That's the Spirit: Kate Davies - Purlewaugh
At the age of 50-ish, Kate Davies answered the call of agricultural adventure and left the family farm at Purlewaugh near Coonabarabran to take on a four-month stint as a “tractor driver” in Myanmar (formerly Burma), an experience she says helped expand her own world view and hone her skills in the business of farming. She’s confident in the future of agriculture in the hands of the coming generation, including her own son, with what she says is “a wider vision and more portable skills in a connected world”.
Jen: What’s important to you about community?
Kate: Community is all about the people, in fact it’s only about the people. If you boil everything down, a community is only ever as good as the people… and the food (laughs).
In an isolationist setting like farming, the way you get a sense of community is through like-mindedness, and it’s other people who put that together. You can ring your next-door neighbour and say come over for a beer but the community happens when there’s an event on. Most spontaneous things are best organised first.
Jen: (laughing) So it’s organised chaos?
Kate: Yes! The people are the glue for sure, but when events are organised, it gives that glue a chance to stick. It often only takes one person who’s a real driver to bring people together and that’s where the community comes from.
Everybody has the same problem – as in, who’s going to organise things? – but we need to look over the fence (at a community that’s doing it well) and say, “Well, I wonder how they’re doing it?”
And don’t rural people love poking their nose into somebody else’s paddock to have a look and see what they’re doing and why?
So when you have a key person or group in a town or locality that puts events together, what that does is provide the opportunity for community to form. It’s that impetus, if you like – it’s not the glue, it’s the impetus, the conversations that flow when people come together at an event are really important.
Kate Davies, Purlewaugh
Jen: Over the years, first as a young married farmer making your way to now having your own son in the industry, what’s been the thing that’s shone through for you about where you live and why you do what you do?
Kate: Once again I reckon it’s the people. We always thought we were a bit blessed at Purlewaugh because everyone was much the same age and stage. It wasn’t a particularly old community and it wasn’t a corporate community that didn’t employ people. There were a lot of people who were newly married or who had young children when we had young children or teenagers when we had teenagers. For a very small community there were a good many who were doing the same sort of stuff as us, and I reckon that’s what made it fun. We actually had a lot of fun learning as we went.
Jen: You seem like a “can-do” kind of person – would you describe yourself that way?
Kate: I’ve never really thought about it but yes, I suppose so. I’m quite analytical when it comes to a challenge. I try to work out what the situation would look like in the end, and where I’d need to start in order to get to the end. And if I realised I couldn’t do it myself, I’d work out who would be able to get involved to make it happen. But I’ve never backed away from a challenge.
Bungee jumping might be a different story. That’s a challenge I probably wouldn’t take on! (Laughs)
Jen: But you would take yourself off to go share-farming in Myanmar?
Kate: (Laughs) Well, most definitely! But then that was something I approached analytically as well. I imagined what it might look like and I knew it would be modern equipment that I would be using and I knew that I knew how to drive that modern equipment so yeah, it was about taking it back to the start and looking at it analytically.
Jen: Your time in Myanmar in 2015 was a great life experience, but how have you used that in your personal and professional life?
Kate: In a couple ways, I think. Firstly, it was learning to do the same thing in a different way – same tune, different fingering, different key – so it was using the skills I had to produce another result, a different outcome. Then there was the experience of working for somebody else, because I hadn’t worked for somebody else for a long time. Back in the day, I was a nurse so I worked for a base hospital, and there were definitely bosses aplenty there, but then I became the “child bride” (laughs) and was straight into the family farming operation, so I hadn’t had a boss for an awfully long time. And the experience in Myanmar of working for someone else, I think that’s helped make me a better boss. When the boot is on the other foot, it’s a good learning curve.
Photo by NALAG NSW.
Jen: With that experience under your belt, and now with your son in the industry, do you still see a solid future for primary production?
Kate: Oh, I do yes. Absolutely. People have to eat for a start. It can’t all be corporate, there aren’t enough corporations so there will always be room for a “mum and dad” place – for the family farm, definitely. The family farm is a very good business model, it’s like long term investment versus short term investment. The family farm is still a very good, very workable model, and it’s still an honourable professional, it’s still something to aspire to.
I love it when kids learn something new about agriculture. I do the sheep stall at the Coonabarabran High School Ag Skills day every year.
I used to team up with a shearer and we’d get the students to shear a sheep, either all or in part, and we’d class the wool and talk about drenching and worms and about sheep husbandry in general. Now we’ve moved onto just talking about the sheep and the husbandry side of it – about why you mark the lambs and why their tails can be a problem, that sort of thing.
You could see straight away the kids who had never had anything to do with sheep before and you could see the kids that never had anything to do with the land before, and they loved it. They loved that ultimately that sheep became food and fibre, and that’s just the sheep part.
Jen: Why is it important to you to share that knowledge with those kids?
Kate: I think it’s really important that everybody understands where their food comes from, particularly in light of recent reports saying processed food like chips and chocolate, is marked down more often and therefore cheaper than fresh food. It’s important that people know what food is and we should be aware that chips and chocolate aren’t food – you can eat them, but they’re treats not food. Vegetables and meat and cheese and milk… that’s food. Yes, I produce food and fibre and it’s in my interest to tell a good a story about it and tell THE good story about it.
Jen: Can you tell me about the group of Purlewaugh women that gets together regularly, and why is that group important to you?
Kate: There was a weekend workshop in Purlewaugh a couple of years ago – painting and jewellery making. I couldn’t go for some reason, but everyone who did just loved it. My mother used to teach silver jewellery making at school and so the group of girls who’d taken part in this workshop asked Mum if she’d come and teach and mentor them, which she agreed to do. She rang me and said, “You have to be there because you’ll eventually inherit all my tools so it’s important you know how to use them!”
So of course, I went along and I absolutely loved it too! Mum taught us how to do the very basics and make that first ring, and now we all look at something in a magazine and we think, “Well, that wouldn’t be too hard to make, you know?”
Jen: Jewellery making is the official reason for getting together, but what else do you get out of it?
Kate: Well its shiny, you know! For those with a short attention span… (laughing). But yes, we sit there, and we chat and that’s just so important. You come away feeling a bit rejuvenated and you’re thinking about something else other than the pressures of home or work or whatever. You’re using another quarter of your brain, you’re doing two things at the same time so you’re creating something while you’re talking.
We love talking about something we don’t usually talk about, which is the jewellery, but we also talk about stuff we always talk about.
Jen: Like your husbands…
Jen: Why do you think it’s important to contribute to your community?
Kate: It’s hugely important to give back. I don’t think you can get the best out of a community until you’ve contributed to it. It’s not a tit for tat thing, but it’s how you make friends. Years ago, when mum and dad were thinking about where they would spend their dotage they decided to Coonabarabran because of Cooinda, the wonderful (aged care) facility there. They said, “It’s close to you and you won’t have to keep coming back and forth to Dubbo” – I’m an only child.
They were around their mid-60s at the time and I said, “I think you should consider moving now so you have time to contribute to the community, get the best out of the community and you will have friends of your own by the time you go to Cooinda.” They did, and I reckon their contribution to the community has definitely been a wonderful help to them. Getting anything out of the community isn’t a one-way street – you get out as much as you put in. Also, I think that if you’re giving to the community, you suddenly turn around and realise you’re having fun and getting something out of it.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions about life in the bush? What would you like people to know about small communities?
Kate: I think there’s a misconception that small communities are closed communities – that impression is hugely misplaced. Small towns are very inclusive places.
I think the misconceptions come as a result of a preconception. In other words, people have a pre-conceived idea, so they put up a wall when they walk down the main street of somebody else’s town – they don’t look left and don’t look right, they’re acutely aware that they don’t live there, they think they don’t belong. That’s simply not true – in the main street of any town, everybody belongs. That’s the whole point of having a main street in a town – it’s where people are. That’s why so many of those main streets are creatively titled Main Street!
Your presence, the presence of people, in any small regional town – and I mean a small, not a Dubbo, not a regional centre – that’s what makes or breaks that small town, so I think it’s really sad when we start seeing empty shop windows. It’s really fantastic when people start putting displays in empty shop windows, there’s nothing for sale but there’s something worth looking at, and it encourages people to be there.
To all the people who are frightened of being included because they feel like they don’t belong I would say: “Open up, just allow it to happen.”
Jen: What do you think the future looks like for your son and his generation in the industry?
Kate: I actually think it’s probably quite different to what we would have seen our future as at the same age. Our son is 27. My husband was 27 when we married, and I was 22. I didn’t know what a future looked like, I just liked what I was looking at at the time and I was happy with that. I look at my son and his cohort and they are so much more switched on, so much savvier than we ever were.
They actually have an idea of what can happen, they can look to the future and what might happen and what that even looks like. When we were starting out, we just went, Okay, well, we’re farmers.”
The world was a much smaller place.
So I think their vision of what their future looks like in agriculture is probably different, very different, to what our vision of agriculture was back then.
Jen: They have vision.
Kate: Yes, exactly. They have a vision, and it’s a connected world, so what they know now they can take anywhere with them. Theirs are very portable skills – they can very easily morph into a lot of different industries within agriculture.
Kate Davies, Purlewaugh
Jen: But you took a farming job in Myanmar in 2015, which was well outside your comfort zone, so you have some pretty handy vision and portable skills yourself.
Kate: The place certainly was out of my comfort zone, but the skills weren’t. The job description was actually “tractor driver” (laughs) – so they were seeking an ex-pat who was able to drive and fix modern machinery for a three/four-month stint. So, a tractor driver who had to plant the current crop, plant the next crop before the monsoon, harvest the current crop before the monsoon and treat the gear as if it was your own, and be able to fix it. It was a fantastic experience and I’m so pleased I had the opportunity.