The lay of the land

As her parents approach retirement, Bec Butterworth contemplates losing the family farm - or taking it over.

As her parents approach retirement, Bec Butterworth contemplates losing the family farm - or taking it over.

I'M STANDING in a concrete pit, up to my elbows in manure, staring at the backsides of 28 dairy cows, most of which are trying to kick me in the face. My husband, who recently resigned from his city office job, sprays a row of cows' teats with iodine and strides off in his plastic apron and gumboots to muster the muscle-ripped Jersey bull from the wrong paddock.

I never thought I'd be doing this, and I can't help smiling.

For one week, Andrew and I are giving my parents a holiday from the dairy. I say holiday, but they're dairy farmers: instead of going to the beach, they've decided to redo the irrigation system. I say ''our'' farm, because my five brothers and I grew up here, but it's not mine. And soon, it may never be.

The story of my generation on the farm started out well. After I was born, Mum and Dad accidentally had five more children, all of them boys (the technical term for five sons, in farming circles, being ''windfall''). But my parents, perhaps atypically, put no pressure on any of us to farm, saying we could be whomever we wanted.

Problem was, most of us did just that we turned out a creative bunch. I became a writer. Lindsay, a genius at everything, now makes costumes and is an actor, singer and musician. Emmet stayed on the farm the longest and would have taken over but decided to try out boilermaking in Queensland. Daniel plays guitar and bass in a metal band and studies art and illustration. Hayden is a computer games programmer starting up his own business (he plays piano, too). Adam loves to act and is a leader at a youth camp (until he can run for mayor of somewhere or other).

Our family faces the same issue as many family-owned and operated farms in this generation: who, if anyone, will take on the farm?

MILKING the cows to give Mum and Dad a break seems like a good idea to me. But I am surprised at Andrew's willingness. He grew up in the city. I moved to the city to study. Now we're married and living in the suburbs. Andrew loves my family, though the first time I took him home, the concept of five large brothers and a father with a gun cupboard was a little intimidating.

''Why not? It'll give them a holiday,'' he says, cheerily, not mentioning the pre-dawn starts.

It's five hours' drive up the Hume Highway to the farm and we aim to get there for afternoon milking. Our farm rests in the Indi Valley, just over the border into New South Wales, nestled among the Snowy Mountains in the High Country. The road takes us through Corryong, rising towards the lush reveal of Towong Gap (where Elyne Mitchell wrote The Silver Brumby) and kinks like a cut snake as it approaches Kosciusko. It relaxes as it passes through the Indi Valley and our farm, continuing past our place a few kilometres, pausing in the shadow of the mountains and turning back to town.

My great grandfather owned half of Khancoban, over the hill, before the government compulsorily acquired it to build the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, and the farm folded. Then Granddad met my grandmother, whose only desire had been to own a dairy farm since the day, as a little girl, when her father had given her a milk pail and a cow of her own.

We arrive in time for milking. Dad's a good teacher, and I remember things I didn't know I knew. Dairy farming is about feeding the cattle a varying mix of pasture, grains and oils to produce well-conditioned cows and good milk. The farm itself is about 109 hectares of paddocks, some of which are irrigated - the water allocation's not enough to irrigate them all.

Each morning and afternoon, Mum and Dad muster the cows towards a large shed of concrete and corrugated iron. The actual dairy, or ''yard'', consists of a few engine and vat rooms, wheat silos and water tanks (now solar-heated), plus stock, calf and holding yards that lead into the dairy itself. It smells like everything good and mysterious from my childhood: dirt and grease, grain and galvanised steel, and the clean, fresh smell of scalding hot water. The dairy itself is a herringbone configuration, into which the milkers let 14 cows at a time on each side. The cows eat grain as they are washed, milked and sanitised, before being let out to dawdle back to their new paddock.

The one job I did get taught to do when I was younger was to wash down the yard. Everywhere the cows go is covered with a layer of ? well, shit. I clear it off with a giant squeegee, then blast the floors clean with a giant pressure hose. Washing down always gave me the feeling that I was of use, which, on a dairy farm, is often the most comfortable of feelings. In summer, it's a good excuse to watch the clouds coming in from the mountains, or the ducks teach their offspring to swim in the giant effluent pond.

In winter, it's all about preventing your bloodless fingers from freezing to the hose.

While I'm cleaning, Dad explains to Andrew the new, fully automatic milk line cleaning system, which is relatively easy (''When Mum walks past, act busy,'' jokes Dad) and contains steps that prevent the entire vat of milk from being flushed with acid.

About 8pm we're finished, and we walk the dirt track towards the house. ''You get to sleep in tomorrow,'' says Dad, grinning. ''Five past five, instead of 5 o'clock.''

VICTORIA's first export was cheese, produced by Australia's first dairyman, Edward Henty, in 1834. Dairy farming doesn't carry the romance of drovers on horses cracking whips, but it is Australia's largest rural industry after beef and wheat, worth $3.9 billion in 2010-11.

One bull and four cows came over on the First Fleet we now have 3.1 million head of dairy cattle.

Farming is a lifestyle, as well as a job, and the complexities of retirement and succession are vastly different from a city business environment. About 94 per cent of Australian farms are family owned and operated, usually employing only family labour. According to a 2003 ABS report, fewer young people are staying on in agriculture. The median age of farmers increased steadily from 44 years in 1981 to 51 years in 2001, and is expected to continue at the same rate.

In a 2001 report to Land and Water Australia, ''Australian Farmers' Attitudes to Rural Environmental Issues'', almost 60 per cent of the 1455 farmers surveyed managed a farm inherited from parents, but only half of those expected to hand the farm on to a child or close relative.

A 2007 study, ''Farm Succession and Inheritance'', by Elaine Barclay and others found that farming children are better educated than their predecessors, at the insistence of their parents. Daughters are often educated as compensation for not being considered heirs. But in a world in which opportunity abounds, the reality is that many children leave and decide not to come back.

Changes in the political landscape, too, will make their mark on future generations living in Indi Valley. The land is dissected by the Murray River, and our farm lies just inside New South Wales (I was born and went to school in Victoria). This year, the farmers in our valley submitted a proposal for NSW state irrigation allowances. Their proposal didn't accept the allocation cuts suggested by the state government, arguing the cuts would increase the likelihood of crop failure, but voluntarily accepted cuts that would allow 27 megalitres more water to flow down the river in low-flow periods.

The proposal was successful, providing a five-year buffer against the controversial federal Murray-Darling Basin plan, which will determine future basin irrigation allowances and will offer to buy back water from farmers whose allocations are cut.

''The buyback offers money to cash-strapped people. But it's like taking the fishing line off a hungry person,'' says Dad. ''I don't have any opinions other than that. A plan is only a plan. It's hard to measure the effects before it's implemented.''

"IT CAN'T be morning, yet,'' says Andrew, face down in a pillow.

''It's not even light.''


''Are you sure that your alarm went off? Because you could have had daylight savings time on.''


''You might have just dreamed it.''

''Time to get up.''

The sky is, in fact, not dark but baby pinks and blues, and getting up is worth it.

We milk with Mum this time. After the first couple of days, I'm itching to go it alone. The first time that neither of my parents has to get up before dawn, I feel like I've succeeded.

Andrew and I have different styles.

''Come on, ladies, move along,'' he cries, as he lets the cows in.

''Reservation for 14?''

''Come on, move up. Move up!'' I yell, digging deep for that perfect scream - the one with the depth, the bass tones.

Over breakfast, Mum, Dad, Andrew and I chat about milking. We laugh, nodding and digging at each other. It's good.

After breakfast everyone, including my aunt, heads down to the flats, measuring out post positions, digging holes, laying pipe into the soft ground with the tractor.

At home for lunch, Dad and I talk about how attitudes towards staying on the farm have changed.

''The lifestyle is no longer a lifestyle - it's a tie,'' says Dad, who worked for a while on the Snowy hydro before he decided he wanted to milk.

''It's not always a tie when you get older, but by then the horse has bolted.''

When Dad was young, maybe six, his elder brother Trevor, my grandparents' firstborn, was killed in a farming accident on a neighbour's farm (my brother Lindsay's middle name is Trevor, and he's the spitting image).

I wonder sometimes whether Dad really wanted to farm. He could have done other things. And in fact, a couple of years ago he decided that, if circumstances needed to change, he could do something else.

''How long are the parents going to stay there, doing that and not retiring, saving the farm in case of a whim?'' he asks.

When I get up now, every morning there is a fresh space in my heart where the vice grip used to be. It is peace, and the feeling of a job well done. I notice it in Andrew as well. He doesn't have the look of perpetual concern, the need to be doing something else.

But I also know that the thought of living permanently in the country would be, to him, somewhat like being in the city is to me. Do-able. But too different. After milking one afternoon, I feel like I have to let him off the hook.

''So you're worried I'm going to ask about moving here?'' I ask. He doesn't roll his eyes, just smiles.


''Well, then, let's talk about it,'' I say, in my pros and cons voice. ''Could you do this?'' He pauses.

''Well, yeah. It's on the list.''

''The list?'' ''The list of things I'd like to do,'' he says.

I start to feel hopeful until he says: ''But, you know, being a marketing creative (like Darrin from Bewitched) is also on the list.''

Later, out on the flat, Dad teaches me how to dig without using so much energy, using your knees as a fulcrum.

''I taught the boys how to do these things,'' he says, as an aside.

I've been quietly seething about revelations like this - how I was treated differently to the boys - for a while now. I know he's thinking about it too. At lunch, I bring it up.

''How much did I miss out on then, being a girl?'' I say, keeping it light.

''Do you feel disadvantaged?''


I spent my entire life wanting to be just like my father. Wanted to be of use, rather than just bookish. I can't, I won't, ask Andrew to live a life he hasn't asked for. But now Mum and Dad are approaching retirement age, and no matter how I want to help, I'm tied to the city. No matter how I turn it, I can't see a way to resolve this.

''But what's going to happen to the farm?'' I almost demand. ''You can't stay until you die.''

''Ideally, we want to stay. But there are other opportunities for us,'' says Dad, carefully. ''We might end up leasing the farm, and perhaps stay on as owners. If it was a young family, though, I'd have to sell them the farm - it'd be only fair,'' he says, frustratingly unfazed.

All I can see is the farm slipping away. I can't help but cry, now.

''I don't want to never be able to come here.''

''I've offered the farm to all of the boys.'' ''Why not me?'' I say, trying to force the tears back.

''Generally, a man has to provide for his family,'' he says, and I do agree.

If Andrew didn't provide for me, I wouldn't be a writer.

''But you've shown the most interest. It has to go to one person, not six - it's the best way. If you're interested, maybe you can own the farm. Retire here.''

The plan is less than concrete. But the idea - the hope - is enough.

At the end of the week, we decide that Andrew will go home.

I'll stay on for a few more weeks, so that the others can finish the irrigation system. When my brother Adam comes home for the holidays, he starts mending fences.

Lindsay comes home and we have a second tractor operator. Hayden comes home and starts digging holes. When I eventually return to the city, it's great to be back. But I miss the farm. I call Dad to check on my cows and, after a while, a little of his calm rubs off.

The future of the farm may still be up in the air, but in the end it's family, not land, that's important.

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles