That's the Spirit: Cleaver Family - Nyngan
The name Cleaver is synonymous with Nyngan’s renowned Duck Creek Races, but the farming family – Lyndal and Rowen (“Spike”) and their four children, including Tom, who is helping to run the family business – are also, in many other ways, deeply invested in keeping the social and economic fabric of their community strong.
Rowen “Spike” Cleaver: I’ve been president of the Duck Creek races for 14 years. It started as the Duck Creek Woolshed Dances, which was a fundraising exercise. Then that died a natural death and we started thinking about running a picnic race meeting. From humble beginnings, it’s grown to be absolutely huge.
It injects an enormous amount of money into the local economy – we source everything locally. The flow-on effect is great for the town.
It puts Nyngan on the map. People from everywhere know where Nyngan is and that it’s a great little town.
But more than that, it’s invaluable for local organisations and charities, like the ICPA (Isolated Children’s Parents Association) for instance. There’s not a local community organisation that’s not able to be a part of the Duck Creek Races in some way and we really encourage that.
I did it to start with because it was a great way to support the local rugby club, but it’s grown so much that it’s gone from the local council saying, “Okay, we guess you can do it” to saying “Please don’t stop doing it!” The Bogan Shire is fantastic in supporting the event.
As a family, we’re all involved with the running of the races – it’s a real family effort.
Tom, Rowen, Lyndal and James Cleaver, Nyngan
For weeks before and quite a while after, we all work really hard on it and we do that not just for the town, but because it’s something that we share together as a family.
But the benefits for the town are repaid to us many times over through keeping Nyngan vibrant and keeping the services, the clubs, the other events healthy and happening.
Nyngan is sports mad and that’s a great thing for social inclusion and it helps keeps kids out of trouble, and the contribution the Duck Creek Races makes to those clubs is immeasurable.
Tom Cleaver: Nyngan is a really tight community, and the beauty of it is that there’s no social division. When you play footy, you get all walks of life – from the cockies to the mechanics to the indigenous and Fijian players. Everyone’s equal. There doesn’t seem to be the social hierarchy that exists in other regional towns. Nyngan people pride themselves on being egalitarian.
Rowen: I guess we feel we’re pretty privileged and we’re able to give back as a family to the organisations that have helped make Nyngan such a great place to raise our family. Without people doing their bit, Nyngan becomes just another little western town, doesn’t it?
Lyndal Cleaver: It’s such a good, friendly little town. Our crime rates are low and it’s a safe town. Our kids have always been taught to get along with everyone and be part of the town, not separate from anyone else. We work hard at that. We all love our town and we work hard for it.
Tom Cleaver, Nyngan
Tom: As a young farmer, I see a very healthy future for agriculture in this region. It’s about diversifying and seizing opportunities; being flexible and open minded and running it as a business. Seasonal variations are just all part of living here in western NSW. We’re conservative and careful and we’re used to adjusting.
I can’t see myself doing anything else. I want to be here well into the next generation. I know I have an opportunity here that not everyone gets, so I see myself as very fortunate.
We work bloody hard seven days a week but that’s just the way it is.
James Cleaver: I think there’s a misconception that being a farmer is an uneducated trade. That’s not necessarily the case. That dumb farmer thing is irritating; very frustrating that the impression and image is of the farmer in bib-and-brace overalls chewing on grass seeds and kicking the dust, but it’s very hard to overcome when there’s so much emotion about where our food and fibre comes from. The reality is it’s down to a business model – those who are doing it well survive. It sounds harsh, but that’s the reality.
Tom: This is a career choice for me. A calculated career choice. I’m not just doing this because it’s what the family does. I understand that it’s a business and I treat it as a business and a career. It’s a figures game.
Rowen: There has never been an expectation. None of our children have been asked to come back to the farm.
Lyndal: Both Tom and James have had a passion for the land since they were little. Tom always had a real thing for soil – he’d sit on the tractor with his dad, looking back at the soil and he’d be in dreamland. And I see him now and I know that he genuinely enjoys what he does. There are times when he enjoys it more than others, of course, but I see that he’s genuinely happy.
Tom: I do enjoy what I do and I consider myself very fortunate. I think a lot of young blokes look at farming and grazing, and they go, “Well, how do I get a start in the industry?” If you don’t have that family start, it’s very difficult to find another doorway in.
I don’t feel any pressure to take on the family farm, thought. In fact, both my parents encouraged me to go and do something else while I was young.
But I see that there’s a lot of opportunity in the industry – if you’re prepared to work hard and invest your efforts.
James: I have the best of both worlds. For me, I have that huge tie to the land and to Nyngan as a whole. I mull it over of course, and I realise it’s a huge part of my identity. If I were to try to be something else, I’d have trouble with my sense of self, who I am. I think that’s true for anyone. At the same time, with the role I’m in at the moment – working with the DPI’s Rural Resilience Program – is an honourable thing because I’m representing the people who are out here working hard. Coming out here at the weekends and seeing how things are, that gives me a sense of responsibility to go back and advocate on behalf of those people and represent their reality in a balanced way.
Lyndal Cleaver, Nyngan
Lyndal, Tom, Rowen and James Cleaver, Nyngan
Lyndal: Social events are really important for all the families out here. In Nyngan, it’s things like the rugby club and Duck Creek Races are vitally important to getting people together and giving them an opportunity to connect. Those kinds of events are important because they get you off the farm.
Tom: The farm can engulf you. It can take you over. There’s a never-ending list of jobs to do. There’s no-one else there managing your time for you, it’s up to you to manage it. The first thing people do when things are tight is they invest all their time into those jobs rather than keeping some for themselves. That’s how it engulfs you. I’ve felt it myself, for sure. What you have to do is be able to leave it and forget what’s going on with the farm – that’s easier said than done, obviously. Sport has been really important for me in that way – getting involved with training twice a week, being around other young fellas and then getting away to play at the weekends – that’s been really helpful to me.
That’s why things like the rugby club and the races are so important. It’s not just about the sport, it’s about that getting together. When we’re out, we might all end up talking about farming or business anyway, but that’s okay because it’s still socialising. That’s the important part of these things and that’s why it’s important for people to get involved with community.
Rowen: This is why small towns in particular need to keep their clubs and events and groups going because there has to be something to do (for locals) beyond their farms.
Tom: We’ve found that success brings success. If a young bloke looks at his home town and thinks, “Oh, I don’t want to go back there – there’s nothing for me there” (he won’t come back) but if there’s a group of other young blokes in that town, playing footy or working or whatever, then they’ll go, “Well, I might as well have a crack and see how I go.” If they come back to their old home town, that adds to a sense of belonging too.
Rowen Cleaver, Nyngan
Rowen: It’s interesting to see the faces that come to the rugby and come to the club-house. Old blokes whose football days are long behind them, but they’re coming along for the social aspect and to stay connected. They reckon it gives them something to do, particularly on the weekends when there’s a home game for the Bogan Bulls. These blokes will come down and they’ll be talking to everyone and talking to the young fellas – they mightn’t even watch a game, but that social connection is important because so many other organisations are now gone from Nyngan – The Lodge, Rotary, Apex. The rugby club has a big role to play in reducing social isolation. Sport as a whole – particularly rugby league and rugby union – are absolutely vital for the western region’s communities.
*This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Rowen, Lyndal, Tom and James Cleaver, Nyngan