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Turning a dollar out of dust

This article was originally published in Graziher magazine, summer 2019


It’s best to ask your questions of Chris Ferguson in the morning.

At night, as the house settles its bones in the dark, the day still has Chris by the throat. The day, hued by damned blue skies, has her cornered. Her replies, after that sort of day, circling around and around the options, the bottom line leering and looming, are apt to be a little bleak. Best to get her in the morning, when she’s snatched some hours of sleep. Best to find her when her natural optimism coils back in the room alongside the pale fingers of dawn; when she’s feeling a little fresher. “This has taken me longer than I expected,” she writes to me from her property near Grenfell, New South Wales. “I found my answers too miserable when I wrote in the evenings, tired and weary and worn out. I had to find a spot during the day to brighten them up a bit.”

Finding a spot in the day can be a little challenging. The grazier, along with her partner, travels between the three properties they own between them; some 750 kilometres apart. Things are tough, as they are for nearly every person working in Australian agriculture right now. The dry is maddeningly, tauntingly relentless. With goats and cattle out west and cattle, sheep and mixed cropping down south, the drought’s far-reaching tentacles show no discrimination. It’s been almost 20-years since Chris and her then husband packed up their lives and two young kids, then aged 10 and four, to chase their farming dream. Nearly two-decades since they closed the door on a brick house in the Bathurst suburbs to wrangle goats, a long way past the black stump.

Growing up on a small farm on the central tablelands of New South Wales between Bathurst and Lithgow was little preparation for an existence out west. Leaving school at the end of Year 10, Chris studied farm technology and wool classing at TAFE before getting to work; pulling beers, throwing fleeces, pruning pine trees and working on farms wherever she could. Married at 21, she and her husband built a contracting business, weed spraying, shearing and fencing. “We always planned to get back onto the land and I was frustrated that our kids were getting older and living in town,” Chris says. “We felt like we had to do something fairly drastic to get out of town. I wasn’t keen to have a hobby farm; to work a job all week just to work the farm on my weekend, so I started looking for other options.” In 2001 the options opened 11-hours west; a run-down parcel of red dirt called ‘Myrnong’ near Wanaaring, 250-kilometres west a’ Bourke. “We didn’t have enough money for a station and stock, so we figured if we could buy a station cheap and fence it for goats, then we could muster feral goats to stock it,” Chris says. “We sold our house, bought a station and fenced like mad. It was a desperate move.”

Not only was it new country and a new way of life, but the west was in the grip of the Millennium Drought with no relief in sight. Chris’s initial doubts of such a move wavered between a small, flickering glow and a seething inferno. “It was like when you first have a baby; I had no idea of what it would be like, even though I’d done a few months as a jillaroo in western Queensland as a teenager,” the grazier says. “I remember moments of exquisite happiness in doing what I had always dreamt of doing. It felt like achieving the unachievable. I love overcoming a challenge and it was all incredibly challenging, but there was satisfaction in the few wins we had. I also remember moments of utter devastation, of not knowing what we were doing. The guilt of taking my children to live this remote life, because I wanted to be a grazier.”

Chris Ferguson with her daughter, Matilda. Image credit: Edwina Robertson

Anyone living remotely can relate to the logistics required for every simple thing. Small things, like running out of chocolate, or buying Christmas groceries and pressies at the beginning of December and not using any of the special food before the 25th. Life things, like not being able to grow food other than meat, because the climate is too harsh and the water too salty. Big things, like rain the day before a load of visitors or cattle, turning the 200 kilometres of dirt road into an impassable quagmire. “Like the air con breaking down and waiting a week for parts, then fixing the air con on a hot tin roof when nothing can be touched,” Chris says. “In fact, like every single thing being hot. Like what it is to be truly alone.”

The family worked, fencing the entire property for goats and focusing on upping the perennial grass species and slashing woody shrubs through goat grazing management. In 2010 Chris and her husband parted ways, with Chris digging deep to buy full ownership of the station. In the same year, the grazier completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Rangeland Management with The University of Queensland and was selected for a Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship. This gave her the chance to travel to 19 countries in 29 weeks, learning about grazing management in semi-arid lands. Four years later, in 2014, she moved to her new partner’s place, Kia Ora Station, 200 kilometres away near Yantabulla. As if they didn’t have enough on, the pair bought a mixed farm in 2017 called Garrawilla, down south near Grenfell; travelling between all three. “They have all been exceptionally dry since we bought the new one in 2017 and we have a massive debt to service,” Chris says. “I think this drought has aged me. I feel like I’ve just gotten old enough to be really clear about what needs to be done, and importantly I know what it is I want to do, but I am often in an energy deficit which makes the whole thing hard. When we bought Myrnong we built a new dam, and it was six years before we saw it full. They were really tough times and we were a long way from our friends and family. Both times; that drought when we bought Myrnong and this drought now with Garrawilla, it always seems like the universe is asking me, ‘How much do you really want it?’ My answer is always the same. I will not be a victim; I will find a way. But it’s bloody tiring now.”

There’s no such thing as an average day for Chris and her partner. “At Garrawilla, we’re up with the sun, cup of tea then off to eat our frog. Mark Twain said something about eating the frog for breakfast and we subscribe to that theory, so we do the job we otherwise wouldn’t get to first. Then in for breakfast sometime between 9am and 2pm,” she says. “Then there are cattle feeders to be filled, cattle moved, vaccinated, drafted for sale. It’s seasonally driven with cropping and cattle trading. Out west, it’s up before the sun for mustering and cattle work or goat drafting or fencing or some bloody thing. Never a dull moment.” She’s candid about advice for those getting started in the ag industry. “You know, I’m so balanced on a knife edge at the moment financially with this drought that I don’t feel like I can offer anyone advice. But I suppose I’d say, don’t do it unless you like a challenge,” she says. “We’re all in this together and I don’t know how we’re going to survive this financially but it won’t kill us. Going broke from drought need not be the end of the world. I tell myself this all of the time because it dispels the fear and I hate feeling fearful. I can’t make good decisions when I’m fearful so I try and keep some perspective. I’d say hold your friends and family close, put as much energy and effort as you can muster into your relationships that matter. I’d say, roll up your sleeves.”

Chris started her Instagram and Facebook page, ‘Life in the Mulga’, in 2013. Snippets of her thoughts and feelings, unsentimental, prose graceful, accompany her photos and videos of a life eked out on the land. With thousands of followers, Chris provides a vital portal into the unabridged experience of her days; sometimes brutal, often exhausting, but always, in the way she frames a eucalypt standing sentry in the fog or the view between the orange ears of her equine mate George, finding beauty in the challenge. There’s poetry in the way she views the world; marred as it is with sweat and dust. Her words are beacons of solidarity for those in the same boat and a window into another life for those living in leafy green suburbs. ‘I haven’t written much introspective here for a while, all my emotional energy is taken up just surviving like most other farmers at the moment,’ Chris recently wrote on Instragram. ‘But that night when I couldn’t sleep, I went out checking a fence and water trough by moonlight. It was so sweet to have the night to myself. The air was still and cool on my skin. The view across the valley mercifully monochrome. I was reminded of how fortunate I am, to have the privilege of living here.’

While things are at times bleak, don’t expect Chris to slink back to her brick house and roses in town anytime soon. “It would be such an empty existence to me now. It’s overcoming challenges that makes me happy; trouble shooting and crafting something I can be proud of. Sometimes I think, if I didn’t do this then what would I do?” she says. “I have to feel connected to this earth, it’s a need in me like breathing. When I visit my son, who is now based in Adelaide, I dream of buying a cottage by the coast and reading, walking and writing. And maybe I will do that, but I would need to be maintaining a connection to the earth and feeling like I was making something better.” There are a lot of memories steeped in the red soil of that run-down station out west, home to feral goats and the gnarled hardiness of the mulga trees. That piece of country, a living embodiment of Chris’s greatest dream. Two happy kids raised, curses thrown at the cloudless sky, laughter ‘round a pot of tea, despair when shit goes wrong again. Pieces sewn together, dropped, discarded in a hot wind and picked back up again. The learnings for Chris are vivid, coloured the burnt blonde of sun savaged grass and silky ochre dust. “I’ve learnt that the only way to find your place in the world is through participation. Those who participate fully are more grounded and have a greater sense of belonging than those that hang back,” she says. “That growing older is underrated, because through experience we learn that there is not much that can’t be overcome one way or another; that’s where the resilience comes from. That nothing great is ever easy.”

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