Thursday, May 2, 2013

Webb City Sentinel column 5-3-13

We’ve had a rather inauspicious beginning to the regular season. Despite it being May, we’re back in winter. Opening weekend felt more like November and this weekend we seem to be in the depths of January! For the first time ever, we’ve cancelled the meals and music this weekend. It’s just too cold to picnic.

But we expect all our vendors, both today and tomorrow, so we’ll be loaded with cool crisp veggies, along with all the other goodies you expect at market. It should be easy to dash in and dash out (we’re sure not expecting long lines), so don’t let the cold keep you from enjoying fresh and local this weekend – Please! Make the chilly day we volunteers and vendors spend at the market worth our frozen toes.

And we’ll make it worth yours as well with over 10 farmers on Friday and six on Saturday plus all our other regulars. And we have a new baker on Saturday – Harvest Lane Bakery specializing in cinnamon rolls, country breads and dinner rolls.

Stop for breakfast or lunch on the way to or from the market – two of our vendors will be open at their home base today and tomorrow – for home-style cooking try Granny Shaffer’s and for organic and vegetarian choices try Eden Bakery-Café (33 South Main Street).

We’ll give away tomato plants on Saturday to every child at the market. And we still have Serviceberry trees and shrubs to give away.

And even with this dreadful weather, we can at least be thankful that we don’t have to deal with an emu plague.

How random is that? Well, not that random for farmers in Western Australia.

As you may know, I am blessed with a darlin’ two-year-old granddaughter in Perth, Australia, (that's her with her "sticker face") and I am doubly blessed that I am able to spend a couple of months with her and her parents each year. Naturally, I go in the winter. While you all were suffering with the snow and ice this February and March, I was enjoying the sun and surf there. I was also enjoying their delightful neighbors, Robert and Ann Barwick, and that’s where the emu plagues come in.

Robert and Ann were farmers prior to moving to Perth. With his father and brother, Robert had inherited 1,000 acres his grandfather acquired in 1913. Over the years, they expanded the farm to 15,000 acres. It was on the edge of the “marginal” areas, about 10 miles inside the barrier fence.

Ann grew up on a sheep station on the other side of the barrier “in the marginal area” – a station is their word for a really big farm – stations are usually measured in square miles, not acres. So what made the area marginal? Rabbits. The rabbit/fox/dingo-proof barrier, which is actually three connected fences, was completed in 1907 and stretches 2,021 miles. And being protected by the fence is what makes farming possible in Western Australia.

Robert and his brother grew wheat on 7,000 acres. On the rest they raised 3,000 merino sheep, 200 pigs, and 200 cattle each year.

The average annual rainfall was 13” (in our area it’s 46”) so to our way of thinking even with protection of the fence the land was pretty marginal. Each sheep required five acres for grazing. They only received 8” of rain during the growing season, so you can imagine how little rain they received during drought times. Zero would probably be on target. During a two-year drought they were doubly hit. Wheat production on the farm fell from 3,500 tons to 140 tons. And then the emus arrived. Six thousand a day invaded the farm, desperate for water. Normally the barrier stopped them, but with numbers like that they simply piled up against the fence until they could scramble right over on the backs of others. One thousand acres of wheat fields were trampled under their feet.

And then there were the rabbit plagues, when rabbits managed to break through the barrier and multiply like, well, rabbits.

And the grasshopper plague …

It’s going to be mighty cold at the market this weekend, but I’m thinking I won’t complain too much. At least we won’t have 6,000 emus stampeding the pavilion.

With 30 years of farming, Robert has lots of fascinating stories, but then so did Ann. Like the time she went to take the test to get licensed to drive the big wheat trucks to the granary. The tester said “Ann, didn’t I see you driving the wheat truck yesterday? (without a license)” Hmmmmm, yes. “Right, then. Here’s your license. (Apparently she passed the test without taking it.)”

If you look up the station Ann grew up on, the Karara Station, you’ll find that it is now a huge mine. Her family scratched a living out of that land for decades only to learn after they no longer had it that they’d been sitting on a vast fortune of iron and hematite.

Like most farmers, Robert and Ann worked incredibly hard most of their life. Now, in retirement, you can see their love of farming in their yard. Pretty as their front yard is, a short walk down the drive to the back takes you to a veritable Eden. These people know how to grow and they love doing it. And what good neighbors they are. Robert trimmed Cora’s palm trees while I was there (not a skill you acquire in Webb City) and Ann popped by with some apricot chutney she’d made. And they’re great pals of my granddaughter Madeleine so how could they not be wonderful?

We should be back to semi-normal weather next week. William Adkins is back on Tuesday with lots of great songs. Granny Shaffers serves lunch on Tuesday and Friday. I had their strawberry spinach salad last week. Very good.

On Friday the Granny Chicks are back and Jon Skinner, the urban forester with the Department of Conservation, will diagnose tree and shrub problems.

On Saturday, the Carl Junction chapter of Eastern Star serves breakfast and the Green Earth Band plays.

Maybe next week will be the real beginning of a great market season.