Every line and every crease, craggy smiles, furrowed brows and weather-beaten skin tell a story of life on the land.
A life of hard work, of rising at dawn and resting come dusk, of sunshine and rain, and seasons never the same.
A life of earnest endeavour, of bountiful produce and, at times, devastating destruction.
A life of toil, of earth and sky, of animals, of blood, sweat, tears and joy.
A life well lived.
It was with the aim of capturing the essence of some of the region’s older folk off the land that Border Mail photographer Mark Jesser embarked on a black and white photographic series at the 2018 Henty Machinery Field Days.
Fascinated by the well-worn faces of those who have worked the land for more than half a century, he has taken evocative profiles of many older farmers he stopped and chatted with during the three-day agricultural extravaganza.
The affable Albert Gough, 89, of Miepoll in Victoria had travelled a little further afield than his usual field day destination of Elmore to check out the machinery on offer at Henty.
Mr Gough still marvels at the electronics on offer in these massive modern machines of today.
His farming endeavours started with the original horsepower; he ploughed, sowed and harvested his crops with the giant, gentle-natured Clydesdales until he bought his first tractor after 1949.
Today he and his son Mervyn have a cropping and sheep operation on 2500 acres at Miepoll, Victoria and share farm other country in the district.
This year they have in oats, triticale, barley and wheat and will start harvest in a week; at the start of the season a decision was made not to plant canola because it was too dry.
Mr Gough says you learn to work with the season “the way it is”.
He’s been married to Rita for 63 years and together they raised a son and two daughters, Aileen and Marlene, through their efforts on the land.
Although, Mr Gough wonders whether he could do the same again, what with the price of land going up the way it is.
“It’s almost impossible for young people to get into farming these days unless they have backing,” he says.
“And in my honest opinion, when you compare what we do to other businesses, farmers are not getting enough money for produce and the hours we put in.”
But at the end of the day Mr Gough wouldn’t swap the life he’s lived for the high-rises and high wages of the city.
“I’ve had good health so I can’t complain and I like to achieve something.”
FOCUSED ON FARMING FACES
Mark Jesser has always been fascinated by faces.
And The Border Mail photographer reckons the weather-beaten faces of farming folk tell their own incredible stories.
Jesser has helped capture all the hustle and bustle of the Henty Machinery Field Days for the past four years but hankered to expand his focus to a portrait series.
“It always takes a bit of fast talking to persuade these subjects they are important,” he said.
“I chose people out with sons and daughters or grandkids with links to the land.
“A lot of these guys aren’t used to being in front of the camera – and they certainly don’t think about their hair and makeup.
“Henty and its characters are a great canvas to work with.”
PORTRAITS OF OUR FARMERS
Neville Rainbird has an old mate at Henty who’s known to readily recite his own profound piece of bush wisdom about life on the land.
It goes something like: Cattle have big feet in a wet year and bloody big mouths in a dry year.
It’s a pragmatism that has carried many a gnarled and weather-worn farmer through the best and worst of times in this land of drought and flooding rains.
And it takes a special kind of character to meld one’s livelihood to the earth and the sky, to animal instincts and the tempestuous temperament of Mother Nature.
Mr Rainbird, 80, of Holbrook, has been retired for the past 15 years but you can hear the passion for the land still ringing loud and true in his voice over the phone.
To be frank, he says, it never leaves you.
He still goes over to help youngest son Andrew, who farms about 4500 acres around Barellan, NSW.
And he’s a regular at the expansive Henty Machinery Field Days, where Border Mail photographer Mark Jesser captured his picture this year for a black and white portrait series.
Mid-discussion about drought, the state of the nation and philandering politicians, Mr Rainbird offers up his own poetic perspective on weathering the fluctuating seasons:
"Ow can it rain," the old man said, "with things the way they are?
You've got to learn off ant and bee, and jackass and galah;
And no man never saw it rain, for fifty years at least,
Not when the blessed parakeets are flyin' to the east!"
The weeks went by, the squatter wrote to tell his bank the news.
"It's still as dry as dust," he said, "I'm feeding all the ewes;
The overdraft would sink a ship, but make your mind at rest,
It's all right now, the parakeets are flyin' to the west".
- THE WEATHER PROPHET by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson
Mr Rainbird, who had 1200 acres at ‘Woodleigh’ in the hamlet of Woodend, near Yerong Creek, says tough times on the land are nothing new.
And back in the day he worked bloody hard to save enough money to buy his first property.
He started shearing and crutching sheep at 15 years of age and at 19 was driving a 1930s Bulldog steel-wheeled tractor for 75 cents an hour night and day to make a buck.
Married at 22, Mr Rainbird had three sons with his first wife (who passed away in 2000) by the time he was 29 years of age.
“I did any job that came up to get money,” Mr Rainbird recalls.
“I carted a lot of hay, I did a lot of crutching and shearing with sweat pouring off my nose from go to whoa.”
Nowadays, he muses, a lot of young people don’t want to be on the land.
They want the fast fix of high wages, set hours and comfortable living.
“I remember about 25 years ago, one of of my sons and his friend decided to head to Shepparton to go fruit picking,” he recalls.
“They were going to make their fortunes but once they got out in that hot sun all day they decided fruit picking wasn’t for them.
“In that same age and stage, i would have had to keep going to make a bob.”
He watched only one of four sons end up farming – the others went to various trades and professions.
The price of land and water has put a dampener on many agricultural aspirations, according to Mr Rainbird.
His third son – “who’s now in the trucking business at Narrandera” – made the decision to sell out of his property at Coleambally when the price of water became too dear.
And while he admits he doesn’t know “all the ins and outs” of the Murray-Darling Basin’s water woes, what Mr Rainbird does know is that navigating the muddy waters of competing interest groups is going to take some doing.
He’s not certain the right people are making enough waves with the policy-makers and politicians in Canberra.
“If the government wants us to survive, it has to support farmers and the Australian agricultural industry,” Mr Rainbird says.
“Labor governments don’t like supporting farmers, especially in Queensland.
“(Nationals MP) Barnaby’s a good politician. What he does in his private life - it's a bit like cricketer Shane Warne - well, that's up to him.
Barnaby (Joyce) is a good politician. What he does in his private life - it's a bit like cricketer Shane Warne - well, that's up to him.Neville Rainbird
“But if something’s not done to help farmers, the country will come to a stop.”
That’s not to say farmers can’t – and dont’ – know how to adapt, plan and even prosper through the country’s variable climate.
Periods of drought have long been the companion of farmers.
“The drought of 1967 was one of the driest years I’ve ever struck,” Mr Rainbird says.
“Jack Melton, another friend, used to say he made more money in a drought than in other years.
“This year, if you’ve had rainfall and been lucky enough to be under a storm or two and lucky enough to have grain, well … you’ll make pretty good money.”
Farming can be a lonely occupation, agrees Mr Rainbird.
“If things are not going right, it’s not very hard to get down-hearted,” he says.
“And it doesn’t just have to be a drought.”
Looking back on his time working the land, Mr Rainbird’s fondest memories are of harvest; of driving the header and chaser bin.
“It’s my favourite time of year – I love watching the grain coming in the header,” he says.