That's the Spirit:
Simon Archer - Merrygoen NSW
Simon Archer first pulled on the uniform of the Merrygoen Rural Fire Service brigade as an 18-year-old. Now in his mid-50s and captain of the outfit, the third-generation local farmer says his passion lies not in fighting fires but in his community.
Simon spoke to Jen Cowley about fires, friendships and the future of farming.
Simon: I’m now captain of the Merrygoen Rural Fire Service brigade, but I’ve been involved since I was 18. I was quite heavily involved in my 20s, and was deputy captain for a few years. I’m in my 50s now, and I’ve been captain now for six years – time gets away, doesn’t it?
Jen: Being part of the local bushfire brigade is something of a rite of passage for rural youngsters – why do you think that is?
Simon: Well, it’s a bit mixed in different areas in terms of the enthusiasm and involvement, depending on what area you’re in. We’re very lucky at Merrygoen in that pretty much everyone believes it’s a necessity and believes in the value of stepping up and doing their part. It’s a fantastic district for that and I’m exceptionally lucky, because that’s not the case in all areas.
So remaining as captain has been a real pleasure because of the other people in the community. They all support the brigade really well.
I think most people realise they have to do their part in the community.
Fighting fires isn’t my passion at all – it’s dirty, hard work and often in the middle of the night, and it wrecks your day very often because you have to drop everything and go – but we all have to do our part.
I guess it sort of chose me and I’m happy to do it. Someone has to, and I’m willing and able to step up.
My passion isn’t the fire-fighting, it’s the community.
Jen: Your region suffered the horrific experience of the Sir Ivan fire in 2017. Was your brigade involved there?
Simon: Not all of us – there were about four or five of us that were involved with that fire. There are 25 or 30 of us in the brigade usually, so we share the workload around, but there were just that handful of us, the most experienced among us, who were involved with the Sir Ivan fire.
Our brigade has two trucks, and we had to leave one in the (Merrygoen) area in case there was an issue closer to home. I called several people around the district to say, “We’re not going to be here, so you guys are now front line for this area in case anything happens.”
For different fires, depending where it is in the district, I’ll call on different people to try to share the workload around, but at the end of the day, there’s a core of people who hold the reins.
Jen: I imagine there’s a certain camaraderie that goes with being part of the fire brigade. Have you found that?
Simon: That’s certainly true, and I’ve formed friendships with people that I may not have otherwise come to know. There are a couple of blokes in particular who I have formed strong bonds with.
It’s an interesting study in characters, and yes, there have been a few great characters that I’ve met (laughs).
Simon Archer, Merrygoen NSW
Jen: Your district has seen a fair bit of adversity over the years, but you all seem to bounce pretty well.
Simon: I guess it’s the nature of the game. This last drought was bloody dreadful, for sure, but it’s the latest in a long line of droughts. The longer you live, the more pragmatic you get, I suppose – you know the drought, or whatever it is, will end. There’s always a change around the corner.
The biggest lesson I try to teach my own son is that no matter how good things are, or how bad things are, nothing stays the same.
Just when you think it’s all going really, really well, look out because you’re about to get a kick in the butt. Don’t relax.
And when things are going badly, tomorrow may well be a better day.
Jen: Apart from the fire brigade, you’ve also been involved with a number of community organisations like the school and pony club and the race club. Why do you do those things?
Simon: The race club was a group of friends who got together to work together, and it’s always good to come together to get things done when usually you spend your days working by yourself. The working bees are always great days. I really enjoyed my time with the race club – I didn’t necessarily enjoy being the president because of all the bureaucracy at the pointy end of things (laughs) – but, for me, being part of the committee was more about the social side of things and seeing people come together than about the horse racing.
Jen: How important is the social aspect of events like that?
Simon: I think it’s vital, particularly for people who are otherwise isolated on their farms or in their businesses. I think it’s fantastic, and whether it’s a conscious thing or not, it’s just the nature of the bush – that you come together for social events like the picnic races. Some of us will go for weeks without seeing each other – there’s that old saying that good friends don’t have to see each other every day, but when they get together, they’re still best friends. It’s the same with us in the bush – when we get together, we compare notes and have a laugh and see what everyone else is doing.
Jen: What’s something you’d like to tell people about Mendooran that they might not already know?
Simon: That there are some clever people here. Really clever people doing extraordinary things – making silk purses from sows’ ears. I guess, to a degree, we’re all doing that – we take the dirt and, hopefully, mix in a bit of rain and some sunshine and grow food and fibre.
You often hear the expression, “the buck stops here”, well out here is where the buck starts. Without primary industry, there is no secondary industry. The buck has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is here in regional Australia.
Primary producers are getting smarter and it’s fantastic to see government recognition of that, for instance with the recent change to university fees that acknowledge the importance of agricultural skills, and making the development of those skills more accessible.
Jen: Do you think there is still a solid future for young people in agriculture?
Simon: When we came back to the farm after my father died, it was a bugger of a business. Farming was a subsistence existence. I said to my wife that it would have to turn around one day, because the fact of the matter is that people need to eat and the world’s population keeps exploding. Now, there are fantastic opportunities in the industry. Every ten years the world has to produce six per cent more food, and we’re doing it now with less and less land, and we’ve been doing it with unreliable weather over the past few years. Agriculture is absolutely vital. We have to produce more on the same or less area, we have to produce more kilograms of grain per millimetre of water we receive, so we have to be smarter.
It’s about science and research. There’s no such thing as an average year any more – every year, we learn more and more, and we’re working smarter to adapt to those changing conditions and demands.
Jen: Does that make it an exciting time to be in the industry, for those who are operating as a business and looking for the science to underpin their practice?
Simon: Yes, it does for sure. And watching the coming generation with their passion and enthusiasm for the industry is just so fantastic. They’re excited about it, and to hear that enthusiasm on the back of a roaring drought is amazing. Ten years ago, the younger people were leaving the industry in droves – now they’re just pouring back in. It’s remarkable, and the thing is that they know there’s not always a lot of money in this business, but they want to get into it anyway because achieving goals even with all the challenges thrown at you is a great thing.
I genuinely think farming is a noble profession and it’s a great feeling knowing there’s a younger generation there to hand the baton on to.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Merrygoen Rural Fire Service Brigade Captain Simon Archer (front left) with RFS team members Joel Ray and Theo Travalos from the Mendooran Brigade.