‘I’m temporarily happy’: The farmer riding emotional waves

The two F words – farming and family – guide the philosophy of one man. Text, audio and photos by Matthew Santini.

Alarm. Crack of dawn. Minus two degrees. Wind chill. Feels even colder. Fresh air. Cows mooing. It’s milking time.

With family history tying him to the land since 1867, it’s little wonder farming is more than a job for Graeme O’Hara. And, given his great grandfather arrived here from Ballymena in Northern Ireland and he already has six grandchildren of his own, that makes six generations of O’Hara’s who will have gone through this morning routine on O’Haras Road, bordering Hazelwood and Yinnar in south-eastern Victoria.

“I think my great grandfather was drawn to the area because of the green tinge, the hills and Middle River. It just would have given him that sense of Northern Ireland; that feeling of comfort and home,” Graeme says.

 At home in the Gippsland hills

The home itself has changed drastically over those 150 years; the weatherboard shed with five chimneys has been replaced by a refurbished modern brick house with a single cosy fireplace, in front of which Graeme’s wife Helen delivers him a cuppa.

Farming and family are the most important ‘F’ words to Graeme, while he also warns of a farmer’s “tendency to swear”. Living off his 230 hectares of undulating prime country is essentially all the 73 year-old has ever known. And despite the heavy levels of stress and anxiety that the dairy and beef industries have caused him over the journey, he couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else.  

Not that he hasn’t ventured into the world outside his Yinnar nest.  

A few years ago he visited his ancestral roots, Ballymena, with his eldest daughter Kelly and the pair searched for the town’s First Presbyterian Church where his great grandparents were wed before they made the 92-day boat trip to Australia. Eventually they located it. Kelly shed tears while her father soaked up the “special moment”.

In his 50 years of farming, Graeme has seen many changes to the industry: milking machines, motorised rakes that span nine metres, diverse grass types and countless varieties of soil and fertiliser. But perhaps the most poignant is his switch from a flip phone to a smartphone.

“Kelly forced me to upgrade,” he says. “We have a group chat so I talk to my kids every day.”

Calves in their pen

Growing up in Yinnar and attending the local schools provided Graeme’s children with the foundation to forge their own paths. Kelly is studying and teaching music in Detroit; youngest daughter Emily looks after 30,000 hectares of farmland in Cascade, Western Australia; while his middle child, son Jason, has followed his father’s footsteps and looks after the dairy work on the Yinnar farm.

Jason isn’t on hand to help on this particular day though. He’s had to go to Melbourne to get treatment for an acid burn to his eye, sustained through a freak splash while rinsing the dairy plant. Thankfully it was not a serious incident. And such is the community spirit – there are at least half a dozen family lineage farmers in the area – that neighbour Jamie, who has been helping out with the farm work since he was up to Graeme’s knee, filled in for the 6am milking session.

“My kids loved their time on the farm while they were growing up,” Graeme says.

“I used to call them my ‘’PGO’s’’ – professional gate openers – because they would have to hop out of the truck constantly. A lot of farming is about opening and closing gates so the cows don’t get out.”

Red pickup. Engine start. Wide expanses. Open gate. Close gate. Electric wire. Don’t touch. Zap. Graeme accidentally touched. Beef farming o’clock.

“It gets a bit lonely out here, but that’s why I’ve got Daisy with me,” Graeme says.

Daisy is Graeme’s Jack Russell cross. She’s only a “tiny thing” but she has a big place in his heart. As do the calves, which this farmer can’t help but become attached to despite a lifespan of only 10 months.

Carting feed

Yet Graeme doesn’t shy away from the reality of his profession. His priority is ensuring his sole bull, and near 400 cows and vealers – calves being prepared for slaughter – remain healthy and happy before they are bought by the local butcher. He does this by mixing a magnesium, selenium and calcium blend in the water, scattering hay and shifting electric fences every two days to keep pastures fresh – a process called strip grazing.

And while costs present a major challenge for agriculturalists as fodder and silage expenditure continues to increase, these measures help the cattle enjoy their limited time – they typically breed for around 15 years – and ensure premium produce for consumers.

The cows themselves are eager for a meadow change and as soon as Graeme opens the gate and hollers “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon”, the entire herd trudges obediently – hooves clattering and moos echoing – up the dirt path and into the next paddock.

Behind the newly erected barriers is grass, which appears a deep and healthy green; at least to the untrained eye. It’s quite picturesque. It could easily make for a bucolic scene in ‘Whistleblower’, an Australian-Chinese film being shot just up the road from Graeme’s property at the recently decommissioned Hazelwood Power Station.

But a farmer with Graeme’s experience knows the grass isn’t anywhere near where it should be. This is largely due to the area receiving only 85 per cent of long-term average rainfall this year, the fourth consecutive below average cycle. Given Gippsland’s natural tendency for greenery, this is known as a ‘‘green drought’’.

“With the fertiliser I gave it the grass should be at least this high,” Graeme says as he holds his finger 10 centimetres higher than the grass actually is.

Fortunately some relief has come in the form of rain towards the end of August, allowing Graeme to feel – as he carefully puts it – “temporarily happy”.

Indeed dairy prices increased across Gippsland in the first half of 2018, up 19 per cent on the previous year to $5.74/kg of milk solids. Although this is coming off a small base as prices had steadily declined across previous seasons, culminating in an 11-year low in 2016-17.

While allowing himself a brief moment of contentment, Graeme still fears the upcoming summer and knows insufficient rain throughout spring will see the grass turn brown, yellow, and then a dreaded white, putting further strain on himself.

Even the nation’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has recognised the drought impact on farmers, declaring this issue his highest priority in his first week on the job. Farmers like Graham have already had to “de-stock”, sacrificing profits and reducing cattle by as much as 15 per cent to cope with the lack of downpour.

The Yinnar local says he has steadily noticed the impacts of climate change throughout his time in the industry, with research predicting the area will continue to experience extended summers and longer dry spells in future years. However the region’s national dairy production has remained constant at 22 per cent since 2008, accounting for the same output last year.

But the weather isn’t Graeme’s only burden. Farming also hinders relationships. Graeme and his son aren’t able to take time off to travel together as one must remain back to look after the cattle, and even the simplest weekend activities prove difficult.   

“I haven’t been fishing with my boy since he was little,” Graeme says. “But I guess being able to work with Jason each day is fair consolation.”

Even though Graeme is entering the twilight of his farming career, retirement just isn’t for him. He describes his approach as a “realignment of priorities” and entrusts more of the load to his son, freeing both Helen and himself to cross more travel destinations off their bucket lists.

But shifting this mentality isn’t easy because wherever Graeme goes he always feels the pull of the Gippsland hills. The colours, sights and smells give him a distinct sense of ease that he can barely articulate, just as they would have done for his great grandfather.   

Although this isn’t quite full circle, because the generational clock ticks on. 

Graeme on his farm