James Brown is Australia’s Farmer of the Year. He and wife Sarah were selected because of their sheer determination to survive a huge market collapse, widespread disease and a flood that took them from four million growing units down to 70.
Their product? Pearls.
Pearl farming is an ancient practice and each seeded pearl takes six years to develop. Many food crops require just as much patience. For example, walnuts take 10 to 12 years, figs two to six years and grapes three years. Like pearls, there is a lot of risk to mitigate over a long period of time.
Brown quietly bore it all and used the diverse set of problems to find new solutions.
I related deeply with this story of a pearl farmer a world away. I had spent several decades travelling with my father who was a cattle buyer and we visited many farms. Around the corral posts and kitchen tables I learned of life, adversity and strength; taking home with me the deepest respect for those families.
Farm accidents took lives or physical ability, fires destroyed homes, crops failed in the heat or were frozen, cows came in open, pig barns burned, markets declined, borders closed.
I stood where an above-ground manure digester had once burst covering the farmyard in manure. On another, the first house burned and the second one collapsed.
There were disease outbreaks and contaminated water issues from nearby developments and these families survived windstorms, rainstorms, hailstorms and life’s storms. Some families were holding together despite stress, insolvency, the lack of a will or a divorce. And others watched helplessly as the land they loved was expropriated or mined. Depending on the income, there was everything from broken fences to new corrals and the cattle were just as diverse.
But everyone was treated with dignity and respect, and often we were privileged to “come in for coffee” with offerings that varied from fresh baking served on dainty china to coffee served in an old chipped cup. It was all manna to me, for each farm family gave of what they could. I loved these people.
A paralyzed gentleman talked business with me from his bedside. The farm woman with so little tenderly gave me the eggs she picked that morning while another sent us home with a pail of berries. When one fellow made me burst out laughing as he shared his hilarious accounts of “hard luck,” another presented to me lessons on the futures markets and investments.
The farm couple that lost two houses spoke of their love for each while the farm family without a crop to harvest planned on taking a “day or two off and do a little fishing” before facing the banker.
In all places and at all times there was hope, determination and a sense of patience and ease that you would not expect to find in a crisis.
Upon reflection, I see that the families that persevered shared similar values. They did not judge the situation or cast blame — even when the children accidentally lit the pig barn on fire. Instead, they accepted the situation for what it was, knowing it could not be changed. There was but one choice — move ahead.
Moving ahead often meant making huge adjustments and nurturing curiosity.
The fellow who lost his hands accepted his prosthetics and went back to work. The farmer now bound in a wheelchair shifted into management. Ranching went to a whole new level when the ranch had to be rebuilt after a flood. Intercropping to preserve moisture started after a drought and families that had to relocate did so with a sense of servitude to their new communities.
Because the canvas was blank, these families allowed themselves the time to consider the possible. If they could not withstand another crop or animal failure, then what could they do with the resources they had? Creative solutions came into play and many discovered how little they knew about what was possible in the same space.
Gratefulness was expressed over misfortune.
There was enough grain in some bins to carry over, the combine burned to the ground but no one was hurt, the breeding program needed a new infusion of genetics anyway and although not fancy, the third house provided a “cosy roof.” The farmer who needed chemotherapy (and drove 200 miles alone each week) loved the “opportunity” to stay with her sister.
On all the farms, faith was the cornerstone.
Along with their unshakable faith, these folks shared an unrelenting hope, endless determination and almost astounding patience. They were accepting, grateful and curious enough to find a way through the challenges in their lives and on their farms. And they were humble and kind.
As one elderly farmer so often gently shared with me “it seems like much now — but this too shall pass.”
Farming is a long game. Going from four million to 70 shells must have seemed daunting at first but Brown quietly expressed his gratitude for the 70 left and the genetic possibility in those precious few. And from that point, he rebuilt.