When the apple cart tipped

by Moya Fyfe

APPLE BLOSSOM BLESSING were an annual event for our family in the late 1960s and early '70s. They were a coming together of a community based around family, faith and primary industry, and reflected the joy and expectation of the apple harvest ahead. And then they stopped – or we stopped going, I can't remember which happened first. At the time, I was too young to understand that we – my apple-growing family and I – were living through a family business, an industry and a state in transition.

Not dissimilar to Tasmania now, where many families and communities are at the moment experiencing the social and economic transition from another foundation industry in this state, forestry.

My father had moved with his father from Woodbridge, further south along the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, in 1950 to cultivate an apple orchard in the lime-rich hills of the township of Margate. Advice from government agencies was that heavy planting of trees was necessary to prevent a decline in apple production in Tasmania. At that time there were an estimated three million commercial apple trees in the state, with almost all of them in production.[i] My grandfather and father took up the challenge of doing their bit to revitalise an industry at the time beset by too many old, unprofitable orchards and a malaise that had led to quality and production decline. From all accounts, it was a good time to invest in a solid industry. History would later show that revival was short-lived. Through the 1950s and 1960s the industry did however reshape and grow. There were undoubtedly challenges, as with all primary industries, yet for my father it seemed a sound choice as he rode the ups and downs. He married, built his home in the paddock along from his parents, and began his family. Later he bought the whole farm from my grandfather to make his own for his and his children's future.

I grew up on that apple orchard, the youngest of five children. We lived atop the main hill in town, in a classic weatherboard farmhouse, the Holden parked in the driveway. With three of the five of us blessed with curly red hair, we were easily identifiable and, as a pack, never inconspicuous. For us kids, life was about living on the farm and having fun – riding bikes, playing games of hide and seek, cooking up mud balls, designing billykarts and hunting for tadpoles. In the parenting style of the time, my mother recalls she only worried when she couldn't hear at least one of us yelling. There were many other surrounding orchards and comfort in the familiarity of cultural and physical landscape. We, like our neighbours, were country simple with an innate awareness that we were remote from the mysterious life in cities and suburbs beyond. My father worked from dawn to dusk week in week out, my mother supported him and during the height of the apple season, our next-door grandmother cared for us while our parents worked until the crop was picked, graded, packed and trucked for export.

Weekends were spent with family either at home, in church, across the hills in Cygnet where my maternal grandmother lived, or, often with grandmothers in tow, we'd head out for a 'Sunday drive'. My father always had an alternative agenda for this drive, so outings seemed to often involve sitting (with five children crammed into the Holden sedan, read fighting) or playing (and again read fighting) outside coolstores, other people's orchards, by the roadside of a paddock full of cows or on various wharves where there was endless activity to captivate our attention and imagination. One of my brothers reflected recently that our ever-patient mother, whose job it was to entertain us while my father dealt with business, was known from time to time to hold her hand on the car horn until my father received the message that it was time to go.

 

BY THE EARLY 1970s circumstances had started to change again for the apple industry and some stresses were showing. In a pattern recognised well by those who study the rise and fall of industries and economies, the end came fast and yet blindsided the industry and the largely single-person enterprises that were the apple orchards of the day. The killer blow came on 1 January, 1973, the official date when Tasmania's main apple market, Britain, joined the European Union, and the export market virtually collapsed overnight.[ii] It might have been that government was aware of the potential impact and had anticipated some adjustments to the markets. But for my father, it was the final straw. Catastrophic bushfires in 1967 had destroyed our apple shed, a large paddock of trees, and my grandmother's house just six months after my grandfather's death. Ferocious autumn hailstorms just before harvest in 1972 devastated production yields and shook the confidence of many growers in the Channel and Huon districts. For my father, there was nothing left to give. He needed a solution, he had five children to feed, clothe and educate.

So in the winter of 1974, his life's work, and that of his father, was bulldozed into windrows of gnarled stumps and roots. Acre after acre of once productive apple trees, captured in a photograph hanging on my parents' dining room wall as picture-book hills awash with blossoms above North West Bay, were twisted and torn from the ground and left in undignified heaps to rot. The historical accounts now tell us that between 1972 and 1975 the apple industry in Tasmania required complete restructuring, with the benign-sounding 'Tree Pull Scheme' reducing apple production by half and the number of orchardists by seven hundred – my father was one of many compensated for leaving the industry in this unseemly way, their life work of nurturing crops decimated. And with the hundreds leaving the industry, the orchard production area was more than halved along with production and exports. Then premier Eric Reece stated at the time that the intent of the assistance 'was to afford [the apple growers] the opportunity to become re-established in some other way of life.'[iii] A simple statement, but much harder for the individuals impacted to implement.

 

LIFE FOR THOSE in the forest industry communities in Tasmania now includes contemplating similar change and uncertainty. This time an industry is being transitioned through the politically charged Tasmanian Forests Agreement, which has been designed 'to support forest workers, contractors and communities as a response to the changes that are occurring in the forest industry due to market forces and changes in product demands.'[iv] The compensation bucket is dangling but no one yet knows how the divisive and debilitating debate will resolve. There is a wealth of information detailing exit packages that reiterate the need for industry and individuals to respond to change. There are counselling services listed for contractors and sawmillers – services conspicuous by their absence in the 1970s – but the social context for workers and families has changed and in many ways may now be harder for those caught in the maelstrom. Whether these services will be sufficient is yet to be seen.

As a child you don't reflect on the impact of events deeply, but the visual reminder of the collapse of the apple industry was there for my parents every day as they drove past rotting windrows along the gravel road to our home. The deeper bearing on the psyche of my family and our community was more hidden. History shows that those times had an effect at every level. As we cut and burned the windrows winter after winter for firewood, the bare and barren hills above them screamed. Now an adult with children of my own for whom we wish to help chart a future (in Tasmania or not, they will be equipped to choose), I recognise with absolute clarity that the pain and grief of losing their livelihood must have been devastating for my parents – yet as children we were oblivious to anything that didn't inconvenience our immediate needs. Far from horror, the windrows of apple stumps became a wonderland adventure park to clamber, climb and hide. We were cushioned from true hardship – we had a roof over our heads, food in our bellies and the comfort of shared community support. Even so, that my parents picked up their lot and moved on demonstrates admirable resilience. The hope is that as a society we are now more sophisticated in how we assist those needing to forge a new future.

But with the impact on communities of the forestry transition unravelling in Tasmania, and stories in the media of hardship and often bewilderment by those affected and caught in the middle, I am now wondering how this time really played out for my father. He was shaped by a society that valued the patriarchal family structure, with an ethic of hard work and the man providing the household income. How did this proud man in his mid forties 'transition'? Then, as now for those exiting forestry, I imagine it was touch and go to maintain dignity, pride and self-esteem. The Tree Pull Scheme was heartbreaking. It compensated, but all or nothing. Every tree had to be grubbed, in the local terminology, and it was only when we moved house (back across the paddock) later in the 1970s that my father had the heart to plant apple trees again.

Now in his eighties, my father tends far too many of these trees on a flatter piece of the Margate hill he first cultivated more than sixty years ago, fighting off codling moths and other grubs and indulging my mother's chooks, which enjoy free range of the orchard floor bounty. In retirement he delights in growing the best heritage apples around and sharing this crop with family, friends and anyone who will take a bag or two off his hands.

Strong values undoubtedly guided my parents at that time. In the Cygnet of the late 1940s and early 1950s, my mother had had access to formal convent schooling only to Year Nine, yet her love of books, reading and language has had an enormous lifelong impact on my siblings and me. My father attended the selective Hobart High School, but yearned for the farm and left after Year Ten. Both wanted their children to have the education they had not and job opportunities they could not imagine. In those wishes, they succeeded. To pave the way for his transition in the 1970s, my father went back to school – he attended TAFE and became a landscape gardener using his skills and knowledge to his advantage. With practical skills and strength he built kilometres of paling fences and hauled river rocks to construct retaining walls in well-heeled suburbs of Hobart. Of course, my father being who he is had many sidelines, from bucket calves (there were many trips to Cooee on the northwest coast five hours away at four o'clock in the morning to reach the cattle sales in time), to cash crops such as tomatoes, and if I remember correctly, an ill-fated season of possum trapping. There was a never-say-die attitude and a self-belief in charting his course. All five of us had a Catholic education to greater or lesser effect – my sister and I attending an all-girls school headed by a Sister of Charity who made grown men quake in their boots; my brothers battling tedious bus trips and the at-times inconsistent pedagogy of the Salesians. In later years, my sister and I went to university – my brothers into trades and business.

 

THAT THE TASMANIAN communities will be able to rebuild will rely on the alignment of community, government and social entrepreneurship. The first step for the forestry industry is a decision that can lead to peace – and as someone who has reported on, observed and studied forest issues for more than twenty-five years, the hope for that peace lurches from tangible to elusive. My husband and I are now the middle generation of Tasmanians, my parents the elder and our children the emerging. Tasmania of 2013 is a state struggling to define its future. It has deep-seated, intergenerationally polarised views on resource use and allocation and a seeming ambivalence to critical social issues. In this way as a state we appear socially progressive in some areas, but verging on inept in others. Yet as a Tasmanian, I find myself confident (or perhaps it's just the same stubbornness as my father) that this state remains on the cusp of heading somewhere good and achieving something new. That there is a realisation that as a society, there needs to be courage and a will to change – but it is a transition to a new that provides no certainties. The endless political and media debate over how best to phase out logging of native forests to plantations cannot distract from the reality facing the many logging and haulage contractors who face that future, as it was for my father and his times. While I am largely remote and removed from the impact of the latest industry transition, I am keenly aware of the need to make this work for the benefit of the whole community – no matter how many more times Tasmania has to reinvent itself.

 


References

[i]
The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania, Wednesday 12 July 1950, p13

[ii] http://www.fruitgrowerstas.com.au/industry_fgt.html

[iii] The Advocate, 4 November 1976

[iv] http://www.forestsagreement.tas.gov.au/

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.