I recently hitched a ride with my husband Bill on his trip to western Queensland, where he met with leaders and locals to hear their concerns and ideas.
My mum spent her early years in Ilfracombe, near Longreach. Her dad, Norman Strachan, and his wife Naida were a central part of life in a tiny town in the middle of the four largest sheep stations in the world. One, Wellshot, was running almost half a million head of sheep. Grandad ran the wool-scouring enterprise Edkins Marsh & Co in the region for a long while. He married a teacher he met in Winton and the rest was, well, my history.
The places Bill and I visited – Ilfracombe, Longreach, Barcaldine, Emerald – are part of our visceral sense of Australia, of our big country and its big-hearted people. It felt like a homecoming and I met some amazing people, in particular, a young woman working her family station.
Jody Brown is the modern woman on the land, full of knowledge and passionate about the potential of new technology. Yet her straight-talking good humour was timeless. It reminded me of my mum and her sisters. Growing up, it felt like all of us in the city had country cousins. They always had the best stories, they always seemed so grown-up and – of course – they knew how to drive a car.
During our visit, I wondered if today’s kids feel the same connection to the bush. I want my children to know how important farming is and how special life on the land can be.
Australia’s farmers are absolutely essential to our national wellbeing. More than half of our landmass is used for agriculture, and more than 300,000 people are employed in the sector. Fifteen per cent of what we sell to the world comes from the agriculture industry. The farms that provide our food and fibre also enable industries around them to grow and thrive – cafes, pubs, newsagents, mechanics, butchers.
These are tight-knit communities thatstick close in hard times. Lots of people in the places we visited said: “If you keep the farms going, you keep the towns going.”
Of course, farmers are innovators by nature. Many are adopting new methods of sustaining their land, crops and livestock, and many are also looking to tourism for income.
Visiting the regions is an unforgettable experience. The vast dry of the western plains, the beauty of the Channel Country, the wide blue skies, the cold clear mornings and the warm winter sun. There’s nothing like watching the sun set over the sand dunes at Birdsville and the brilliant stars come out, and there’s no warmer welcome than at the Wellshot Hotel at Ilfracombe.
Every Australian country town has its unique fascinations, attractions and secrets. The Winton dinosaur museum, the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach, the Min Min lights and, of course, the tree at Barcaldine that tells the story of the birth of workers’ rights and the Australian Labor Party.
Every one of these changes our perceptions about how we live now and how people have lived over the centuries. It’s no exaggeration that when you are there you feel a connection to the land and to history.
It’s wonderful to see how many Australians have dug deep to support our farmers. The generosity in the fundraising drives is a credit to the kindness of our people. Perhaps something else we could do to support those people and communities affected and threatened by drought is to visit, learn, and be inspired.
This article was first published in the Courier Mail on 21 August 2018.