That's the Spirit: Phillip and Di Ridge - Bourke
The Ridge family has long been part of the rich history of Bourke and the far west region, having ridden the highs and lows of the wool and sheep industries’ fortunes for generations. Phillip and Di Ridge are keepers of the family flame at the iconic Jandra Station, where the couple has raised four sons. While they continue the family tradition of contributing to the district’s social and economic fabric, Di has also helped put Bourke on the culinary map with a gourmet business she built from humble beginnings on the banks of the Darling River.
Jen: Di, you were born and raised in the south of the Central West, weren’t you?
Di: I was born and raised at Cumnock, which is a mixed farming area, so moving to Bourke wasn’t really a huge difference. Everyone says, “Oh, such a big difference!” but it wasn’t really. It’s just a bigger scale and a bit hotter (laughs). Air conditioning has made life so much easier.
Phillip: The big difference used to be the nights – our nights were stinking hot and still, but as Di says now we have air conditioning. Some nights we sleep with two blankets on.
Jen: How long has your family been here, Phillip?
Phillip: My mother’s family has been here at Jandra since 1880. They were Victorian graziers and they had country down there and then they bought this, as a lot of Victorians did. Most of the Darling River runs were owned by Victorians. Then my great-grandfather came to live here in 1880 after he left school in Melbourne – I think it was about 1885.
Jen: So not only the station, but the family has been a part of the local social fabric and community for a long time?
Phillip: Oh definitely, and because they were close to Bourke, and they had the means to be community involved, they were certainly in all the organisations. My Ridge family forebears were too, they lived out towards Enngonia – they were (horse) racing people – so I think everything stopped and started around horses, which it still does and as it should (laughs).
Jen: What community involvement do you two have?
Di: Phillip has done heaps with local racing events and race committees.
Phillip: I was on the Rural Lands Board, and both Di and I have done a lot with ICPA (Isolated Children’s Parents Association). Di convened a state conference here one year, and I was president for a while. With four children to educate that was very much an organisation we could associate with. It’s a great bunch of people and you really know you’re doing some good.
Di: It’s a fabulous organisation.
Phillip and Di Ridge, Bourke NSW
Jen: Is it important to you both that you give back, and why?
Di: I think it’s definitely important to give back because, for example, if the children do come home, I want for them to be able to do what we’ve done and be involved with the ICPA which is helping kids’ education and resources for education. If we don’t put into those organisations, they fall apart and our kids struggle to get the access to educational opportunities, so that’s why I was involved in the ICPA. Like many organisations, it also has a great community atmosphere so there’s the social aspect of it as well.
Over time, a lot of our friends have left the district and big places have been sold and there are fewer people of our age around now, so you want the young ones to be able to have the access to those fun things we were involved with.
Phillip: We would like to see Bourke continue to be a vibrant, buzzy town. If you don’t support or work for things, then that just won’t happen.
Jen: From what you see and experience – and you’re biased because you live here, I suppose – but is Bourke a vibrant, buzzy town?
Phillip: I wouldn’t say it’s vibrant and buzzy all the time, it obviously has its problems as does every other country town, but I think Bourke is a fine town. To look at those historic buildings, and most of the time – not during the recent drought, of course – but there are magnificent lawns and garden and parks, which you just don’t see in far western towns, so I’ve always been very proud of all that. Because I have a family heritage and history here too, I tend to see it through rose-tinted glasses.
Jen: Is that family heritage important to you? Do you feel it comes with a responsibility as well?
Phillip: Yes (it’s important), but it’s not an overbearing responsibility – more of a pride really. If we had to leave and go to live somewhere else it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it’s certainly nice to go back to a town where you know you have roots, and you just feel more comfortable there sometimes. By the same token, there are many other fine towns you could start out and have a great time in, but I do understand that sense of place I feel for Bourke.
Jen: What do you think are some of the misconceptions about Bourke, about life in a regional community and being on the land that you’d like to dispel?
Di: I think a lot of the misconceptions are because people actually haven’t been here and experienced it – they haven’t actually spent a week here. Most of the tourists you talk to and who’ve spent more than 24 hours here say, “Oh we wish we could stay longer, but we don’t have enough time!”. I think (negative) media has probably told people not to stay but those who do say it’s a shame they have to leave because there’s still so much they haven’t seen.
When we were in Sydney, some people would ask where we’re from and we’d say Bourke, and they’d say, “Why do you live there?” and we’d say because it’s our home. We’d ask if they had been to Bourke and when they said no, we’d say, “Well, you come to Bourke and we’ll show you why we live here.”
Those who are fortunate enough to come and see where we actually live soon realise why we live here. It’s a pretty beautiful spot – why wouldn’t you live out here?
Getting the message out to people that Bourke really is a nice spot is a big job for the shire (council) and they do a good job promoting the accommodation and activities. Once they get here, visitors do give the town a good report. Tourism is huge for the town.
Phillip: Certainly tourism has changed the whole dynamics of Bourke. In the king droughts in history, of which there have only been five or six in white man’s history, the town’s population always halved because the rural industry was suffering. Now with tourism, businesses don’t close, there’s always people about, and when there’s people about – they mightn’t be spending a lot of money – but when there’s people about, people feel good and there’s action and excitement and colour and movement in the streetscape – it’s good.
Di: As long as they’re happy to spend some money in the town.
Jen: I think there is a growing resilience, almost a real push back from small communities to re-invigorate the place of the small town in the national psyche.
Phillip: I agree. Since the wool floor price was removed in 1991, I suppose that’s when the troubles started, and then certainly the millennium drought and this latest lingering one, so a lot of the people who were not happy here or who couldn’t make a go of it have gone.
We’re back to the true believers, and very often they’re people like myself who have been here for generations and feel this is home; people who have been brought up with stories of how you have hardships, and don’t feel fazed by it. But it has been quite a turnover of people buying properties here – which is fine – that’s fair enough, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not painting a picture that’s everyone’s cup of tea.
Jen: What do you think accounts for that resilience?
Phillip: That’s a very good question – it’s hard to know. It’s hard to be objective about it when you’re in it (laughs).
Steve: Do you think it has something to do with the length of the time you’ve been associated with the town?
Phillip: I think that’s part of it. Also, as I said, you’ve been brought up with stories of your family and you’re just accustomed to the notion of tough times. A lot of it lies in the typical Australian bush way of making fun of those situations – you have to be a little mad to live there because of the dust and the heat. Human beings are actually quite like that – if it’s green grass and sunny all the time we’d get bored. We’ve been raised to feel that things have to be a bit rugged and tough and hard, otherwise there’s no challenge.
Jen: Just as there’s a certain negativity with the names, for instances with Dubbo and Bourke, I also think there’s also a romance about it – the romance of out “Back O’ Bourke”.
Di: Oh definitely.
Phillip: That’s always been there. As Di was saying about people asking why you would live here, the other side of that is people who say, “Oh, that sounds so romantic” and “I’d love to see the Darling at sunset”.
Di: Some visitors we had recently said, “If we weren’t at this stage of life we would have loved to come and do something out here”, which is nice.
For the younger generation, such as our kids, they’ve heard Phillip’s stories, they’ve heard his father’s stories of dry times and when they come home they’re learning from experience. Our son who has come home had two horrible years and suddenly we now have this better year and it’s a case of it all changing around again. Then maybe in two years’ time they’ll say, “Well, it’s not as dry as it was two years ago”. It’s very important that the young ones see that and get that perspective. They’ll see that their Dad stuck it out and so think, “So what do we do to make it better for ourselves?” I think that’s part of the longevity of families who do live out here, the fact that they’re learning from experience.
Jen: Do you both see a future for primary production and for your sons in this industry as a career?
Phillip: Yes, I think wool is a fantastic product. In today’s environmentally conscious world, the way it’s produced – especially out here – is a gold story. The market for wool is in so many other products and the days of prickly jumpers and stiff suits is long gone. If consumers can buy it at a price that is economically sound, and we can make money out of it, I can’t see why we wouldn’t keep going, whereas 30 or 40 years ago, it looked like synthetics had us beaten. I remember my father saying in 1971, “It looks like our game’s over – all these synthetics will beat us.”
Also, in a good season here, there are prospects of making good money out of fattening stock – it’s not only about wool. Year in year out, Bourke grows wool, but apart from drought years, we grow a lot of meat, whether it’s cattle, sheep or goats.
Jen: How have you both seen your industry change because of technology and farming and grazing systems?
Phillip: Probably the biggest physical change here is that there’s only four hours’ preparation for shearing – we’re shearing at the moment – because we’re using aerial mustering. In a good year the sheep are already mobbed up pretty well anyway. Along the scrubbier paddocks out the back, years ago you would have had three or four men spend three or four days in there to muster. With an aerial bloke in a gyro(copter), us on motorbikes with two-ways (radios), in an hour we have it mustered. That’s the biggest change.
Otherwise, probably the greatest event changing places in this district – although it’s old technology now – is the arrival of rural power. That really changed lives. We used to need have to have men and mechanics all the time with machinery to drive the woolshed and the house and the lighting plant – there were always dramas mechanically.
If you’re dealing with animals, you can use a fair bit of technology, certainly with genetics, but actually the handling of the animals, there’s only one way to do that, and that’s properly. We probably have better designed yards, I suppose, but otherwise it’s the same as it was 100 years ago.
The other thing, of course – which we all hate – is the bookkeeping. Computerisation of our bookkeeping is an advancement, but it seems to take just as long.
Di: It takes longer to do it, or there is probably more stuff to do – more bureaucracy and paperwork.
Phillip: I think anyone who introduces one more medium of communication I’m going to go mad (laughs). It used to be letters, now it’s letters and email and texting and phone calls and Twitter and LinkedIn … please, stop! (Laughs)
Jen: Di, you’ve been making your wonderful, and widely renowned, poppy seed salad dressing for 20 odd years, tell me how that started and why.
Di: I have probably made it for much longer, but commercially, 20 years in April.
It was a recipe Mum had at home, and when I came here I was having one of the boys’ christenings, and I asked her to send the recipe. She said, “I’ll send it, darling, but don’t give it to anybody – it’s quite special!”
I used to make it for just parties and things, and then when the kids started distance education, we used to have a street stall at Christmas time, so I’d make half a dozen half-litre bottles as my contribution. They always sold straight away, so I just thought, we’ll that’s okay.
One year – it must have been the end of the ‘90s, which were phenomenally wet years – we’d had triple our average rainfall, and we were looking down the barrel of trying to educate four children with boarding school and governesses (because of the distances). I didn’t have a job and I thought, “How on earth are we going to do this?”
Other friends were having the same challenges and coming up with various ways to contribute to the education of their children – teaching, doing farm-stays, catering – and I just sat there thinking, “I can’t do any of these things…” Then someone suggested making my salad dressing, but I just dismissed it really.
I came home, told Phillip all the conversations of that day, and went to bed – and I could not sleep. I thought, “Why can’t I do that – what’s stopping me? I’ve got to do something – why can’t I do that?”
So the next time we were in Dubbo, I bought all the ingredients, and thought I’d make a little batch of salad dressing and take it into town. I had a case of coke bottles – Phillip had drunk the coke with some rum…
Phillip: My duty to do that – I’ll help you dear! (laughs)
Wool bales at Jandra Station, Bourke NSW.
Di Ridge preparing her renowned poppy seed salad dressing at Jandra Station in Bourke NSW.
Di: So I cut out little pieces of material, put them over the top of the coke bottles, printed up some labels and tied them on, and took them into town, and (the gift shop) sold them in the first week – 24 bottles gone!
So I had to find more bottles. I opened the yellow pages, looked up glass bottles and ordered 24. Again, the gift shop sold them all and wanted more. The next order of bottles was 48 – I made them, sold them – then 72. Within two years, the bottles were coming on pallets.
In the first year, I made something like 57 litres of salad dressing – well, I do that in a day now. Everything is much more efficient, so I can churn out 80-100 litres in a day.
Jen: That was just from lying there looking at the ceiling thinking, “How are we going to reinvent ourselves, and why can’t I do this from my kitchen on the banks of the Darling?’”
Di: Absolutely, and my kitchen bench was literally 80 centimetres long. It was tiny. With four kids in this tiny little shoebox of a room, and every hour they were coming back for morning tea, and then they’re all back for lunch, and then you’d have to feed the baby (laughs), and no cross contamination! It was a bit hectic. Then after the third year we moved over to the main house here, so then I had a full running kitchen which is where I make it now.
Jen: You must be very proud of that.
Di: I suppose I don’t really think about it – it’s just something I’ve done. When I meet people, they go, “Oh you’re the poppy seed dressing lady!” and I say, “Yep, that’s me.” A lot of other people do make salad dressing but everyone’s recipes are a little different. With mine, I do make it at home, I do make it on my own, I do have a couple of fellas that come in and help…
Phillip: …to drink the coke bottles (laughs)!
Di: It’s brain-numbingly boring stuff to do, honestly, it is so repetitive. I make a two-litre batch at a time, so if I make 130, that’s 70 times of the same thing.
Jen: You could do it in your sleep, couldn’t you?
Di: Just about. So, the way to get through that is, I download books, I listen to podcasts, which is the new technology obviously, I might put the radio on, cricket – whatever is on the radio – but it’s very mind-numbing stuff.
Back when the kids were little, I’d just think that there’s mothers in Sydney who are spending an hour and a half to drive to ballet, to drive to Pilates, sitting in all that traffic – here I was in my kitchen on the banks of the Darling River here at Bourke, and I could just stop and go and move the hoses or get the washing in. I could stop halfway through and go back and finish it in the afternoon. I didn’t have those other challenges.
And it’s the same now. I just work out which days I want to make it.
Phillip: I think it’s fantastic. She’s a great businesswoman – she’s learnt business skills. She obviously gets good feedback and compliments which is great. If you get pats on the back – whatever you’re doing – you enjoy it.
Jen: The next step for you, given the success of it, is for Phillip to put in a commercial kitchen in, is that right? A bit larger scale so you don’t have to make 74 two-litre batches?
Di: You’re on the same page as my children! (laughs) The logistics are mad.
The boys come in and they go, “Mum! Why don’t you get a bigger blender?” and I say “Well, if I decide that tomorrow I don’t want to make it anymore, I just put the blender back in and I get rid of all the bottles and I’m done”. There has been no extra expense, no advertising expenses – it has all been word of mouth. In that respect, it makes me quite proud that it hasn’t actually cost anything. Little old me, I’ve done it! (laughs)
Jen: And that’s a mark of resilience too, isn’t it?
Di: Just sticking at it, I think, is another thing and everyone said at the beginning you’ve got to have a five-year goal, which I didn’t do. I thought I’ll just make it and if it doesn’t work, well, no problem.
That’s why I don’t even have a brand name, because I didn’t think it would even work – it was just Di Ridge – I didn’t have to register it, that’s free – and I thought if I stop in a couple of years it wouldn’t really matter. Suddenly 20 years later … (laughs)
Jen: So where do you send it?
Di: My biggest order was to a girl who used to buy it when she lived in Sydney, but she moved to America – she ordered 12 litres. So we bundled it up in plastic bottles and I sent it via the sea – and it actually wasn’t very expensive to do that, but it did take four months to get there. One of my biggest customers is in the Clare Valley (in South Australia) and I’ve sent it to Hong Kong, England, Scotland, South Africa. And then I have a bakery in Young – I don’t know what they do with it, but they use and sell a lot. And people often buy it to take overseas as gifts.
People like the fact that I get all my own ingredients from Bourke – I shop local – obviously I can’t get the oil and the bottles in Bourke, but everything else I buy through the supermarket in Bourke or the bakery. Shopping locally, if you can, is one of my things and people like the idea that I do that.
Jen: It’s a taste of Western NSW.
Di: Yes, I think it is.
Jen: It’s the taste of resilience.
Di: Let’s hope so – I don’t know for how much longer, but oh well … while I can do it I guess I will. I just think if I wasn’t doing that, then I’d have to start cleaning the house again (laughs).
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.