Note: This post has 13 chapters. To access the index, click the button above marked, "CHAPTER INDEX". Each chapter ends with a link to the next one, and a link back to the chapter index. Alternatively, you can access them via the Blog Archive list at right. Or you can simply scroll down.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

How the Farm Was Run

     How was an effective wheat farm managed in the 1920s and '30s?
     Well, for a start, being such a long way from town meant that country people developed a philosophy of economy which, I presume, still exists: never throw out the last scrap of any item, such as yarn, until a replacement has been acquired. You never know when you will have to "make do". And in this respect, we should mention two omnibus items in particular. One you have already encountered with Uncle Jack's adventure with the snake: binding twine. It was not wire, but very stiff, very strong twine, whose primary purpose was to be fed into a machine, which in turn wrapped it tightly around a bale of hay. But they used it for every other function requiring binding. The second was the four gallon [9 litres] tins of kerosene. Once they had served their purpose, they would have their tops cut off, and a handle inserted, so that they could be used as buckets. As every schoolboy used to know, a gallon weighs ten pounds [4.54 kg], so a bucket of that size would be weighty, to say the least. With the specific gravity of kerosene being approximately 0.82, compared to 1.0 for water, a full tin of kerosene would top the scales at 33 lb or nearly 15 kg, not counting the weight of the container.
     Let's start with the homestead, and work outwards. I've already mentioned the water bag hung on the verandah as a source of cool drinking water, and will go into more detail about it in the next chapter. I've also mentioned that kerosense-driven refrigerator available by the time I visited the farm. But once upon a time, domestic refrigeration was beyond the dreams of mortals. In the city, commercial refrigeration was available to produce large blocks of ice. Thus began the process whereby the "ice man" would do the rounds of the urban householders. There exists a black-and-white silent movie of an ice man bearing a large block of ice up a steep hill, only to lose it by melting before it reached the customer. The ice would be lodged in an upper compartment of the ice chest. The cold air produced as it melted, being heavier than warmer air, would sink to the lower compartment when the meat, milk, and butter was stored, while the warmer air rose to assist the melting. Hopefully, there was still some coolness left by the time the ice man returned the following day. I don't know what happened on Sundays. But I do vaguely remember something like that when I was very little, for I was born in 1949, and I gather that domestic refrigerators were introduced to Brisbane in 1954.
     But the ice man never made his rounds in the country. The farmers had to make do with a "Coolgardie safe". Basically, it was a container open at the side, over which was hung a strip of hessian, then a strip of saddle cloth hung over that. Water was kept on top, and allowed to run over and soak the cloth. It only remained to set up the safe in a place subject to the wind - the verandah was one such spot -and hopefully, the wind would cool the water-soaked cloth, and lower the temperature of the contents. It could not have been terribly efficient. My grandmother's sister, Ada had a very big safe - about three or four feet wide. And it was a sore point with Mum that, after she left home, her copies of the National Geographic were stored in the "meat house", and rendered unreadable due to water damage.
     Obviously, such a convenience would be useless for large quantities of meat. When a sheep was slaughtered, my grandmother would cut it up, salt it, and hang it up from a tree enclosed in a sugar bag. My own mother never learned how to do it, and claimed her father used too much salt. Sausages? Forget about it! They could only be obtained in town, in winter. When people went to Sydney, they ate fish and sausages.
     Farmers, of course, have to be more or less self-sufficient in vegetables. The garden next to the house was the wife's responsibility. When my mother was about thirteen or fourteen ie approximately 1924-5, her father managed to get well water piped in to both the garden and the lawn. How they were watered before that I cannot say. It must have been an onerous task.

     Now let's move to the major cash crop: wheat. As I mentioned once before, when Grandpa started up the farm, he was so poor he had to broadcast the seed wheat by hand. By the time Mum was a girl, however, a combine drill was used. Fertiliser went into one box, and wheat seed into another, and as the plough advanced, both wheat and fertiliser went down the drill into the furrow. Initially, it was all drawn by a team of about eight horses, but Grandpa was one of the first to invest in a tractor - sometime in the first part of the 1920s. Needless to say, ploughing by tractor is different to ploughing by horse, and certain adjustments were required. Also, there were times and places where a tractor was not practical. He did, for example, use horses all throughout World War II.
     Originally, harvesting was performed by a Sunshine Harvester, drawn by a team of horses (naturally!). Later, when Mum was at school, her father acquired a header. There was great excitement when they discovered it possessed a false comb, which raised the ears of wheat to the heads for cropping. Eventually, he had two headers going. Christmas was the deadline; good farmers managed to complete the harvest by then - usually long before then. They would commence in November.
     So, how much did a harvest amount to? It depended on the year. Six, seven, or eight bags of wheat per acre would have been considered normal. Ten was excellent. Once Grandpa won a prize for the best crop in the district. But farming is a precarious lifestyle. I have already mentioned Grandpa's adage that, provided you get three good years when starting up, you should be able to manage. In 1914 there was a very bad drought. Only one wagon load of wheat was produced.
    As an aside, I should mention how her older brother, Alf served as a soldier in North Africa, and when the city slickers (who were also affected by the heavy boots they were forced to wear) complained about the terrible heat during the day, and the cold at night, Alf told them it was no worse than Wagga.. "No wind blows in the Riverina at harvest time," explained Mum. "It's just plain hot." But one year it did blow. Mum remembers her father swearing as he gazed over his crop, watching the grain fall off in the wind. A lot of it was of no use except for hay.
     Another year, in the late 1920s, the rain set in at harvest time. That was not supposed to happen. The wheat just fell down, and couldn't be harvested. There were always bags of wheat in the paddocks, but they had to set them on stumps because, laid on the ground, they would rot. Naturally, too, since so much of the grain had not be collected, it sprouted and went to seed. Some farmers managed to bring in a second crop of sorts, but Grandpa decided it just wasn't worth while. Mum suspects he put in sheep instead.
     Nevertheless, over a period of time, my grandfather managed to buy out other properties, bringing his total up to 1,000 acres. About 1919, he paid cash for the adjacent property, which had been allowed to go to weed. To be precise, it was covered with mustard, about two feet high. Grandpa's solution was to buy 500 wethers, and set them onto the mustard, thereby clearing the property for wheat, while providing a saleable source of mutton and wool. Whether the diet affected their taste is something I failed to discover, but the property eventually devolved to the eldest son, Jack.
     Not all the land was suitable for wheat. Slopes not accessible to the plough and the header were good enough for lucerne, which ended up as livestock fodder. Both wheat and lucerne would be bundled up and stacked in a shed. However, people handling chaff ran the danger of catching ringworm. Those were the days before all the beautiful modern fungicides were produced. The only treatment available was the purple-staining Condy's crystals, or potassium permangenate.

     By the time I was a boy wheat farming had been discontinued, but no farmer ever really retires. When everything else was gone, there were always a few sheep left over. In its heyday ie when Mum was a child, the farm always kept 1,000 sheep, and at one point, they went up to 2,000. When Grandpa was shearing away from the house, sometimes his children would visit him on the way back from school, and he's tell them to kick their shoes in the fleece. That way, they wouldn't need to polish them the next day.
      I've already described the poddy lambs, and the dogs which were kept to herd the sheep. As a fallback source of income, sheep also had their advantages. Getting rid of mustard is something which springs to mind. When skeleton weed threatened to destroy the crop, and some farmers went broke, Grandpa moved from adult sheep to fat lambs, and set them into the newly planted fields. The noxious plant only had time to break the surface, when it would be chewed down to the root by the energetic lambs, who would come back with their noses covered with dirt and the weed's sticky resin.
     Everyone had at least a few pigs.
     As you can imagine, there would always be paddocks given over to grass or some livestock fodder. Apart from anything else, you can't grow the same crop on the same ground year in and year out and expect the yield to continue. The land needs to lie fallow every now and then. Besides, horses at least were indispensable, and they live on more than fresh air. Grandpa purchased a place down near the river initially to rest his horses there, and afterwards decided it would also be useful for "store" cattle ie cattle in poor condition, and sometimes wild, which required fattening up before sale. He was an excellent farmer, who was constantly on the watch for opportunities and changes in the market.
Charlie, aged 17, driving cattle to the river property.
     Another of Grandpa's adages was that anyone could be a cow cocky, who was the Australian version of a peasant. Even dairy farmers seldom ran more than about forty cows. He himself always had a few milk cows, and during the Depression he sought out a friend, and they each took a half share in a dairy. His daughters, Olga and Lil were conscripted into helping him with the milking. Initially, they were allowed to kept the proceeds, but soon the farm expenses became too demanding, and he was forced to commandeer the money for consolidated revenue. In any case, once out of the cow, the milk went into a separator. I remember this as a boy. You pour the milk into the top of the machine, turn the handle, and eventually cream issues from one outlet, and skim milk from another. While the skim milk went to the livestock, the cream went into a large can, to be collected by the butter factory in Wagga Wagga. For the Dennises, the collection depot was four miles away at the corner of the farm owned by the Macks, whose daughter, Aileen eventually became my godmother. The collector must have been quick about his business if the cream didn't spoil, because the summers can be really hot, and refrigeration on the farms was non-existent. My Aunt Hilda, the youngest, and last survivor of the family, vividly remembers the delight of having the cans coming back containing butter, and a large block of ice, which they used to break up and serve with their tea.

Water Supply
      I've already mentioned the dams and the windmills. Strictly speaking, although everybody in Australia and the U.S. uses the term, "windmill", they are, in fact, wind pumps, and that is what they are called in South Africa. It is just that, once they were invented in the U.S., people naturally adopted the name current in Europe, where similar machines function to grind grain. In any case, they used the force of the wind to pump up water from a depth of 150 feet, whence it was pumped into a big corrugated iron tank, and thence into a trough for the use by the horses and other stock. Of course, the children often had to take their horses down to the trough, and they considered it great fun to drink next to the horse. Unfortunately, their father acted the spoilsport, and pointed out that the trough also served as a swimming pool for their dog, Toby, and it would be best if they didn't use it. As for the sheep, they drank at a dam in another paddock, or else they were driven to the well.

     What would a farm be like if it didn't have weeds competing for space with the crop, or animals competing for grass with the stock, or eating the crop before it was harvested, or simply getting in the way? In the last group one would include Bathurst burr, whose propagation system involved getting caught up in the sheep's wool.
     Skeleton weed has already been mentioned.  Patterson's curse, which fills the paddocks with that beautiful purple colour, is a noxious weed. If a farmer was stupid enough to allow it to remain on his grounds, an inspector from the Department of Agriculture would come down on him. Interestingly, when I was a boy, and the farm was no longer active, the paddocks were full of dry, dead thistles, but these were not noxious weeds. The ones they had to worry about in the old days were star thistles, which tended to arrive with the floods to re-infect cleared land.
     Then there were the insects. You can lose an awful lot of the crop if grasshoppers get into the green wheat. My grandfather would watch a plague of them climbing up the stems, chewing at the greenery, and he knew he'd have to get the harvest in quickly, or else the nibbling varmints would cause the heads of the wheat to fall off, and be lost.
     The first recorded mouse plague in Australia was in 1903, and the farm in the Riverina used to be hit every four or five years, often in winter. This may be have something to do with the fact that, in that part of the world, it is the wet season, although mice typically breed from October to April. I was undergoing my zoology training in the 1970s, about the time scientists really got involved in mouse plague research. It turns out the precipitating causes are complex, and vary with the district, but involve such things as the type of soil - whether it provides cracks for their nests - rainfall, and farming practices.
     Be that as it may, when a plague struck, they would swarm everywhere, and eat anything - even wallpaper. My mother remembers one of her relatives - I think it was her Aunt Ada - had them make nests in her kapok mattress. But even during non-plague years, my grandfather would place the bags of flour on the kitchen table prior to retiring, in order to keep it away from the mice.
     During a plaque, they used to pour some golden syrup into an empty four gallon kerosene tin, and lean a board against the rim. The idea was that a mouse would run up the board, sniffing out the golden syrup, fall in, and come to a sticky end. Another solution would be to take one of the casks which, under normal circumstances, would be used to store pork once a pig had been killed and salted. Such casks could be obtained from a brewery, or even be made to order. But during mouse plagues, they would dump some seed wheat inside as bait, and add copper sulphate as poison. In any case, it would be like trimming the edge of the jungle.
     Rabbits! Not only would they eat your grass, but their breeding propensity made your property a threat to your neighbours'. You would be fined if you didn't eliminate any rabbits on your property. And it was a never-ending battle. You would clean up the area near the river, only to have a pregnant female float down on the next flood and re-infect the site. (Just like the star thistles!) Those were the days before myxomatosis and the calicivirus, so you were left to do it the hard way. First, you had to seal off all the entrances of a warren but one, then stuff a hessian bag soaked in "carbon" into the one remaining hole, and set it alight - a sort of gas warfare against rabbits.
     Once he employed young Halley and one of the local boys to spend a whole week down by the river smoking out rabbits. For the duration, they lived in a shed, which Mum remembers as being lined with newspaper, for "those were the days of the Old Bark Hut".

And now, go forward to the next, and second last chapter, or back to the index.

No comments:

Post a Comment