Pandemic just another chapter in family’s farming story

By HANNAH TURNER

Every morning, Frank James is greeted by the sun rising over paddocks full of grazing cows on his families 11,000 ha property. He works from sunrise to sunset everyday, watching the farm go from brown and barren to green and full of lambs and calves.

He and his family hope for rain.

While the majority of us continue to choose urban lifestyles, isolated country towns can often be underappreciated. But during a time where isolation and social distancing is encouraged, being closer to Mother Nature has its benefits. The James family have farmed through wars, economic depressions and now a pandemic. Based in Hyden, Western Australia, the land has seen machinery advance from plow to drones and Frank’s 80th birthday encouraged a time of reflection of their family’s journey so far.

Frank is the second generation of four that is working the family farm, with the youngest generation showing enthusiasm to keep the tradition going. Frank says the freedom of wide-open spaces is what drew him and his brothers to farming.

“It was partly in our blood; you know in the 1950s there weren’t a lot of other occupations anyway. We knew we had an opportunity on a farm, so I guess that’s why we took it,” he says. “It’s a good industry to be in, people have to eat and most of the farms in Western Australia have passed the worst part. The land’s becoming sweeter and more fertile and we’re managing to farm it in a lot of better ways with today’s knowledge.”

Frank has always seen working the land as rewarding. As a child, he would feed the pigs while his brother, Gill, would milk the cows. They always had a couple of milking cows for the home. Frank would watch and learn from his father and later on in life, his own children learnt from him to work with the weather and the seasons. There is something deeply satisfying about working alongside Mother Nature, umbrellaed under a big sky, growing crops in an effort to feed a hungry nation. Frank’s son Stephen is now teaching his three boys what he has learnt, and the family knowledge continues to travel down the generations.

Being around in the 1950s and 1960s proved the right time for Frank to take advantage of once- in-a-generation opportunities that presented themselves following the Great Depression.

“In the 1930s a lot of people walked off their farms, semi developed, probably half the farms in this area were abandoned, that’s why after the war my Dad picked up two or three abandoned blocks knowing that we were coming home from school and we would need the extra land,” he says. “After 1950 we had a war boom, the price of wool went through the roof, that put money in people’s pockets and machinery became a bit more available.”

During World War II, Italian prisoners of war worked on the family’s property while most Australians were away. Frank said they made bricks for the house.

“They were supervised, the trucks used to come around … every couple of weeks and issue them a pair of boots, some shaving cream and a small amount of money, they weren’t slave labour,” he says. “They actually lived on the farms; I can remember they used to eat with the family.”

In 1961 at just 20 years old, he bought a block for $2 an acre and it’s what got him started. Frank moved to his current farm two years after he was married to Kath.

“The first couple of years I was out here, people were on $1.30 an hour for tractor driving,” he says. “We used to sit out in the open in the tractors … in the sun and the rain, very low horsepower, some of the machinery still had steel wheels.”

The efficiency of the farming industry has drastically improved since the 1950s with bulk handling of grain, increased manufacturing ability and more reliable machinery. However, climate change threatens the industry like never before, especially in Hyden where rainfall is never guaranteed.

“There is climate change, you can’t deny it, it’s happening worldwide,” he says. “There definitely is a reduction in winter rainfall, but every decade has its highs and lows, we have good years and bad years. I can go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s where we had some very dry years and some very wet years. We had the same again from 2010 to 2020 and I dare say it’ll be the same from 2020 to 2030, we will have the highs and the lows: that’s just nature.”

The use of new technology has the potential to skyrocket agriculture into a $100 billion industry by 2030. Frank says that some of these advances could be helpful to his family but not all.

“I think there will be a place for some of it, but I can’t see how headers and tractors can operate on their own because of all of the variables that could go wrong, like if you blow a hydraulic hose on the machine,” he says. “As far as the drones are concerned, I could see a use for them because instead of going around and checking troughs, you could just send the drone out. But you don’t want to spend all your life on the bloody phone screen either!”

Frank looks out over his vast farm in his work clothes every morning, feeling satisfied, passing on his priceless knowledge to his grandkids.

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