After every farm gate she shut behind her, Alice Mabin would make a phone call.
“Oh my god, I’ve just met THE most incredible family,” she’d burst out to her personal assistant.
The reply would come from thousands of kilometres away, “You said that about the last farm you visited.”
And so it was this adventurous young woman traversed the length and breadth of the country on a quest to uncover the heart and soul of Australia’s agriculture industry.
The 32-year-old spent a year in 2017 photographing and documenting the day-to-day lives of more than 500 farmers, including many from the Riverina, North East and Victoria’s high country.
It was an incredible journey that took her from a crocodile farm to a property of 50,000 sheep; to cattle stations; pig, poultry and pearl operations; dairy; and to boutique enterprises such as buffalo, camels, deer, ducks and goats.
Alice marvelled at the vast expanse of the country’s commodity crops – wheat, barley, canola and lupins; she met with wasabi farmers; saffron, hemp, truffle and cocoa growers; and sampled the stories of those who make their living in horticulture and viticulture.
The self-published author and photographer’s aim was to showcase the magnificence and the magnitude of our agriculture industry on the back of the success of her first book published in 2014.
The Drover, documenting the world's biggest cattle drive, became a 12-time Australian best seller.
This time the New Zealand born farm girl wanted to celebrate the “people of the land who keep us all alive...”
The 1.6 million people who work in agriculture creating 90 per cent of our daily domestic food supply.
She points out our survival depends on “people most of us will never see or get the chance to thank”.
“Without their passion and commitment there would be no food on our table this morning,” she says.
“We stare at our coffee cup, our breakfast but we don’t see them; they are invisible.”
Halfway through her project it soon became abundantly clear Alice’s task was bigger than any one book could encapsulate.
The result is two weighty hard-cover tributes to what lies beneath and what grows above our vast land – The Grower: the roots of Australia; and The Grower: the heartbeat of Australia.
It’s a photographic and narrative insight into each industry and how we farm today.
Through it all, though, Alice says her purpose was to show readers “the beauty, the romance, the hardship and the triumph of these brave souls that keep Australia alive”.
It’s also a call to arms, if you like, as the storm clouds brew on an issue that has nothing to do with much-needed rain.
From waterways to rolling hills and drought-ridden driveways, in every corner of Australia Alice found people fiercely passionate about what they do against the odds of an ever-changing political and environmental landscape.
People who aren’t necessarily celebrated in a one-click culture where the tide of public opinion can turn on one carefully orchestrated Facebook post.
“Perception is everything in today’s online world,” Alice says.
“Farmers have been taking it on the chin for far too long because of the 'just get on with it' characters they are.”
She fears if farmers don’t speak up, politicians will bend even more to the whim of the noisy minority.
“And before you know it cheaper foreign imports of substandard quality will be increasing on our supermarket shelves, export revenue will start to drop, farms will start to close down, and a whole industry will start to go into decline,” she says.
Alice is adamant she is not an “activist” but says farmers are often their own worst enemy.
In her travels she discovered families with resilience, resourcefulness but also a reticence to tell their stories.
Her hope is the books help give farmers a voice and balance perceptions about a $60 billion industry that puts premium quality food on the table of every Australian and creates thousands of jobs at the same time.
Her imagery captures “the harshness of the land etched into their faces; the working dogs moving livestock; the huge machinery cultivating the land; the melting pot of cultures …”
“(It’s) the livelihood of children brought up on remote stations and the endless spaces that have stolen their hearts, often for generations," she adds.
Alice took inspiration – and motivation – from the incredible stories she heard around kitchen tables or out in the paddocks; stories of innovation, humility and triumph over hardship.
“It was my fuel; compelling me to drive the next 1000 kilometres,” she says.
Alice knows a thing or two about adversity herself.
Perception is everything in today’s online world. Farmers have been taking it on the chin for far too long because of the 'just get on with it' characters they are.Alice Mabin
After growing up on a sheep, beef and deer property in New Zealand, at 15 she had an accident off a racehorse, was in a coma for three weeks and underwent months of rehabilitation.
That didn’t stop her from moving to Australia at the age of 20 to work as a jillaroo.
She later exited a corporate career to follow her dream of becoming a photographer and storyteller.
There have been other setbacks along the way but Alice’s determination to succeed earned her the 2015 Asia-Pacific Female Entrepreneur of the Year award.
“You get emotionally and financially invested in a project so failure is not an option,” she laughs.
Alice wants to ensure our farmers’ stories are heard far and wide – and remembered.
She also knows that changing people’s perceptions of agriculture won’t happen overnight.
Sales of the books are an indication of that.
“The books have been well-received in rural areas but I would love to see them on bookshelves in the city helping to educate those who don’t fully understand this incredible industry,” Alice says.
And while the dreaded spectre of drought was a constant companion on her 2017 travels, Alice very deliberately decided against making that the entire focus of her work.
“In part this is also about giving rural people a reprieve from that and reminding them of their fabulous industry and why they keep doing what they love,” she says.