That's the Spirit: Sally and Hugh Beveridge - Armatree NSW
For dynamic husband and wife duo, Sally and Hugh Beveridge, there was never any doubt about an eventual return to the bush. Born and raised at Armatree, Hugh spent time in the big smoke’s corporate world before heading back to the farm with landscape architect and city-girl Sally to raise a family. With a diverse raft of interests and skills, the couple is living proof that life in a small community need never be boring.
With a mix of biting commentary and sharp satire, Hugh’s alter ego Joe Merino has helped bust some myths about farming and regional Australia through his popular short films, while Sally has “retired” to her own sprawling backyard after successfully helping design some of the most stunning gardens in the district. She’s also a long-suffering sounding-board for “Joe’s” endless ideas.
JEN COWLEY spent a lazy afternoon with Hugh and Sally for a yarn about the lure of the bush and the power of laughter in sending a message.
Jen: You’re a city girl who followed her heart to the bush – tell me how that came about.
Sally: I met Hugh, through a friend, when he was working in Sydney on the futures exchange. Before we were married, he made it clear that he eventually wanted to end up back here on the farm at Armatree, so I knew what I was getting into (laughs). But it was lucky that, as a school girl, I had friends who came from the country and I spent a lot of time during school holidays at Trangie and Lightning Ridge. So I quite liked the idea of raising a family in the country.
Jen: What were some of the reactions from friends and family about you moving to the bush?
Sally: They said, “Oh my God, what on earth are you thinking?” (laughs) My friends were quite concerned – their main worry was how I was going to cope without access to good coffee, so they all put money in and bought me this big flash coffee machine! It’s been great, but there’s still a huge misconception that you can’t get a decent coffee once you go west of the Blue Mountains. We’re so lucky out here that we now have such a great coffee culture, and I think that’s been a result of the injection of new blood into communities.
Sally and Hugh Beveridge, Armatree NSW.
Jen: Why do you love where you live now and how long did it take for that love to blossom?
Sally: It didn’t take too long because when we first moved back to the district, we lived in Gilgandra in this massive big old house with a beautiful garden complete with a windmill. We’d come from a pocket handkerchief in Paddington, and we had a one-year-old. For me, it was all an adventure, and when we moved to the farm about 18 months later the transition was actually really smooth. Having and creating a garden, for instance, how much fun was that? As a landscape architect who mainly designed gardens, it was wonderful to be able to bring that with me to the country. In Gilgandra, I continued to design gardens for people. The minute I came here to the district, I worked, and I continued to work for myself – based from here on the farm – until fairly recently. So I suppose that’s why the transition was made easier because quite quickly, I met people through helping them with their gardens.
In Sydney I had a landscaping business, and to be able to bring that skill here and continue to work really showed me that there’s virtually nothing you can’t do from here in the bush if you put your mind to it. Hugh has also brought his (film making) skills back to the bush as well.
In the end I stopped doing the gardens simply because of the distances and the travel involved and I wanted to be here more, but there is such a huge misconception that you have to choose between a career and living in the country – that you have to leave a career behind when you leave the city. That’s just not necessarily so, particularly with access to technology.
Jen: What else do you love about living where you do?
Sally: I love where I live because I can’t see any neighbours! I grew up in Paddington, where we all shared walls. I love the fact that I can’t see another house. We can play our music as loudly as we want and we do. I love my view of the (Warrumbungle) mountains – it changes every day. I love having lots of animals and pets. I love seeing our girls working with their dad – driving machinery and being so capable. I’m seeing a childhood that I didn’t have for myself – I’m not complaining about mine, but theirs is so different, and it’s good different.
Jen: What about the community of Armatree?
Sally: Oh, my goodness! We’re SO lucky with that, with our community. One of my favourite days of the year is ANZAC Day – it’s so special. We all get up and meet for the dawn service at the memorial and then we go for coffee and bacon-and-egg rolls at the CWA. It’s the one day when absolutely everyone comes together – it really makes me feel part of a community. It’s really special. And we get hundreds of people there. It’s getting bigger and bigger because of our wonderful pub – people come to experience the pub and go to the dawn service and have ANZAC day at the pub. It’s wonderful.
Sally Beveridge, Armatree NSW.
Jen: Armatree seems to be a very progressive little community – what do you think drives that?
Sally: Ash (the publican) is a big part of it – often a small town’s publican is one of the drivers of community, I think. And the Armatree CWA ladies are absolutely amazing. They are just such dynamic women. The wider community of the district is something to be very proud of – I’m very proud to say I’m from Armatree. I’m proud that it’s actually still going, despite no longer having some of the things we’ve lost, like a school and so on. So I’m proud that we’re still strong as a community.
Jen: Speaking of pride, your husband Hugh – as his alter-ego Joe Merino – uses satire in his short films to portray the reality of life on the land and in a small community. Are you proud of what he does with those films?
Sally: I am particularly proud of the fact that he makes people laugh. I’ve lost track of the number of people – particularly farming women – who tell me what a difference Hugh’s little films make. They’ll say, “My husband was having a really bad day, and then he watched Hugh’s film and he was crying with laughter – and it’s so good to see him laughing.”
That’s what I love about Hugh’s work – never mind the wider message his films convey, if all the do is to get people laughing, then that’s the most important thing they can possibly do.
Jen: Hugh, tell me how your alter ego, Joe Merino, came to be.
Hugh: It would have been over ten years ago – it was all about trying to get wool going – the idea was to have some sort of promotional spokesperson and the name “Joe Merino” was available on YouTube as an alias, so I took that. There was also a famous quarterback in America called Dan Marino – I was looking for a classic American name, so I put “Joe” together with “Merino” (a reference to the sheep breed and wool), and that was it – just to see if we could get Americans buying more wool.
Jen: So it started out as a promotion for wool, but it turned into something quite different?
Hugh: Yes, exactly. I just got sick of trying to make sheep do what I wanted them to do, or trying to get positive videos about wool at the time. Our children were tiny at the time, and I couldn’t just run out and do what I wanted to do, but then along came YouTube and made it easy to do a few videos on a tractor or just put a camera somewhere else and do something silly on film.
Jen: The technological skills that have enabled you to put these quite slick videos together – they’re from a former life, aren’t they?
Hugh: They are – I did four or five years at Fox Sports. I started at the bottom and learned the editing process from the very skilful editors there, but they were also changing from the old analogue (tape to tape) system, where huge hours of editing had to take place. You couldn’t just pick out a bit and change it around like you can with a digital edit now, you had to wind the tape all the way back, record it all and start again. They were processing from tape-to-tape machines into software and computers, and hard drives were getting bigger. So I had a little touch of editing on a computer there, luckily, and they showed me some skills on where to hold a camera and what looks best and lighting and so on.
Then technology just got better and better, and you could do it on your home PC. Smaller PCs got more powerful, and now you can just edit on your phone, too, which I find is incredible. Then the GoPro and drones came along, and you could get great shots, especially in agriculture where you don’t normally see from the air. You normally see it from the height of a tractor, but now you can look down and see how bad or good your crops are, or where water goes, or where sheep like to graze. And at the same time, you can get some pretty cool pictures.
Jen: There’s an incredible synergy between those technological skills you learned in the big smoke and being able to translate those into your everyday life now, for use as a tool but also as a hobby.
Hugh: Yes, exactly! You could spend a hell of a lot of time on it if you’re prepared, and there’s a lot of work I could have probably picked up with certain people or companies around the countryside – which I am seeing a lot more now – there is promotional work, whether it’s real estate or promotional work. But now everyone can fly a drone pretty much, and push “record”. You normally get at least 10 or 15 seconds out of a 30-minute flight that you can use. I guess it was just on the edge of that technological change between analogue tapes, and putting it into a hard drive and loading up your computer – which are getting more and more powerful to enable you to do more and more things on your desktop.
Jen: But there’s nothing that stops you, from your home office in the wilds of Armatree, producing these videos that have gone to a global audience.
Hugh: No, that’s the beauty now of the internet and social media, isn’t it? You put something up on a Friday or a Sunday night – it’s out there and you wake up Monday morning and your little notifications have gone crazy with views and comments and people getting back to you from wherever they are in the world. It’s actually amazing to see where people are from. That’s providing the internet is reliable enough to upload high resolution videos. Before when I was uploading a video, if it was too big, the quality would be diminished and it would take all day to upload, so you’d use up all your internet. So now I can upload a lot more videos in high definition without chewing up all the internet, which is a good step forward for regional people.
Jen: With that global audience comes the potential for access to a wide and effective platform for some of the quite important messages.
Hugh: I think so. With social media, anyone who wants to get their thoughts or a message out there can do so – whether that’s about the agricultural industry or how people vote in America or what’s happening in Israel or Iraq or Iran. It gives a platform for what we don’t see on the six o’clock news or an alternative to the message that is selectively chosen on those mainstream platforms. So you can put your message out to a new audience – wherever it may be – you can convey your thoughts and say what isn’t necessarily being said. You can flag a message that isn’t getting across to a broader audience, or an audience that – say from an agricultural point of view – doesn’t understand what goes on out here on the other side of the Blue Mountains. The beauty of that is that I can either do it through humour or just film something right there on the spot and put it out there straight away. And whether or not people turn away from it, that’s their choice, but it’s just such a wonderful platform. I know there’s a lot of crap that goes on Twitter and Facebook, but there are some good things that it can do to get a message out there that doesn’t get out there every night in the six o’clock news broadcast.
Jen: You’ve had enormous response to a number of your works. Why do you think your videos have managed to get such cut-through?
Hugh: I’m old enough now to not care about what people think.
And you could say I love politicians who say what they think. That’s why I’m a big supporter of Trump, because he says what he thinks and what a lot of people are thinking, and so he’s hit a nerve with “middle America” which wants a voice in the public domain. It’s the same with me; if you say something, at least have something to back it up to. Don’t just go out and say something for the sake of getting a reaction. I like to put something out there but back it up with some facts. And rather than just talk it, I’m showing you how we can walk it here as well. I don’t like to be lectured to by people in Ultimo about how we should live. There are people in other areas of this country who are doing things and who believe different things than people in inner-city Sydney do and believe.
Sally and Hugh Beveridge, Armatree NSW.
Jen: So you’re talking directly to “quiet Australians”?
Hugh: Exactly. Quiet Australians are also getting online, so more and more I’m finding people who are similar to me in their views, which may become an echo chamber unfortunately. Some of the more left-wing commentators operate in that sort of echo chamber where all their followers agree with them and say “Oh, you’re amazing, I agree with you” so they believe their own views are the only valid ones. When you question these commentators, and say, “Well, hang on a minute…” and give them an alternative point of view, they’ll block you.
You’ve just got to put your message out there as best you can and you’ll find an audience that agrees with you. And yes, there will be 10 per cent of people look at me and go, “Well, he’s just a stupid old white bastard who’s a toxic male or an old boomer” and that’s fine. If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine – but there’s a lot of people who do. And it’s the same on the other side. A lot of people believe in certain things, and a lot of people don’t, but you can’t just block out people because you don’t agree with what they say.
Jen: You use satire to wonderful effect, just as other platforms such as (satirical online “newspaper”) The Betoota Advocate do – and whether that’s your intention or not, it’s very effective as a news source, particularly for the digital natives where online is where they’re getting the bulk of their commentary.
Hugh: That’s absolutely right. Sadly, some people think that The Betoota Advocate is real and even reading the comments there, they’re having a real hissy fit about what’s being said in satire. Even though I look at it sometimes and go, “They’ve gone too left-wing for me”, the next day they’re back having a go at the left or vice versa. That’s the beauty of it.
Jen: They don’t discriminate. They take the piss out of everybody equally.
Hugh: Yeah, and that’s what my problem is: why can’t we take the piss out of everything? When I did the video about the reporter covering the bushfires, I’m taking the piss out of the media. They take themselves so seriously, so I made fun of them for how seriously they take themselves. You just sit back some nights and go, “Why does Karl Stefanovic have to be at the fire? Aren’t there younger reporters who need work too? They could happily report from the fire. Why do they have to push the stars forward to report from the fire-front?” I don’t get that. What benefit is it to us at home? Just put a reporter out there. They can’t seem to understand that people at home are switching off. So I make fun of that.
Jen: Your use of satire is biting, but it’s effective.
Hugh: Yeah, well some people may not like to see the real thing, or see themselves as being made fun of. I’ll even make fun of farmers who go out and complain that they’re down to their last dollar with the arse busted out of their pants. Unfortunately, I don’t have the (machinery) gear to pull it off, but I was going to walk past $2 million worth of gear sitting in the shed while I was saying that about being busted-arse… That really happens, but those farmers don’t see that funny side of it.
Or the guy who’s struggling to feed all his sheep. You have to ask, “Why didn’t you sell some of them when prices were so bloody good?” There’s just all these funny things you could turn back on the agriculture industry itself – in fact, any industry. The public service is probably the best one to have a laugh at. There are those who do get offended, but people need to laugh at themselves a lot more, which I like to do.
Jen: If we wind the clock right back to the 2010 floods and Baywatch Armatree, which was perhaps the video that really put not only Joe Merino but Armatree itself on the map, that didn’t necessarily have a message except the notion of the resilience and having a laugh in the face of adversity.
Hugh: That’s true. When so many people were affected by that flooding, there was nothing else to do. You had to have a laugh at it – you couldn’t just fall in a heap. The best thing about a flood is that you’ve always got next year. You’ve got two years’ worth of moisture in the ground. But it’s just what you’ve lost leading up to that. Baywatch Armatree was just a good laugh at the situation.
When you look at the great British humour we grew up with in shows like Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served, we didn’t necessarily get all the jokes but we watched our parents laughing and it was because they were laughing at themselves. Monty Python always turned the mirror back on themselves a bit – or back on the British public.
I think people just need to laugh at themselves and that helps build resilience – you can’t expect everything to be perfect all the time. You’ve got to be prepared if something happens. I know there’s some days where you’re trying to open the gate and the wind blows it shut by the time you get back in the ute, and you go out and do it again and it blows shut again (laughs) and you swing the gate around so hard it falls off its hinges. You’ve just got to sit back and laugh at that. But I think farmers, and people generally in agriculture, need to have resilience, don’t you?
Hugh Beveridge, Armatree NSW.
Jen: Yes, I do. And I think your videos are such a positive little blip on what can be and has been such a negative radar. Do you feel that?
Hugh: Yes, absolutely. Again, I can’t see the point in sitting around doing nothing. People say to me, “Gee, you have a lot of time on your hands.” Well, you do in a drought. I don’t know what else people were doing – when you try not to spend money, you’re feeding a few sheep, then I don’t know what you do for the rest of the day. Luckily, I have a hobby. I can get out there and do something else.
Jen: That comment is probably coming from blokes who are sitting around at the pub.
Hugh: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s right. We promote these little areas like ours, it’s a great little spot. There’s a lot of great people – positive people – and if you know someone who is doing it tough, it’s always a little phone call here and there. I’ve had plenty of phone calls just to be checked on, and you’re sort of thinking, ‘Why are you ringing me?’ but you work out why. I think it’s worth promoting, too. Especially just to get pictures of drought, and positive pictures of drought because we know the media likes bad and negative news. Positive news doesn’t sell, but there’s plenty of people doing positive things through a drought and that isn’t conveyed enough.
Jen: There was never a question that you wouldn’t come back to the bush, was there?
Hugh: No, I don’t think so. I was thinking the other day that some might say, ‘You’re lucky enough to be able to go back to the bush” but it’s the same as when people say, “Well, it’s my culture.” It’s in you. Once you’ve experienced a bit of city living, and your neighbours are right next door and you don’t know them, or you’re in a community that you don’t know, that becomes clear. Luckily, you do know what a rural community’s like; it’s in you to want to go back to that – and luckily, the (family) property was big enough for me to do that. I know plenty who could do it, but generations just haven’t been able to provide for all sons or daughters. With two girls, I know agriculture’s in them too, and if they want to do the same thing, hopefully there will be a chance for them too. I know they love getting home from school and just soaking up that atmosphere of rural life.
Jen: There are a number of misconceptions about farming or life in small towns – what gets your goat the most?
Sally and Hugh Beveridge, Armatree NSW.
Hugh: I think we need to be shown a little bit more respect for what we actually do for the rest of the population. People need to look at their three meals a day and think, “I wonder where this came from?” Farmers did it! Everything. What’s on the plate – whether you’re a vegan or whatever, someone grew that food. Someone raised and milked those cows for the milk on your table. Someone made that wine you’re drinking. The beer that’s in your glass. Or the oyster or the fish on your plate. Or the almond milk that you’re having with your chai latte.
Every time there is a negative news story, it goes bananas. We know the network that loves chasing down negative stories on agriculture, but do they really think people don’t need to eat in other countries as well? Some need to have live sheep so they can partake in different rituals. It just bugs me that we get such negative press when you consider what we are actually providing to the world’s population. It’s appalling in how we are treated by the media.
There’s been some reprieve to a degree because of the drought and bushfires, but I think as soon as the rivers are all full and people in the cities are paying $10 a kilo for lamb again, it’ll be back to targeting cotton farmers and live exports, and there’ll be those people trying to get onto our land to film us apparently treating animals appallingly and mis-managing the environment.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.