The Bannockburn Farmers

Jane Dunstan

Jane: Tell me about your involvement in regional towns in the late 60's when you came to Armidale as 'Lecturer, Community Development' and worked with others as well as Aboriginal people.

Ned: When I was first working as a community developer here in Armidale, I launched a farmers' group to help them deal with soil erosion and low productivity. I gradually got them into looking at other ways for them achieve their goals. By bringing them together in a group for the first time I helped them develop a family-style spirit, you see. The spirit in their farming group then was what kept them going. This was because they got into relating honestly with each other, and to sharing their strengths and weaknesses; and that enabled them to turn from being the least competent 'payers' in town, to the best. All the wives got into doing the books, and came to know what the farm could afford and what it couldn't afford, and domestic conflicts over money basically disappeared.

It began in this way. The JCs Club in Inverell had a conference on the role of service towns, to which they invited me as a consultant, and I said 'you'll need to form a flow-on group to take action after the conference'. Thus we launched the "Inverell Regional Study and Development Group" which was a group of young business people; and one of the first problem things they came up with was soil erosion. They said 'it is going to affect the economy of the town, and we've decided to do a survey.

They did it, and in the process of doing that, on my advice they identified a number of potential activists among the farmers, and we then helped these folk to launch a farmer's group called the "Bannockburn Conservation Group". The farmers were all much too broke to afford what the soil conservation service was offering, which was bulldozer banks and things. In the meantime I'd heard about a farmers' conservation group at Bell on the Darling Downs, and I got in touch with a woman member named Annabelle who with her husband Fred was associated with it and who, I found, had a terrific intuitive idea of community development.

I arranged for the Bell group to host a visit from our Bannockburn group. The Bannockburn folk traveled up together in a convoy of cars, and were hosted by the Darling Downs people at Bell. At Bell, they found the farmers were into summer crops and pigs, as well as winter crops, whereas down here at Inverell they were only growing winter wheat and barley and whatever. The group initially didn't know each other very well, but they talked together all the way up there and all the way back down again, and they all came back very excited, knowing each other much better, and with a rising group spirit; and decided they wanted to do something like up at Bell.

Annabelle, the lady from Bell, was very happy to become an extension community development worker, and the Bannockburn farmers asked if she and Fred would come down and work with them. They sold their Bell property. I put some of my money in and they got a small grant from the Shell company to put with that to pay a bit more of their salary. So they came down and worked with the Bannockburn group, and away we went, and all sorts of changes happened from then on.

The farmers put in crops on contour, put strips of pasture in between, on the contour, and diversified into summer crops. Members of the group all had different personal skills, eg., welding, or some were very good with the soil. The people who were good at particular things became resources to someone else. They all were good at something, so they all became resources. They tried to get a loan for pig-sheds, but the bank said no. They ended up having working bees to chop timber on each other's property to get the material from which to build their pig-sheds, and then to construct them. Meantime the wives were trained by Fred to become bookkeepers. Family relationships improved, including parents with their children too. They formed specialist subgroups, like producing fat lambs, and then often a new enterprise like that was handed over to be run by an adolescent son.

In due course two other locally based groups were formed by farmers wanting more support for dealing with the specific local issues presented by the soils and topography of their own area. One new group was formed north of the town and another to the east, in addition to the Bannockburn creek area to the south-west; and soon these groups federated via a co-ordinating council.

Jane: What was your role in the farmers' group?

Ned: Simply to get it started, and ginger it along. I went to most meetings and I used also to spend a lot of time talking to Annabelle. As time went on, her purposes and mine, and then our views, differed. It ended up she thought I was breathing down her neck too much. She felt that I was trying to run it. The university was involved through me. I wanted one of the farmers in the group to become a kind of in-house applied sociologist, to act as a facilitator of the group's evolution over time. But Annabelle felt threatened by that. She wanted to keep that role herself.

The group was a great success pretty quickly, and the farmers went from being the worst payers in town to being the best over a short period of years. They had these cooperative arrangements, they would sell collectively in Brisbane, whether it was lambs, pigs or beef, and bring cheaper bulk supplies back. They solved the soil erosion problem without consulting the soil conservation service. They would have their regular social development type discussions. And it went on and went on. I was pushing new developments for them, but Annabelle was a bit threatened because she didn't want to give up her key day-to-day role in the group.

Then some university 'heavies' thought they could shift me aside and take control themselves, for their rather differing purposes. They did that, but as soon as that happened, Annabelle fell out with them too. And then the farmers. The university folk had no understanding of the whole value system and community relationships on which the social process was based, the family thing, the community thing, the core bit. When outsiders would ask Bannockburn people what it was about they said "oh, it's the spirit of the group" which they couldn't define. That was the generator of the trust, the mutuality, the constant intellectual ferment as well as the practical skills ferment.

So after I was disconnected, and Annabelle also disconnected herself, they were on their own. They never did quite as well. They didn't have their in-house applied sociologist. In this time they did set up a co-op which sold their meat from a butcher's shop that they bought in Armidale. But success led to complacency, perhaps; they all grew older, and there was no active campaign undertaken to draw in the youth and the new arrivals in such a way as to maintain each of the local groups. They needed to define for themselves a whole new round of goals as the focus for new involvement and activity together, but they didn't do that. So gradually they faded away.

But for me, it had been a very exciting and fulfilling 10 years involvement.

Interview with Ned Iceton