For most of us, a slice of watermelon is a tasty thirst quencher, packed with micronutrients. But for watermelon growers, melons cause insomnia. Not only do growers have sleepless nights over droughts and floods, picking crews, disease and fluctuating market prices but the sheer long hours of farming, particularly at peak season, is enough to exhaust the strongest of people.
When I was selling melons, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be talking to a grower at 5am as they were setting up their picking teams and again at 9pm when they were loading trucks. We’d discuss market pricing, (which can change, sometimes quite dramatically, throughout the day) how many bins they had packed and how many tons they still had to pick. We’d co-ordinate which trucks go to which markets to maximise the dollar return for their product and fulfil our supermarket orders.
I loved selling melons. Partly because I love the adrenaline caused by the urgency of the fruit business. Fruit trading is a low margin, fast paced, helluva-fun business where if you want to make some money for your growers, you can’t take your eye off the market for one minute. The reason why I particularly loved the melon business though is I had the privilege of working with some of the best growers in the fresh produce business. They formed a group called The Select Melon Australia (SMA) group. As a group they collaborated on projects, information and growing techniques. Currently they are involved in a carbon foot print project in conjunction with the company I used to work for and a large retailer. One of the SMA growers is Terry O’Leary. He was young when we met (sigh, I was young then too).
Terry is a fourth generation farmer from Chinchilla, in the Western Downs in Queensland, Australia. Chinchilla was once Australia’s melon capital (years of drought followed by flooding forced many families in the region out of farming). The Chinchilla soil is sandy and the weather is warm with a reasonable amount of summer rain. Perfect conditions for melons.
Life on the farm is good. But Terry is sadly, part of a dying breed. The young farmer. It’s hard to say exactly why farming is not attracting the next generation, but it seems that many people don’t really understand what farming today entails. Terry, who has travelled extensively, is frequently left bewildered by the misconceptions that many of the people he meets have about modern day agriculture. Media seem to strengthen the misconceptions, “mainstream media portray farmers driving around on old, 1960′s era machines because it looks ‘more romantic’”
We all eat, but so few people seem to understand what farming is about. So, Terry’s done what any modern day farmer should do to connect to the world. He’s started a blog. Melons Cause Insomnia gives a “no bullshit” account of his days running a watermelon and cattle property. He writes the blog whilst on his tractor “I’m actually operating the tractor at this very moment, entering this post with my phone. It has front and rear linkage so you can do more than one job at a time.” The posts are both interesting, “It is this loam, which millennium ago was a river bed that fed into Australia’s ancient inland sea, that makes our melons so special.” and very funny “These little studs you see are about to be let loose into a paddock with their new girlfriends.”
Farming is a much more sophisticated, technologically advanced and complex business than most consumers realise. One of the things Terry has blogged about quite a bit so far is his tractors. Apparently this is a topic he gets asked about a lot! “When I meet someone new that isn’t familiar with agriculture, they ask ‘how big is your tractor?’ (Especially other men around my age). Truth be told, tractor size envy isn’t really something that we farmers have.” Terry explains that his favourite tractor has 130 hp and a GPS system that automatically steers the tractor to an accuracy of 2cm. It can do up to 28 different functions with the press of a button. The diver’s involvement is turning the tractor around at the end of each row and pressing the go button again.
Mother nature is an integral part of the growing process. Growers can’t appease her, they just have to work around her. Rain, drought, floods, winds, too hot, too cold can all make or break a season of work. “How much changes in a week! 7 days ago, our temperature didn’t rise above 16 degrees. The cold did effect the melons but not too badly. We did also receive some nice rain. Today, is a very different 36 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. This rain and warm weather also means WEEDS. Lots of weeds. So, here I am on the tractor again, cultivating weeds.”
Of course, Terry is a farmer because in spite of the hard work and heart ache over crops and cattle and insomnia(!) he loves farming. “Sun is coming up at about 5am and sitting down for literally 1 minute with a shot of coffee looking off my verandah, hearing nothing but the odd cow calling to its calf and a symphony of birds singing, is just a perfect start to a busy day.”
If you are interested in a very real view of the early end of our food chain pop over to Melons Cause Insomnia and take a look. It might just change how you think about where your supermarket purchases come from.
All the photos were stolen from Terry’s blog except for my friendly farmer, he’s from here.