Miscellaneous, Research

54 – Ivory towers are safe

If you want to keep up with the latest issues in agriculture there is no substitute for chatting with farmers. In my experience, most are generous with their time and knowledge and interested to see what they might pick up from you, but occasionally things don’t work out so well. This is the story of such a time.

There was one particular day in 1987 when the farming community and I didn’t get on so well. I was in the early stages of my PhD at the University of Western Australia. I was working on the economics of weed control so I decided to meet up with some farmers to discuss their weed management. We had a new post-doctoral research fellow in the Faculty, Sushil Pandey from Nepal, who had never been on an Australian farm, so he was keen to come along. We asked Greg Shea (better known as Shady), then an adviser at Northam, to line up a few farmers for us. On the appointed day, we picked up Shady at Northam and took him in our car down to York. Our first farmer was Mr Jones. (Farmers’ names have been changed to protect the guilty.) The farmer’s directions, which Shady had written down, were a bit vague, but eventually we found the place. We were supposed to go straight past the house and up the hill to the shearing shed. We went past the house and up the hill, but there didn’t seem to be any shearing shed. “Maybe it’s just over the hill.” We went through one gate and then another without success. Maybe it’s over that next hill. Finally after about eight gates, with Shady shutting each one behind us, we decided that we were on the wrong track. Just then I saw a 4WD ute in the rear view mirror just coming over the hill. We waited for the farmer to catch up to us (through two gates). As he arrived and got out, Shady strode up, hand outstretched, and said, “Mr Jones, Greg Shea, Department of Agriculture”. Mr Jones’s hand was not outstretched. He did not look pleased to see us. He said

“F***in’ Department of f***in’ Agriculture. What the f*** do you think you are doing?”

There were many further elaborations on this theme. I’ve rarely seen anyone so angry. A sixth sense told me that this was not the tame farmer we were supposed to be meeting. In fact he was feral, especially over us having pulled him away from some important task he was working on.

Eventually after Shady explained the situation (with Sushil and me bravely protecting the inside of the car from any sudden attack), Mr Feral was able to tell us that Mr Jones was in fact his neighbour. We were very glad to get away.

The rest of the day went pretty well, until almost the end. We met up with a very sharp farmer who we’ll call Mr Smith. We looked at a few of his impressive crops and then were talking in front of the house. We were starting to make “it’s time to go” noises when Mr Smith’s father appeared and took an interest in us. Mr Smith Senior was not a member of the temperance society. In fact, Mr Smith Sr had gone to some trouble that afternoon to make clear to one and all his disdain and disregard for the very idea of temperance. He took a great shine to Shady, especially after Greg successfully named a piece of old metal pipe from the gold fields. “What’s thish?” “A dolly”. Senior beamed. He was so happy with us that he started to do a little dance, singing incoherently, playing harmonica and shuffling around the group of four of us like a sort of bizarre totem pole ceremony. Poor Junior was embarrassed. We tried to say not to worry and to leave.

But then Senior decided we were such good friends that he would be willing to let us see his priceless collection of war relics. Would we like to see it? Well yes we would, but we’re really running a bit late and we hoped he’d understand if we just got on our way. Mr Smith Jr encouraged us to leave. Mr Smith Sr encouraged us to stay. Vigorously. No. Furiously. When we got into the car, the look on Senior’s face made me glad he was not armed. The sensible thing to do at this stage would probably have been to get out and go and look at his relics. But something in Senior’s eyes made me feel that there was some risk in this course of action. We decided to make a break for it. But before we could leave, Senior jumped into his 4WD and put it between us and the gate out of the yard. “If you don’t look at the relics I’ll f***in’ ram you” he screamed. He could barely stand up, so his aim had to be subject to some doubt, but he did have a big roo bar. More than ever it looked unsafe to back down and look at the relics. He might have just run us down. The only way out was forward.

Suddenly our chance appeared. Junior tried to grab the keys out of Senior’s ignition, but he shot forward to prevent this, clearing the way for our escape. I planted my foot and hurried out of the yard and down the bumpy track towards the front gate. I had seen an angry farmer in a 4WD in my rear view mirror already once today. Now I could see a drunk angry farmer, bearing down on us at suicidal speed. I sped up as much as I could. As we neared the gate, I had to veer around a patch of trees and then we were out on the gravel road. I looked back to see Senior go straight through the trees, with the car leaping wildly, missing thick tree trunks by inches and throwing up a cloud of dust, leaves and twigs. I tried to plant my foot, but got into a series of uncontrolled fish tails, swerving one way and the other. Eventually I got control, but by then I had lost my lead. I sped along at 120, 130, 140 – stupid speeds on a gravel road with a drunken maniac behind us. Sushil was in the back looking a very unusual colour muttering helpful things like “Oh God”, “Be careful!” and “I’m glad I’m not driving”. Personally, I was glad I was. I didn’t want my life in anyone else’s hands at this time.

We were coming up to a T junction where the gravel met the bitumen. What the hell was I going to do? If I slowed down, he might run into us from behind and send us into a crash. If I hit the T junction at 140, I could see us flying through the air like a stunt car and landing like a javelin in the paddock ahead. That looked certain. The risks of slowing down looked merely extreme.

I slowed down and thankfully so did he. Perhaps he had forgotten why he was angry by this time, or perhaps he’d only ever wanted to scare us. Whatever the reason, he didn’t follow once we reached the bitumen and turned left. I could almost hear him laughing as we sped away.

We all started breathing again. Sushil’s colour started to normalise. His first day of meeting Australian farmers was certainly a memorable one. I don’t think he’s been on a farm since. I have, but never with the same degree of excitement as on that day. Years later I heard that the old man had died. (I imagine his liver packed up.) I’m not a spiteful person, but I’ll admit that I didn’t feel wracked with grief.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia