Life on the Farm

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
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Trip End May 10, 2005


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Friday, March 4, 2005

What I found so memorable about Australia are the trees. Last night we drove to Digby and Nikki's farm and both sides of the road were lined with tall graceful eucalyptus (gum) trees, many of them in bloom, the leaves in clusters such that they appear like giant stalks of parsley. Although it is summer and the landscape is quite brown, the scenery is spectacular. There's something very endearing about the vast open areas of Australia, particularly for someone who grew up in rural Saskatchewan. In many ways, it reminds me of home.

Digby and Nikki, along with Digby's parents, farm about 7200 acres. They grow crops similar to those we grow in Saskatchewan (canola, oats, barley, wheat) and also have 14,000 head of merino sheep. That's a lot of sheep! They are also considering diversifying by renting some of their land out for the growing of blue gums. The gum trees are sold as wood chips for processing into paper (the high quality magazine-type) on the Asian market.

It's currently sheep shearing season and Digby and Nikki have hired a team to do their shearing. Besides the shearers (the guys who do the backbreaking work of actually removing the wool), the team consists of "rousabouts" or "shedhands" who sort through the wool and remove the damaged/dirty parts and keep the floors and shearing areas clean; the "wool classer", who checks the wool for quality; and the "wool presser" who puts the wool into bales for shipping. The shearers are paid by the number of sheep they shear; a good shearer can finish up to 200 sheep a day.

Digby and Nikki have a pet sheep called Barnaby that was an orphan lamb. Barnaby thinks he's a dog. Barnaby needed shearing along with the other sheep and Digby didn't know whether to tell the shearers (and make them nervous about shearing the family pet) or to throw him in with the rest of the sheep. Well, Digby chose the latter and the poor sheep came out looking like he'd been in a barroom brawl! Not to mention he was terribly indignant about being corraled with all those sheep!

Digby and Nikki also sell their sheep for meat and ship it live to the Middle East. Muslims require that animals are slaughtered in ways particular to their faith; the meat that results is called "halal" meat.

There are pests that the sheep also have to be treated for, such as lice and various parasites. Another threat are the blowflies that lay eggs on the wool; the resulting maggots will burrow into the skin.

Most of the water for the farm comes from rain water, though they do have a backup well. During the rainy season (winter), rain is collected from the corrugated iron roofs on both the wool shed and the house. They also dig "catchment dams" in the fields for rain water. They get about 22-24 inches of rain here each year. The rains begin mid-May and last until spring (September/October).

Fires are a real threat in the summertime when everything is so dry. They are generally caused by lightening strikes, machinery or, in some cases, by power lines when it is very hot (the ground and live wire can touch each other if it becomes very windy). They have a volunteer fire brigade and there's a continual fire watch. When harvesting, farmers are required (both for safety and insurance purposes) to keep large quanities of water on hand at all times in case of fire. All farm trucks are equipped with large water tanks and hoses.

Digby and Nikki have three children: Chris, Emily and Hunter who are 15, 12 and 7 repectively. Although Kojonup has a school from grades 1 - 10, many people in the area opt to send their kids to boarding school for their junior and senior high. Digby tells me that the quality of education at the local school is just not as good as what they receive in the larger centres; it is particularly a challenge for teachers in that classes are very small, but the students have a trememdous range of academic capabilities. Chris attends a private boys' school in Perth and Emily has just started her first year at a private girls' school in Bunbury. According to his parents, Chris has blossomed at Scotch College; he appears to be to be a very mature and well-adjusted 15 year old.

Nikki was born in England and came to Australia when she was 12 years old. She grew up in Perth, trained as teacher and met Digby when she was teaching in a nearby town. Currently she is a relief (substitute) teacher; most of her teaching experience is in kindergarten (playschool to us) and pre-primary (kindergarten).

"Aussiespeak" is a very colourful language; humour is an integral part of it. Today, Digby told me that one of the shedhands was "a kangaroo short of the back paddock" which translated to Canadian would be "a brick short of a full load". They often refer to a large group as a "mob", and abbreviate every word possible: thank you is "ta", mosquitoes are "mozzies", barbecues are "barbies", margarine is "marg", a utility truck is a "ute", university is "uni", gifts or presents are "prezzies", and my favourite (get ready!): your hamstring is a "hammy"!!!!!

Martin is enjoying helping Dibgy out on the farm; he misses doing manual labour in some ways and relishes getting his hands dirty again. The only thing is that Australians use different names for their tools, so in order to pass Digby the "______", he has to learn what that is!
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