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Edition 56

Contents
Memoir

Peasant dreaming

Smashed avos grow on trees

WHEN WE WERE kids, my sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch TV during dinner. The risk of seeing John Howard was too much for my parents to bear. In the months after he became prime minister, Mum and Dad wore their opposition proudly, chortling of his imminent demise and slapping a ‘Don’t blame me I voted Labor’ sticker on our dusty family van.

But as the Howard months became the Howard years, their mood turned first to frustration – Dad would refer to him no longer as ‘the miserable little man’ but ‘the little shit’ or ‘the little dickhead’ – and eventually to enforced censorship. Should the PM slip through their low-fi parental block, unexpectedly cropping up on the 7.30 Report beside Kerry O’Brien, he could expect an incoming missile before having his feed cut. My mum was throwing shoes at Little Johnny long before it became fashionable on Q&A.

But I for one relished what televised glimpses I could manage: those bushy eyebrows, suddenly plucked to make him electorally palatable; the chunky bulletproof vest under his shirt after the Port Arthur massacre; the loud shirts at APEC summits; the louder Wallabies tracksuit on his morning powerwalk… He was a strange sort of fashion icon.

My favourite item in Howard’s wardrobe was his Akubra hat. Reserved for visits to marginal, rural electorates, it was always accompanied by a Driza-Bone coat – irrespective of the forecast – and a pair of RM Williams boots.

What I found most intriguing about the hat was its pristine condition. Flat brimmed, symmetrical and impermeable, it was so different to the hats my farmer father wore in the paddocks of my youth – tatty, smelly rags of things, luridly stained bright pink with herbicide dye and full of holes to facilitate melanoma growth.

Years later, a few weeks before I turned thirty, I was at home in Canberra when my mum called. Dad was in an ambulance. He’d had an accident, and the thumb on his favoured hand was broken in several places. Farming families often need a crisis to start a conversation about succession, and this was ours. In time, my dad’s thumb made a near full recovery, but since that phone call I’ve spent one day a week working with him as an apprentice primary producer.

In honour of this new direction, and largely in jest, a friend gave me an Akubra for my thirtieth birthday. It was – I was appalled to realise when I took it out of its box and studied it – flat brimmed, symmetrical and impermeable: Howard’s hat. In becoming Dad’s deputy sheriff, I resembled the Deputy Sheriff. And I felt as much of a phoney.

 

THIS IS A companion essay to a companion edition. In 2006, Griffith Review published The Next Big Thing, dedicated to gen X writers, thinkers and activists. One of them was my eldest sister, the writer and anthropologist Eve Vincent. In her contribution, ‘Confusions of an economist’s daughter’, Eve deconstructed the generational divide between her ‘ratbag’, World Economic Forum-blockading self (Eve was then twenty-nine) and our Keating acolyte of a father (then fifty-eight), set to the backdrop of the farm they both loved. Eve’s the best writer I know.

We lived half an hour’s drive from Canberra. In the morning our dad would race into the kitchen after checking the sheep, his tie slung like a scarf around his neck. He’d leave in a hurry, his ute slipping around dusty gravel corners, the radio loud. ‘Good morning, this is AM.’ I imagine him now, knotting his tie in the rear-vision mirror in the carpark at work. My dad is a free-trade economist.

My parents bought the farm, then two-hundred acres of overgrazed grassland, in 1983, the year before I was born. The Hawke–Keating reform years, Eve wrote, were a good time to be in the business of offering economic advice. ‘Those beautiful paddocks, scattered with rocks and flecked with scars, quickly became ours.’

‘Confusions of an economist’s daughter’ caused a stir in our family. It was a brutally honest public airing of Eve’s attempt to reconcile the unselfishness our father espoused with the self-interest of the economics he practiced.

My dad the economist, who worked so hard through decades of relentless change, is an unfailingly generous person, and he has poured his successes back to his family. He instilled a social conscious in us all, but he’s dismayed by my interpretation of it. Most of all, I suspect the thing he wants from me is stability. He’s looking for some certainty.

And now he’s got it. Eve has since had children (tick), scored a plum academic posting (tick) and bought a house (gold star and koala stamp). I remain single, childless, underemployed and a renter. The farm is now 650 acres (they’ve bred like rabbits) – our father, sixty-nine years old.

In the edition brief for Millennials Strike Back, there was a reference to those who came before us, the class of The Next Big Thing: ‘In the decade since, this group has gone on to make their mark; it is now time for the next generation to take up their mantle.’ And so it is I give you my own daddy issues.

 

I AM A third-generation farmer, and I know how that sounds – predestined, aristocratic. But it’s by default, not design. My late maternal grandfather, whom I called Papa, was a Western District grazier and longstanding president of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria. His was the squatter’s life of horseback mustering, lawn tennis parties and gentleman’s clubs. (My dad tells a story of once answering Papa’s phone and taking a message from an acquaintance, a ‘Mr Fraser from Hamilton’.) But my uncles didn’t want to take over Papa’s farm and my mum and aunt – who still listens to The Country Hour despite being a Bangalow yuppie – weren’t asked. It was sold before I was born.

From there, the farming line changed sides, states and narratives.

If millennials only exist as a construct in opposition to baby boomers, that my dad was able to buy a farm and that I am now taking it on is because we are firmly placed on each side of the dichotomy.

Dad, the clever son of a clever man – my paternal grandfather, born in a bark hut in the Gippsland bush and forced to leave school at age twelve by the Depression – was never going to become anything other than a white-collar professional. But though he co-founded a successful economics consultancy and is proud of his role in helping to liberalise the Australian economy, he has always looked uncomfortable in a suit. This is a man who, when I was in kindergarten, cut off much of his left big toe with a chainsaw – and drove himself to hospital. Five years later he shot a fox in my sister Lucy’s bedroom while the rest of us were eating dinner (roast chicken, which we figure attracted it inside in the first place).

Dad was raised in Melbourne but spent his school holidays ‘mucking about’ on a cousin’s farm in the Wimmera; Mum, whom he met studying agricultural science at university, pined for a return to the land. They named their block ‘Gollion’, after a Swiss village where, while backpacking in the 1970s, they had found relations to an ancestor of Dad’s, the first Vincent to arrive in Australia, in 1854.

Gollion was once part of Fernleigh, a farm established in the 1870s, but it is my parents who have most shaped its landscape since white settlement. Armed with the boomer audacity that held the postwar world as theirs to conquer, Mum and Dad built themselves a house and set about constructing their Eden. Dams were bulldozed, fences strained, and my three sisters and I enlisted to plant thousands of trees on freezing August days.

They subscribed to Grass Roots, the self-sufficiency bible of 1980s Australia, grew veggies, kept chooks and established orchards. Confounding the Nationals-voting ‘cockies’ around them, they brewed compost tea to fertilise their pastures organically, restored their section of a creek to the ‘chain of ponds’ it would have resembled before land clearing turned it into a drain, and introduced a holistic management regime in which stock is moved regularly through many small paddocks to replicate the bunch-grazing and pasture-rest periods of wild herd and predator ecosystems. The place boomed.

But here’s the thing: Dad, who ‘retired’ fourteen years ago, still sees Gollion as a hobby farm. Some people, he reasons, play golf when they retire; he manages one-hundred-and-fifty cows and their calves, two large orchards, a small mob of sheep and a shantytown of sheds – and, until last year, was the president of the local Landcare group. While his former colleagues cruise the South Pacific, Dad seeks adventure atop dodgy ladders or by roll-starting a rollbar-less tractor. (‘Best not tell your mum I’ve been doing that again.’)

Gollion was never meant to be a legacy project, and I was never raised to be its successor. If anything I was raised to believe that farmers – as opposed to the ‘go getters’ (a favourite expression of Dad’s) of the service economy who have farms for fun – are largely ‘losers’ (another favourite): either lazy aristocrats who inherited the good fortune of their forebears, or uncouth bumpkins with their hands out for government assistance. Throwbacks to pre-Gough, cultural-cringe Australia. Laggards to the message that we no longer ride on the sheep’s back. ‘The bigger the hat,’ Dad is fond of saying when Barnaby Joyce appears on the telly in his own Akubra, ‘the smaller the brain beneath it.’

And so, although I spent much of my childhood building hideouts among the scribbly gums and skinny dipping in a choice of twenty-eight dams, I only learnt to link two pieces of wire with a figure-eight knot when I was thirty-one. Before 2014, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between wallaby grass and kangaroo grass, what it feels like to put a rubber ring around a bull calf’s testes or how to prune a quince tree.

Even now, entering the third year of my yet-to-be quantified apprenticeship, when I pepper Dad with questions and jot down his answers in a Moleskine I keep in my moleskins, I think he still hopes I’m going to wake up one day with a burning desire to be a full-time public servant who farms on the side. He seems astounded that I take an interest in continuing what he established, rather than leading my ‘own life’ (that is, procreating and buying a house). Dad didn’t get the memo that most Australian millennials are renters, unmarried and haven’t had kids yet. Nor the one that you’re only able to combine full-time farming with full-time city work if you opt out of third-wave feminism. That’s what happens when you spend much of your time in the back paddock with no one for company but Suey the sheep-dog.

Dad recently told me that if he had his time again he would’ve been an orchardist instead of an economist. And that’s a shame, don’t you think? That statement – and his claimed loathing of the very lifestyle he so dearly loves – betrays what I think most disturbs him about my farming future: that I wish to revert to a kind of hipster remastering of the very world his father (he of the bark hut) escaped so that Dad could become a go-getter. My father is worried that when I grow up, I want to be a peasant.

 

IN JUNE 2010, I visited Iceland on assignment for the travel pages of a newspaper. It was three weeks after the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull had grounded air traffic across Europe; when the wind blew from the south-east, a thin film of grey still settled on the windshields of Reykjavík. The tourist pap – T-shirts, tea towels, mugs – said it all:

Don’t fuck with Iceland!
We may not have cash, but we’ve got ash!

Everywhere, it seemed, I encountered the hangover of the country’s financial crisis: garish housing estates, half finished, lay empty; Hummers – once longed-for trophies of success – were scorned in the street as vulgar reminders of living beyond one’s means; the criminal prosecution of bankers dominated conversation. In the space of one generation, a nation of farmers and fishermen had become high financiers, and now they were asking if it was worth it. The mood mirrored southern Europe, where since 2008 thousands of young professionals, suddenly unemployed, had been moving back to ancestral plots of land. In some cases it was a question of survival: they needed something to eat.

A paradigm shift was underway, a critique of the moment when a lifestyle had been replaced with a ‘career’. In a new Reykjavík bar focused on local produce, the menu captured the zeitgeist:

There is something to be said about the old days, when people worked with their hands and produced something tangible. We hope you catch a glimpse of those days as you sip your coffee or munch on some tried and true Icelandic delicacies.

Australia was spared the worst of the GFC, but not the disdain for the economic system that created it. The casualisation of the Australian workforce and squeeze on the first-home buyers market have made emphasising saving for the future over living for the present less sacrosanct – let alone relevant – to my generation than my parents’. Why slog away doing something you don’t enjoy for a house you may never own? Better to find meaning in other facets of work than financial remuneration.

In many cases, jobs once seen as ‘unskilled’ are by necessity being filled by those who would have previously found work in academia, the media and the arts: just as your barista probably has a PhD in philosophy, the guy who sells figs to Canberra’s best restaurants each autumn has a similarly useless degree: Bachelor of Arts (International Relations), with honours in French. (Incidentally, I actually use the French a fair bit on my rounds – you’d be surprised how many Gallic pastry chefs lurk in Australia’s commercial kitchens.)

While I agree with Dad’s scorn for the rising nostalgia of an insular and nativist Australia, I don’t think there’s anything demeaning or intellectually wasteful about pursuing the life of a small farmer. Dad’s right: I do want to be a peasant when I grow up. Restoring lost links between consumers and producers in a broken food system is rewarding and empowering. The recent proliferation of farmers’ markets and focus among home cooks and restaurant chefs on local, seasonal produce isn’t merely a question of taste. It speaks to a growing desire for sustainability in both the ways we produce food and the communities who produce it. I was recently called a ‘wanker’ for questioning why a friend was eating an out-of-season, imported kiwifruit. I relish the title. But I also relish the title of ‘writer’. For the past seven years I have worked on and off as a research assistant for a political scientist to cover the rent and allow me to write two days a week. Initially I approached farming the same way: when in the position to, I would use the profit from selling livestock and produce to subsidise my writing. But increasingly I don’t see why the two should be compartmentalised – my ‘career’, such as it is, divorced from my life.

In his magisterial book The Art of Time Travel (Black Inc., 2016), Tom Griffiths writes of how the late farmer-historian Eric Rolls combined his dual vocations:

He wrote of the constant battle between words and acres, between the soil as a source of his originality and the farm as a demanding distraction. He knew that the battle to win time for writing was part of the necessary discipline.

Rolls’ farm chores restricted his writing, but he recognised they also nourished it. American farmer and writer Joel Salatin calls this ‘intellectual agrarianism’ and sees it most purely embodied in Thomas Jefferson, who believed getting your hands dirty was crucial for deep thought; for the Romans, the notion of otium conveyed the prerequisite state of peace – physical and mental – for literary occupation in a rural retreat. Much has been written in recent years on the link between walking and creativity. I have found my otium on the farm, my mind subconsciously working on writing while I open gates and herd cattle. And among my peers it’s catching on.

The average age of a farmer in Australia is fifty-eight. I’m thirty-two. A common lament of agricultural policymakers is that, with record sheep and cattle prices and emerging markets to our north, Australia could be the food bowl of Asia – if only we can hold onto our farmers. In the most urbanised country on Earth, the drain from country to city has become a torrent, leaving in its wake broken communities, farm gates locked for good.

I can only speak to my own experience, and my experience is not the type of farming Chinese consortiums have their eyes on. I believe farming should be conducted within the environment, not against it. At Gollion we haven’t ploughed a paddock for decades because it destroys soil structure and releases carbon into the atmosphere. ‘Weeds’ are in the eye of the beholder out our way. I wouldn’t be interested in growing a high-yield, herbicide-and-pesticide-dependent monoculture either: depleting soils, killing wildlife with chemicals and encouraging crop failure and disease through specialisation is part of the problem, not the solution. Is it any wonder the political party most enthusiastic about fashioning this so-called food bowl – ostensibly the farmers party – is less enthusiastic about curbing greenhouse emissions? No farmer who cares for their country is blind to the increasingly challenging climatic conditions they face. Aside from the economic unreality of a high-wage advanced economy becoming Asia’s food bowl, where still significant mineral exports appreciate the exchange rate and high commodity prices are offset by high farm costs, it’s not the lack of farmers that are frustrating this grand ideological plan so much as the land itself. But I am not alone in my friendship group in wishing to return to the land for creative, as well as moral and financial, prerogatives.

I’m currently doing a course on holistic farming near the southern New South Wales town of Braidwood. I had expected it to be full of ruddy-cheeked cattlemen in their forties and fifties; instead it is mostly people like me, tertiary-educated thirtysomethings who want to grow their own food to nourish their vocations. We are writers, a ceramicist and a filmmaker; a market gardener with a background in conservation; the manager of a local farmers’ market and her partner, who feeds his chooks on maggots from roadkill kangaroos. An industrial designer by training, he recently designed and built a house for his parents from gleaned materials. It cost sixty-thousand dollars.

I was told about the course by one of my oldest friends, the scion of merino producers from an escarpment near the Great Dividing Range. His family are the ultimate agrarian intellectuals: they build their own unapproved dwellings and grow much of their food. This friend’s dad studied law to appease his parents, only to immediately become a farmer on graduating; his middle brother, who bakes the family’s bread, brews its beer and tans its hides, hasn’t needed to pay tax for years.

Now that China isn’t buying so much of our iron ore, our Prime Minister tells us, we must be more ‘agile’ if we are to prevent a drop in ‘living standards’. But what standards are those – the wherewithal to buy more crap? Unlike most baby boomers I know, I don’t think quality of life is something you’ll find in the Aldi specials catalogue.

 

I LIKE TO ride my bicycle to Gollion on my weekly apprenticeship day. I prefer the way the country unfolds from the saddle rather than how it blurs by in the car. What were unpaved roads when I was a kid are now largely sealed. Only the odd stringy bark has survived the march of Canberra’s northern fringe over the Limestone Plains – preserved for posterity and marketing. (‘The perfect place to nest’, the realty billboards proclaim.)

Over the hill that marks the border between the ACT and New South Wales, the dumping starts: grass clippings and washing machines, bottles and prams. But slowly the bush asserts itself with more trees between fewer houses, cattle grazing the roadside with their heads through the fence, galahs passing overhead. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, they always work in pairs.

Hitting the dirt, my tyres turn white and I get my first glimpse of the farm – one lone old yellow box on our biggest hill – still ten minutes away. (You can see this tree from the summit of Canberra’s Mount Ainslie if you know where to look.) I lock my eyes onto it to avoid concentrating on the last climb, and when I’m hurtling into our valley Gollion opens like a flower: the flood plain with its eucalypt plantations, backed by six hills (green, silver, brown or yellow depending on the season), themselves backed by the distant smudge of the Brindabellas (always blue).

I don’t know when I will be handed the reins of Gollion. That will be the true test. Sometimes I doubt whether I am responsible enough to manage it: I can be as reckless with my money as the next young café breakfast enthusiast. I recognise how privileged I am to be in this position, but it also scares me.

Nor have I yet decided what I will farm. I enjoy working with cattle and would like to keep them, but I think I like growing fruit the best. With Dad’s help, and on the back of feedback from chefs I already sell to, I am establishing an organic orchard of eighty black genoa fig trees; in the future, I want to explore growing pomegranates and maybe pistachios. I like the long game of seeing plants grow: if it’s true that millennials suffer from the need for instant gratification, this has been a good antidote.

But for now, I’m still in training. The days I spend with my dad on the farm are ones of quiet, wholesome routine. Straining up fences. Marking calves. Shovelling compost. Planting trees. There are rituals to observe: morning tea with Michael Cathcart; lunch with Eleanor Hall; afternoon tea with Phillip Adams. Opening the ute door for Suey the sheep-dog; swearing at Suey the sheep-dog when she refuses to hop in next to us. Dad and I don’t say much to each other while we work, but I’m sure I’ll look back on these days as among the richest I’ve spent with him. There is a silent transaction underway. Skills are being taught. Knowledge shared.

Bearing witness to it all, in sun and rain, is my Akubra. I call it JH. In the two-and-a-half years since I turned thirty, JH has slowly come to fit my head – and my nascent identity as a primary producer. After hundreds of hours of being sat on, blown off and retrieved, it is now, thankfully, a sweat-stained, smelly and misshapen piece of rabbit felt.

I’ve come to rely on JH. Maybe a little too much. I recently accompanied my parents to a cattle sale in Victoria’s Western District. Naturally, I wore my Akubra. Among this crowd of beetroot-faced, overweight cattle prospectors, JH was among the dirtiest, biggest, hats. I looked the part – much to Dad’s chagrin. Worse than John Howard, he remarked as we got in the car to leave, now I looked like a member of the Young Nationals.


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review