Monday, May 11, 2009

Farm Life

While in Fiji we were chatting with a fellow traveler who happened to be a semi famous Australian soccer player married to an Aussie actress. We told him about our departure from Manhattan and our plan to work on a Sheep and Cattle farm, and, being a media savvy bloke, he immediately saw the potential for a reality TV show. Flattered I began to imagine what a great reality TV character I would make... then I realized that this reality show had already been made, and that it starred Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Feeling unoriginal, I booked a pedicure for myself and my annoyingly small dog and called it a day.

(***Quick Picture Note - We were having technical difficulties getting our latest pics into this blog post, but there is a link at the bottom of the post that will allow you to see them. Please follow & enjoy!)

In truth, after a couple of months of travelling, Alle and I were ready to settle down and do some honest work. (I'm going to print this statement and put it over my desk when I finally come home and go back to work full time. My future self is going to think my past self was an incredible moron.) With that in mind we headed north to the Armidale area where Charlie Coventry (Alle's brother-in-law) and his family have three farming properties: Bailey Park, Achill, & Long Point. Alle and I would like to give a hearty thanks to the entire Coventry (and Dight) family for hosting us these past weeks. They have been beyond generous with their time and knowledge and have made our farm experience everything we had hoped for.

Bailey Park is the farm where Charlie grew up, and is where his father & brother still live today. It is in a somewhat mountainous region about 600 miles NW of Sydney called the New England Table Lands, which are reminicent of the Wyoming foothills - only without the Rockies on the other side. This area gets plenty of rain and is mostly without predators, so its excellent country for raising sheep and cattle, and is the only one of the three Coventry Armidale properties where a market crop (lettuce) is raised. Our two main acitivies here have been mustering sheep on motorbike and lettuce picking. Lettuce picking involves bending over at the waist for about 6 hours a day so that your hamstrings feel like they're on fire and you never want to look at a salad again. It also involves meeting lots of graduate students looking to get outside and make a few dollars. Next time you order a Big Mac at a New South Wales McDonald's, please don't throw away that lovely piece of lettuce. Mustering sheep is done either to move sheep from paddock to paddock to get them new feed and keep them from getting worms, or to move them into shed's for shearing. In addition to motorbikes, we also use dogs, mainly border collies and kelpies, to direct the sheep. A good border collie responds to one whistle to go left, another to go right, and a different call to push a mob of sheep forward or turn them around - pretty impressive animals. The kelpies are incredibly fast dare devils and have no fear of cows.

The second farm, Achill, is similar in character and location to Bailey Park, though slightly wilder - more trees, creeks, mountains, ponds, fewer paddocks dedicated to growing feed crops (ie. grass for cattle). Its also a newer farm, so paddocks are still being cleared or thined or sewn with feed grass for the first time. Here we did some exploratory surveying - following Charlie on a motorbike while he looked at the land - some sheep shearing - catching sheep, giving them buzz cuts, sweeping and sorting their wool - and some rock picking - picking up rocks.

Next, there is Long Point, the most recently purchased property & also the wildest and most scenic. Long Point is over an hour's drive outside of the town of Armidale, borders a national park & a 3,000+ ft. gorge, and, because its on the 'wrong side of the dingo fence,' is purely dedicated to cattle (dingos would eat the sheep). Here we mustered cattle on horseback and then drafted them in the yards. Because the terrain is so mountainous & scruffy (lots of trees, underbrush, creeks, etc.) bikes are difficult to use and horses are preferred. They say you have to fall off of a horse somewhere between five and nine times to really consider yourself a stockman. Well I've got three under my belt while Alle, with equal time in the saddle, has zero. I keep telling her that means I'm more experienced, but somehow she doesn't see it that way. Drafting is the process of sorting the cattle and involves running the around in small areas of the yards and occassionally jumping in front of one and chasing it into a different area. As you're doing this they crap on eachother and moo alot.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that none of this reminds you very much of the Outback. Good thought, all this Armidale farming is happening quite a bit east of the outback. However we also spent time on a fourth farm called Yetman Station in Yetman. This is also not the outback, but its closer, and it is home to Charlie's sister and brother-in-law, Kate and Colin Dight and their three children. Yetman is West of the Great Dividing Range in the plains just east of the Outback and is truly a small rural town. Whereas Armidale has a population of 19,500 and is home to the University of New England, Yetman has a population of about 100 and is home to the Codfish Hotel and Pub. Alle and I have enjoyed this taste of small town life and our opportunity to raise the population by 2%, albeit briefly.

As a plains town, Yetman is well positioned for medium to large scale cash cropping - cotton, corn & wheat - especially near the McIntyre river, which is just a few hundred yards behind me as I type. As such I've been tagging along with Colin, working on tractors, large mobile sprinkler systems, and other farm machinery. There also quite a few cattle & we have continued to do cattle work, most interestingly, ahem, preg testing. The only way to be sure whether a cow is in calf is to put on a glove the size of your arm, cover it in industrial strength lube, and, well, feel around. And when I say that we have preg tested cattle, I mean that Alle preg tested cattle while I took pictures and laughed. A special thanks to Colin for arranging the preg testing schedule so that we could participate. We can now check this off our list of life's "to do's".

So that's a quick view of life on the farm. There is actually much more to it than that, and if you want to hear about it, question my cowboy prowess, or discuss the best way to put nitrogen back into soil, all you have to do is shout me a beer when I come back and you'll get more than an earful. If you want to check out some pics of what I've described above, please go to: Enoy!