My life: Fiona Higgins
My life: Fiona Higgins
Sydney-sider Fiona Higgins thought she had a fairly liberal view of the world. But when a whirlwind romance saw her move to a drought-stricken cotton farm, some of her strongest assumptions were swiftly turned on their head.
Published Selector Spring 2009
Before I moved to Stuart’s farm in Jandowae Queensland, I’d only had one experience of meeting a farmer. That was when I was five years old and it turned me into a vegetarian! Needless to say, I had a fairly negative stereotype of what being a farmer involved.
Moving to rural Australia certainly grounded me. It made me aware that my high ideals and my often politically correct theories were unfounded in the practical reality of what it takes to produce our food and live on the land. Take, for instance, my views on genetic modification (GM).
When I came out to the farm I didn’t know much about GM but I thought I knew enough, mostly derived from the media, to assume that it was bad or too risky.
There are a lot of Chardonnay-sipping city people like myself who have these grand ideals while we sit in our air conditioned offices immune to the vicissitudes of nature. We start asking farmers to farm in certain ways – it’s easy for us to make those sorts of comments when we’re not the ones doing the farming.
Being in rural Australia helped me to see that production and consumption are two sides of the one coin. Consumers are just as responsible for environmental sustainability as producers. If I was going to be hard-line about being anti-GM, then I really needed to be sure that the cotton shirt I was wearing wasn’t generated from genetically modified cottonseed or my popcorn at the movies wasn’t cooked in GM cottonseed oil. But I wasn’t prepared to find that out, I was a lazy consumer.
Living on the land and seeing how farmers operate, it became clear to me that GM is a really useful tool for farmers. So much is out of their control; I could suddenly understand the desire to use GM to help reduce some of the labour.
There was also a lighter side to the challenges I faced in Jandowae, like the power of the bush telegraph. This became particularly apparent when I sent a Valentine’s package to Stu when we were still having a long distance relationship. I addressed it to ‘Spunky’ and the whole town called him that for the next eight months!
The biggest challenge for me though, was dealing with drought. It was something I had no experience of and I think part of my stereotype of farmers meant that I was impatient with their attitude. I’d see them on the TV talking about the drought and I’d think, ‘You should know this is what being a farmer involves, why are you complaining?’
Then I was transported into Stu’s third significant drought, the worst in the region’s recorded history. Suddenly all my impatience was turned on its head because I realised how drought really sucks hope out of you. It defies the ideal that if you put in a hard day’s work you’ll get a return. In drought it doesn’t matter how good a farmer you are, it doesn’t matter what type of farming practices you pursue, you just can’t do anything about the outcome and quite often you know that at the beginning of the season.
Drought is one of the most psychologically demanding things I’ve seen anyone go through. It’s a steady decline that has a massive impact on communities, families and relationships. It was a challenge to watch Stu go out into the fields every day while his crop withered and died in front of him. I was helpless, I couldn’t do anything about it.
The community is supportive in times of drought but it’s not an overt process. Rural people as a rule are very stoic. The men tend to withdraw, spending more time in the shed or doing extra tractor driving. So while rural communities are incredibly supportive generally, the drought is almost like an elephant in the room. People don’t really want to focus on it or talk about it when they’re in it. There’s a Winston Churchill quote: ‘When you’re going through hell, just keep going’. That’s very rural.
Raising awareness about these issues was part of the motivation for writing my book, Love in the Age of Drought. However, my main inspiration was the many interesting people I met and things I experienced.
So far I’ve had lots of positive feedback from the people we were close to, but perhaps more encouragingly, from others we didn’t know particularly well. For them to say thanks for capturing the issues so well, that’s the best feedback I can get. If the book doesn’t sell heaps of copies, but the locals are happy with it, then my job is done.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.