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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Notes from the Road (12) - The Crichtons of Maryvale

The highlight of my two weeks in Australia was a day our group spent at Maryvale, an outback sheep/cattle station. Our hosts, Robert and Jenny Crichton, were characters straight out of one of our Western movies...think John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara with Australian accents. I told Jenny she was my dream woman...a finely dressed, elegantly coiffed lady running a ranching household about fifty miles from the nearest civilization. Which is where I'll have to be when The Wife reads this.

Jenny Crichton welcomes us to Maryvale.
I'll let Mr. Crichton tell you about the station...



I passed up the 4WD tours of the station, opting instead to re-charge my batteries napping on the porch, listening to the birds, squawk, rattle, chirp, and ring away the hours while I slipped in and out of consciousness. Upon awakening, I discovered a small group of men discussing the wood collection owned by the Australian government and their future disposition in times of budget-cutting, and found a common theme...those wood collections that exist in public and institutional hands seem to be slowly but surely disappearing. Fortunately, not in Pennsylvania.

Robert's favorite tree on his spread...a lemon-scented gum, Corymbia citriodora. When you crush the leaves between your fingers, you get the freshest, most pleasant smell of lemon. Easy to see why it's a favorite.

Out back in the outback.
On a walkabout on Maryvale station.

A porch I'll always remember.

A few cants were sawn for the wood-workers in attendance on this Lucas mill, an amazingly adaptable portable mill that can saw really large diameter logs.
Easily the best picture I took on the trip. Two of the Crichton grandkids, enjoying our presence in that carefree way only three and four-year-olds can grasp.
After doing a short walkabout of the property around the house, it was time for a barbeque. The Crichtons, with the help of some of their neighbors, put on a feast of beef and local delicacies that we enjoyed as we watched the sun set on the Queensland horizon. A really great day had drawn to a close.

A couple of days later, I caught up with Robert, and he graciously agreed to tell me a little more about what it's like to be a cattleman these days in Australia. I think you'll find the conversation interesting, and somewhat familiar, no matter where you live.
GoWood: You've lived on the station for your whole life. What are the biggest changes from the time of your youth in both culture and stewardship of the land?
Robert Crichton: Certainly. Some of the biggest changes I've seen are the number of people we can support. When I was eighteen I came home from school, and the place was twice as big as I've got now, but it supported four families, my father's family and the families of the support staff. Not only were there the four families but there were several single people as well. I think that's the most significant change, the number of people that actually live on the the station, and that's very typical of most of the places out here.
GW: How many acres are on the station now?
RC:  Fifty-five thousand.
GW: What about the productivity of the land?
RC: That's another very significant change, and that's all about the first big change, changing from sheep to cattle. When we could no longer run sheep because of the dingo problem, plus the fact that the price of wool was not particularly high, we moved to cattle because the dingoes did not impact the cattle herds as much. It was terrible, the cost it was, particularly for breeders. We bred sheep at home until we could no longer keep our numbers up, then we tried buying sheep to make an effort to keep up, and that didn't work, so we gave in and moved to cattle.
GW: If the dingoes hadn't become a problem, would the sheep still been profitable enough to run?
RC: Well, that's another question as well, but I think we probably would have, because there is sheep country and there is cattle country, and we were in a better wool area than for cattle in a lot of ways. Although today, with all the supplements that are available to feed the cattle, to make use of the pasture, and all the mulga we have that the cattle that convert, cattle make more sense now.
GW: Nick Swadling mentioned that on his place he needs about thirty acres per head of cattle, is that about right at Maryvale?
RC: I think at home it's more acres per beast; I think if we could run a thousand animals that would be very good, and that would be fifty-five acres per beast, see? It depends on the area and the vegetation. With the problem we're facing currently, with this germination and thickening of younger mulga, which is so thick you can hardly walk through it, that's going to have a devastating effect when it matures to the point that it will be no longer available to the animals because it will be too high. 
GW: Our South Texas ranchers have had the same problem with mesquite...
RC: Yes, yes, same problem...I did some work some years ago, ten, twelve years ago with two government departments here, looking at the relationship between trees and grass, and the effect of the trees on the grass production. It was quite staggering, the increase of canopy cover, the extent to which it reduced the grass underneath. It's a lot more severe than a lot of people could understand.
GW: I understand the exclusion of fire has changed all the land dynamics in the country.
RC: Ohh, all of our vegetation is subject to fire to a certain degree, but I think I'd be reasonably correct in saying that the species that are most susceptible to fire are the areas that we're having the most problem, and mulga are highly susceptible to fire. It's a useful plant to have in terms of being a useful fodder tree, but you can have too much of it. If you have all mulga, with all the drought, you pasture is pretty questionable.
GW: Are you restricted by the government from burning the land to sufficiently produce pasture?
RC:  We're not prohibited from burning, we're prohibited from clearing a lot of it, it's a very complex situation...our biggest problem is not being able to self-manage.
GW: They've got a prescription, you've got to follow.
RC: Exactly, exactly...there have been laws introduced to conserve trees because of their carbon value, and there hasn't been a sufficient research effort into the impact of that on the total productivity of the land. 
GW: The policymakers are driven by a lot of conflicting agendas, and they come up with compromise regulations, which by definition of the word compromise means it's not the best solution for anybody.
RC: No, that's right. Well, here in Australia, particularly in Queensland, where we had in some cases no control over it [policy making]. I have here a free-hold property, which means we have free reign over it for a fifty-year period. And then all of a sudden they tell us that we can't touch the trees on it. And even though they admit that I own them, I'm not allowed to touch them...
GW: That would drive me crazy (laughing)...
RC:  (Not laughing) More than crazy...It has a big impact on us, because some people had cleared [for grazing] about ninety percent of their [land] before this hit us, but through circumstances of mine that were different, I hadn't cleared a big lot of it. I've only got about forty-five percent of my place cleared, and when the controls came upon us, those other folks were sitting pretty, because the controls had very little impact on their productivity or production, whereas in our case effectively fifty-five percent of our land is taken out of sustainable production.
GW: That's the tough thing about making natural resource policies, they tend to make them apply across all situations to keep them "fair", but everyone's situation is different.
RC: No, that's right. The Green movement, the Greens as we call them, which are a political party, have had a huge influence, even though in a lot of cases they don't have any actual seats in Parliament, but they become, because of our voting system which is called "preferential voting", gets very complicated because the fellow who runs second gets all the more minor parties added to his total, and he becomes the winner with a bunch of small groups of folks who have tremendous influence over him.
GW: So you wind up with an attack on private property rights by small groups of people who don't own that land, resulting in all sorts of overbearing and questionable land use regulations. I don't think we've had that in the States as bad as you've got it here, but the impact we're seeing is that of increasing property taxes forcing people to subdivide and ultimately give up their land, often "donating" it under passive coercion to green organizations for the tax breaks available for donations to those organizations.
RC: Yes...I remember when these things started to hit us maybe some twenty years ago, when some of these laws were first introduced, I remember saying to one of the managers in a government department, that I wouldn't see it in my time, but the demand for food by the human race on this planet will override some of these decisions that are being made and forced upon us. It's not coming yet, but it's a worry. 
GW: Yes, it is. 
RC: I want to go back to our change from sheep to cattle, the impact that is different because the way the animals actually graze the trees. When the mulga trees were little, the sheep used to eat up all the little trees, but the cattle only take a mouthful off the top and leave the side, which changes the structure of the tree [causes it to spread more densely at ground level] until the browse finally reaches above the heads of the cattle, at which point the cost of sustaining the cattle is greatly increased. I think in our country we're very, very sadly seeing a lot of degradation now because of this factor, and it's going to take a lot of correcting, because it's gone so far is some areas.
GW: We visited an olive plantation..do you see a future for nut and fruit crops in the outback?
RC: Yeah, look, they do some of that on a small scale, but I just don't think it's economical here yet...maybe one day. It's interesting you asked that question...in 1965, fifty years ago now, we had a little oil well drilled on the property by a little oil company from Texas, Orion Oil company..
GW: I remember the company.
RC: Two of their senior executives came out here while they were drilling these holes, and one of their comments was, "Why aren't you growing fruit trees here?" Their first impression of the soils, the climate, it's fruit-growing country. But we're just too far away from market.
GW: Yeah, you really have some distances out here. Maybe you could put an airstrip out on the ranch and just fly them straight out...
RC: Well, I don't know that I could grow enough to make an airplane land out here...
GW: You might have to have your own airline (laughing)...
RC: Yeah, well, look, a lot of those concepts are brought up, but there aren't many of them really feasible.
GW; One last question then. You mentioned out at the station, you're looking into the future, your daughter's families aren't going to live on the station...
RC: No, I'm going to sell the place, because I know their families can carry on, so it will be sold and we'll move on. Which will be a pity, because I've spent my whole life there, and after I've made the decision...
GW: I know how hard the decision must be. I've seen your beautiful little grandchildren. 
RC: Well, no, no, that's right...but there are changes that are occurring in social structure, too,
GW: I guess you think about all the changes you had to put up with over the years, and you hate to think that your children, and grandchildren, would have to go through even more of that.
RC: Look, I think it's a matter of really being sensible, and looking at the opportunities. And the opportunities are there, but the economics aren't. And the asset I've got here would be far better employed somewhere else.  So, to ask my grandchildren, or my son-in-laws, even, to take it on...
GW: Would be like inviting them to captain a sinking ship, I suppose.
RC: Exactly. They all have business enterprises of their own, and doing very well, and to come back and take over for me, or buy it from me, would be asking them to take over something that's nowhere near the sort of enterprise they need to be involved with.
GoWood: Well, thank you for sharing all that with us, Robert. It's been great to spend time at Maryville and to get a personal perspective to be a station owner in these days.
Robert Crichton: You're welcome. Come back and visit us again some time.
I'll be there again one day soon...at least in my dreams.

2 comments:

David C Clark said...

Great and accurate article about the negative effect that the Greens are having on the rural economy. What the Crichtons have experienced is endlessly repeated across Australia. Our voting system has allowed fringe parties to dominate Australia's future as an agricultural powerhouse. City based activists, with no real knowledge of the economics of food production force environmental changes that are crippling the country.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interview. It adds a lot to the whole experience of having been there as well as offering more insight for those who were not.
Don Lown