That's the Spirit: Tourle Family - Toongi
Scott and Liz Tourle are fifth generation farmers and graziers at Toongi, near Dubbo, where they not only continue to adapt in an ever-evolving evolving industry but are active contributors to their small community. And now their sixth-generation children – Kennedy, Sam, Tom and daughter-in-law Courtney – are taking the baton. JEN COWLEY shared a cuppa on the family’s verandah for a yarn about life on the land and what it means to have a sense of community.
Jen: Sam, what’s your take on the future of farming/primary production – and what brings you back to the industry?
Sam: I suppose it’s what I’ve always done. This is the family farm. I just love being here and I love working outdoors. I couldn’t imagine being stuck in an office doing the same thing day in, day out. I don’t envisage a time when I won’t be on the land. It’s not something I think about.
There is hope and a future here, definitely. There’s a lot of good in agriculture – it’s a challenge for sure, but there’s definitely a future. Everyone has to be fed and clothed. There will always be a place for farming.
Just as past generations have had to adapt in the industry, I’m doing the same – particularly with technology, and using the changes in the technological landscape to apply to the agricultural landscape. In that way, I’m the same as previous generations – it’s just that I’m adapting to different changes.
I’ve learned so much from my parents about the whole industry. They’ve been very forward thinking. Dad has implemented more changes to the operation than any previous generations, I think.
Scott: I feel as though Liz and I have always been open to other ideas and have been early adopters of changes in the industry – we don’t sit and wait, we’ll jump in and give it a go and see for ourselves what will work and what won’t. That’s been good for our children to see that it’s beneficial to be open to new ideas and to be prepared to give new things a go.
Sam, Liz and Scott Tourle, Toongi NSW
Jen: How do you manage the stresses that come with living and working in the rural/agricultural industry, particularly when the chips are down?
Liz: We talk. We’ve always talked. Together and as a family. We’ve been very lucky in that there are no subjects that are taboo – we’ve always been very open and honest with each other. We get together on a Monday morning and talk about what’s coming up for the week. The buck stops with Scott in terms of the financial management side of things, and I think we all have a healthy respect for that, but I don’t feel there’s a father/son, mother/son, mother/daughter dynamic – we’re just really all in together.
We’ve been working on our succession planning recently and that’s confirmed the need to put everything out on the table. We’ve been going through things individually and together with our planners, and no-one’s been afraid to state their position or how they feel or where they see themselves placed in the business, and I think that openness is really healthy.
Sam: I think that willingness to talk openly is really important. Dad was pretty stressed about budgets when he was stuck there doing them by himself, but then when we all sat down and talked together, it helped put it all into perspective. So taking that time to talk is really important.
Liz: Over the years, we’ve also encouraged the kids to do whatever skill development was on offer – if there’s a course going, do it! I think Sam did his first “worm count” course when he was still in primary school! But it means that the kids all have a strong skill base, and they’ve been open to and accepting of further education and skill development opportunities.
Jen: What do you think is the importance of community involvement?
Scott: It’s one of the most important things about living in a rural community – it’s really important to feel as if you’re a part of things. It’s also important to be able to talk to other people within a community, not just for socialisation, but for cross-pollination of ideas too. We have a thing we call “drinks and chips” – where everybody gets together and brings their own chair and we literally sit down together on the stock route or wherever we happen to nominate, and we just get together and talk.
Liz: Everyone just comes in their work clothes. They’re pretty informal. No-one’s a domestic goddess – there’s no pressure to perform. You just come along as you are and it works really well.
Scott: We’ve done that for years, and at times like this (during drought or other adversity), we need to be doing it even more.
Liz: And that can be a bit of a catch, because the reason we haven’t been doing it as much is that when things are tough, everyone is just really strapped. Everyone’s working extra hard and, for instance, we’ve been working most weekends, so when you get a bit of down-time it a real relief and you tend to just flop down in a chair. But I still think there’s enough talk and conversation going on so that we’re not isolated.
We’ve also been fortunate enough to have some visits from Team Rubicon – the group of ex-service people – and that was a great shot in the arm for a lot of people.
Liz, Scott and Sam Tourle, Toongi NSW
Scott: It was good for us, yes, but it was also good promotion for them as well. But I think there’s great value in knowing you’re not the only one in the boat. That you’re not alone. To know there are others out there who have the same concerns and who understand what’s happening, and often, who have some of the solutions as well.
Having a community around you helps, but I still don’t think we (rural people) are all that good at asking for help – that’s a definite failing, and particularly of men. We don’t ask for help.
Sam: I think that’s right – men don’t ask for help when they need it. I don’t recall a time when I’ve needed help and didn’t ask, but I think as a generalisation, men are less likely to ask for help.
Liz: I think it’s actually the same for rural women, too – we don’t tend to ask directly for help. The difference is, though, that girls tend to be better communicators, so we’re on the phone and on social media and we do interact and that means you’ll find women offering help, or just turning up to help. We’re all in the same boat financially, so we’re not throwing money around, but you do tend to pay it forward when there’s an opportunity. I think rural women tend to just suck it up and put up with the way things are rather than ask for help – you sort of think, well, someone would be doing it tougher, so I’m not going to complain. But rural women are also the first to step in and up when someone needs a hand. In that way, I think the system works.
Scott: There’s a lot of people who fly under the radar when it comes to doing things for the community – you don’t necessarily see what others are doing, and they’re the ones who get things done. Being able to see the impact of community efforts is a good thing.
Sam: The idea of helping out is something our parents have instilled in us – it’s always just been a part of our lives. Like the fire service – we couldn’t wait to be old enough to go with Dad. In fact, I think we went before we were old enough! Being part of those community things is something we grew up with. And events like the Toongi Christmas Tree, where everyone helps out and the whole community comes together. That’s something that’s being going for generations and there’s now a new generation coming through.
Scott: We’ve been paying it back throughout our lives, and our kids are now paying it back and their kids will grow knowing that there’ll be a time for them to pay it back too.
Liz: I think the younger generation finds this a very dynamic industry, and I think a lot of that has come from Scott. I was pregnant with Sam when Scott did the first Grazing for Profit course, and we’ve done a few of those kinds of courses and we’ve dragged the kids along to them all. The kids have also done their own bits and pieces to contribute to that knowledge development. For instance, Sam has a real passion for Merinos and for developments in that sector, and he goes along to all the workshops and field days to learn. There’s also a real generosity these days in the sharing of knowledge.
Sam: That has been a huge change, I think – no one is overly secretive about what they’re doing in the industry and how they’re doing it. Years ago, Dad tried to start up a group where people would get together every few months and talk about what was happening and what was working and what wasn’t, and someone said, “No, I’m not about to tell you what I’m doing.”
So I think a lot has changed in that regard. Now you go to field days and there are industry people sharing their knowledge and showing you financials of how things work. People are a lot more open to sharing, and therefore to receiving knowledge. There’s not that competition and secrecy.
Scott: That territorialism and secrecy is no doubt still out there, but there are many more now who are happy to share and compare knowledge for the benefit of the industry as a whole. In the past, you wouldn’t divulge the details of your operation. But we found we’d be driving past a place and think, “What have they sewn there? What have they sprayed that with? What are they using there?” and we just wanted to get together and learn from each other, just on operational stuff – it wasn’t as if we were wanting to look at their financials. But yes, people were resistant to that.
Liz: We joined a board of directors with a group from right across the region through Grazing for Profit and we all knew each other’s operations intimately. It was a really wholesome thing to do, and after 25 years, we’re still getting together. I think it’s a trust thing, but it’s been very beneficial. People in the industry are just generally more trusting now, particularly where the sharing of knowledge is concerned.
Jen: How important is the locality; the feeling of belonging to Toongi?
Scott: It’s good to have that hub – the likes of the hall; something that’s physical which is neutral ground for everyone. For other localities, that “centre” might just be a gum tree, but it’s important to have that physical hub and I think you need that.
Liz: Maybe we take that community aspect a little for granted. We know our friends, and we know everyone who lives here but I haven’t necessarily thought about that as being defined by the word “community” – to me, it’s familiarity. It’s knowing you belong. That’s important. I did have a fear when the mine went in and they were buying up places – I feared that people would move away, but fortunately, they bought back in around the district so we haven’t lost our history. That continuity hasn’t been lost or dissolved. With the amount of land that’s changed hands, we still have a tight network.
Scott: Maybe it used to be tighter. But that’s just another thing that’s changed about rural communities. When I was younger, the families had all been around for generations – the kids had all grown up together and gone to school together. And also, the women were all at home – now they’re off working off farm, and none of us seem to have the kind of time we used to have as far as community goes. That’s part of the modern world to a degree. I think we all have to work harder now to keep that sense of community.
Liz: For instance, the rural fire service is one thing that’s changed. It’s the one thing we all – every man, woman and child – were involved with. The first thing when I fire broke out was the men would get out there and the women would get together and start making sandwiches and tea – and that brought everyone together. We don’t do that anymore. The rules have changed. And we used to have to fund-raisers for the bush fire brigade – we’d have dances and things, and other brigades would do the same and we’d get together. Well, we don’t do that anymore – we don’t have to fundraise anymore, but that means we don’t get together with that common aim anymore either.
Sam: I’m still involved with the rural fire service. I’m a deputy with our brigade, and we’ll go and fight fires, but that’s about all we do now. We did have a cricket match against the Yeoval brigade down at the Toongi Hall – but that didn’t have anything to do with the RFS as such, we just used it as an excuse to get together. So there’s still that sense of camaraderie there – just not necessarily with the organisation itself.
Jen: If you could address a room full of city-folk, what would you want them to know about your life and your industry? What are some of the myths you’d like to bust?
Liz: We’d like people to know the truth of agriculture. For a while now, we’ve been hosting a land-care group from down in the Illawarra, although they haven’t been up recently. That’s designed to get people out here so they’re not being fed misinformation about us being environmental vandals, or the way we handle our livestock. For instance, one girl told us she chose not to eat meat purely on an “ethical” basis because of how we handle our livestock – and by the end of the visit we almost had her talked into a chop! We had them planting trees – they told us they’d never even planted trees, and they’re LandCare! They remove lantana, so they said “We take out, we don’t put in.” So we had them planting trees along fence lines and we explained to them why we use fences and why we fence off our riparian zones, so they could get a really good understanding of how we work – that we don’t just sit here and drink tea and sip gin while the sun goes down.
Education is so important.
Sam, Liz and Scott Tourle, Toongi NSW
Sam: Education is everything. People can be so closed minded. You see stuff on social media about animal welfare and you shake your head and think, “Where are you getting this shit?” It doesn’t even make sense but people believe it and it’s hard to convince them otherwise. Misinformation is hard to challenge, but I don’t really give a shit. I know what I’m doing is right.
Scott: One of the main things I’d like people to understand – that they don’t seem to understand – is that our business is our home. That’s a fundamental difference between our business and home and a city-based, or even regional centre-based, home or business.
*This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.