see Bob and Betty win ribbons.’ Betty was happy they’d made the effort to come along. ‘Two of our showgirls got red ribbons (second place) and we were glad they were there to see that. Orla thanked us for inviting city folk to be involved with country life. I was so touched.’

Orla believes making these connections is important. ‘I think there’s a great divide between city and rural and regional Australia. People in the city need to understand the severity of the challenges farmer are facing.’

Not that Farm Day doesn’t offer small joys with big messages. ‘We’ve met beautiful people who’ve become part of our life,’ Betty says. Which is a very good way to begin bridging a divide.

About Farm Day

The first Farm Day was held on 25 May 2006. Seventy-five farming families in Victoria responded to organiser Deb Bain’s request that they open their homes to city people in order to show them what life on the farm is really like. The farmers receive no money and participants do not pay to visit the properties. The scheme is entirely voluntary and not-for-profit. Families who apply to visit cattle, sheep and cropping farms are hosted for the day by farmers keen to explain their commitment to producing food, and talk about the hardships and joys of living on the land.

This year, 200 farms across Australia took part in the program. In 2008, Deb is expecting the number to grow to 350, although her concern has always been with good matchmaking of families rather than big numbers. (City families are encouraged to indicate if they have an interest in any particular place, crop or livestock.)

For her initiative, Canadian-born Deb, mother of three and a wool grower in Skipton, Western Victoria, was voted the Australian Rural Woman of the Year 2007 by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. She is one of five board members who oversee the running of Farm Day and is passionate about continuing to promote the importance of agriculture to the urban population.

If you’d like to be a host or a visitor for Farm Day 2008, visit the website (www.farmday.com.au) to register.

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