January 28th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Company tax proposal just made for Trump

EDITORIAL Trump installed but the left refuses to accept it

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens' footprints all over travel claims

U.S. POLITICS Team Trump to implement new President's agenda

INTELLIGENCE Lame report on Russian interference in U.S. poll

ENVIRONMENT The scientific myth within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

EUTHANASIA Case for assisted suicide "not made": Daniel Mulino

OPINION Submission is the fit word, Tim, not humility

OBITUARY WA loses NCC founding member, Frank Malone

GENDER POLITICS Safe Schools Coalition versus child safe schools

RURAL LIFE Sandalwood a balm for forgotten farmers

MUSIC Swing low and deep: it don't mean a thing if it don't have that

BOOK REVIEW The tyranny of the offended

BOOK REVIEW Not quite perfect but worth a revisit

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Sandalwood a balm for forgotten farmers

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, January 28, 2017

They call this Wodjil land. It’s sandy, dusty and very pale and not much good for growing crops.

The name “Wodjil” is likely to be associated with the Noongar name for white fellas, “wodjila”. The Noongars inhabited the southwest of Western Australia for some 45,000 years before the white fellas arrived. This Wodjil land now mainly bears stunted acacias. Of the acacias, Old Man Wodjil stands out.

Sandalwood logs.

Few indigenous people can be seen around Gabbin these days. In the spring, the golden wattles provide a splash of colour. The cape weeds – city slickers call them dandelions – are also yellow, as are the canola flowers. In late spring, the Wheatbelt is a pretty pastiche of gold and shades of green. The rains were good in 2016, making it one of the best seasons in years.

The land around Gabbin in Western Australia’s northeastern Wheatbelt was surveyed for settlement in 1918. The Huxleys began farming at Gabbin in 1922. It’s marginal land; it always has been. When you get good rains, like last year, you get a respectable crop; otherwise, forget it. That hasn’t changed in almost a century.

The Huxleys had a reunion at the family farm in Gabbin. Laurita Babb, the oldest surviving Huxley, unveiled a plaque honouring her pioneering ancestors at the site of the original Huxley homestead. Bob Huxley, his wife Ros and his sister and her family still farm the original acreage.

Laurita Babb is 94. When she visited Gabbin as a child, the farm was a thriving enterprise. Nothing remains of the farmhouse except some discarded machinery and the water-raddled mud bricks of which the now collapsed homestead was constructed. The adobe house has returned to the original earth.

In 2012 at a “Back to Gabbin” community event celebrating the opening of the signposted Historical Walk around the town, Laurita Babb planted one of four commemorative trees acknowledging the courage and spirit of the early members of the community.

Sin, sun, sand and sore eyes

Looking across the fields of waving wheat, oats, golden canola and other crops, one could hardly believe that this state was called, until recently, the “land of sin, sun, sand and sore eyes”. From the current season, farmers have delivered almost 17 million tonnes of grain to the silos – probably, a record crop for West Australian grain growers. The return to the growers will be over $4 billion, making it one of the state’s top export industries. Some four and half thousand farms, almost all family owned, are spread across the Wheatbelt, from Northampton in the north to Esperance in the south.

The organisation that took this bountiful crop to market is CBH – Cooperative Bulk Handling, the largest farmer-owned cooperative enterprise in Australia. Recent moves to corporatise CBH by showering its grower-owners with quick cash failed dismally. Western Australians do not trust “Eastern Staters” much, especially those with bad reputations, such as GrainCorp, one of the prime movers in the takeover bid.

There are two models for privatised farmer-owned cooperatives. The first is WA’s own Wesfarmers, the conglomerate that owns Coles Supermarkets and a host of other enterprises. When it was floated on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) in 1984, Wesfarmers made instant millionaires out of many farming families, who had held the stock since the days when it was valued at a few cents, not dollars.

For years, like its farmer owners, Westralian Farmers Cooperative Ltd – as Wesfarmers was known till it was listed on the ASX – struggled to keep afloat. Wesfarmers has proved to be a durable entity. On the other hand, the Murray-Goulburn privatisation has been disastrous for the Victorian dairy industry. The cause of the problem at Murray-Goulburn was managerial incompetence. The privatised entity lost touch with its primary stakeholders, the dairy farmers, who are battling a downturn in world dairy product markets and who had made investments on the basis of incorrect forecasts.

Bill Huxley, Laurita Babb’s uncle, was on the board of CBH for a quarter of a century. He was a shrewd man with a keen business head, as well as being a good farmer. His son Bob boarded at Aquinas College at Salter Point, on the river in Perth’s southern suburbs. Bob did well enough to get into Agricultural Science at the University of Western Australia (UWA), but UWA didn’t suit him. He was at various times a social worker and a professional fisherman, before he returned to the farm.

Defying the saying: “farmers live poor and die rich”

In the bush, they say “farmers live poor and die rich”. The Huxley farm has been whittled away by selling land to pay the necessary bills incurred during the inevitable droughts. The rains don’t always reach Gabbin. Even so, Bob has been something of an inspiration to his neighbours. The Wodjil soils, which are so poor for crops, are great for sandalwood. Now Bob is known as the “sandalwood guru of Mount Marshall”.

The Wheatbelt must make the best of every product it has to moderate its decline. The native sandalwood is parasitic; it must attach itself to other trees to thrive. It was cropped by sandalwood pullers in days gone by. The sandalwood pullers would comb the bush for mature trees and then pull them out. Sandalwood grows in semi-arid areas, such as the Goldfields. The area around Gabbin and Bencubbin is marginal land for grain, but it’s great for sandalwood.

Sandalwood is used to make the sweet-scented incense so characteristic of Asian temples, and also for aromatic oils and fragrances. These days, it is also used for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The prized part of the sandalwood tree is the roots; they have the most oil. Sandalwood poachers will usually take only the branches, and leave the roots behind.

Bob Huxley now has hundreds of acres of his farm planted to sandalwood. The sandalwood and the host trees, planted together, are thriving. The host trees are mostly acacias, which are adapted to the semi-arid environment. He is taking no chances with climate change and is storing the seeds of drought-tolerant host tree species as a precaution. The plantation aims to replicate the native bushland.

The story of the Huxley farm and the once thriving town of Gabbin should be told. Gabbin is midway between the larger centres of Koorda and Bencubbin. These two towns survive, but like most of the Wheatbelt, it’s rare to see people on the street. Even the petrol stations are automated.

The only usable structure remaining in Gabbin is the community hall, which was restored recently to host the “Back to Gabbin” weekend. The hall is structurally sound and the creaking stage still has an ancient piano, warped and woefully out of tune. There’s talk of pigeon-proofing the hall. The birds make a terrible mess.

The one-teacher school closed down years ago. It must have been a lonely posting for a young teacher straight out of teachers’ college, but in those days, before television came to the bush, they say young people made their own fun.

If you ask the locals what the Wheatbelt needs most, they will say “people”. Up until the early 1950s, there was no money in wheat. Then came growing markets in Europe and Asia, plus the useful spinoff of wool during the Korean War, when the price of wool, sold at auction, went through the roof. A farm could support the farmer and his family; children were useful, they could do things around the farm.

Many farms could also support a farm labourer and his family; women often found work in the town in service occupations – cleaning, working behind a bar or in the post office or general store. The town would have three or four service stations with mechanics, a bakery, a railway gang, grain silos, one or two schools, government and Catholic, three or four stock and station agents. Seasonal labour was in demand for seeding and harvesting; for many, it became a source of year-round employment.

Those employed in the Wheatbelt towns – some 18,000 to 19,000 people – were often refugees and displaced persons from Europe, who took a punt on Australia often because it was a long way from Europe’s seemingly intractable hatreds and conflicts. A camp in Australia, with its prospects of steady improvement, was far better than a camp in Germany.

The Wheatbelt was at its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Korean War wool boom gave farm incomes a shot in the arm. In the early 1960s, new markets, such as China, were opening up. The world would buy everything Australia could produce. Australian wheat saved many Chinese from starvation during the Great Leap Forward.

But slowly people began to drift away from the country. Farming was becoming mechanised; hydraulic power was replacing muscle power. No more bagging wheat; CBH turned grains from a solid to a liquid.

People began to move to the cities. Perhaps it was the brighter lights. Farms grew bigger, as in a form of agricultural involution, neighbour bought out neighbour. Farms grew and people left.

Wheat quotas in the early 1970s caused hardship in the bush. Wool was in a slump. Farms could no longer support a family.

Today, one can drive through even larger Wheatbelt towns without seeing a soul in the streets; there is just an eerie silence. When the football team folds, it’s the beginning of the end for the town. Local traders will often sponsor football players from the city just to keep the town alive – no people, no business.

The sandalwood guru

From start to finish, it takes around 25 years for an investment in sandalwood to mature. Most Australians don’t have the patience for an investment like that. Asian investors do, however.

Huxley has sold some plantations to overseas investors and manages plantations on behalf of other Asian investors. Perhaps they are just amazed by the fact that you can buy an acre of land in Gabbin for around half of what you spend on your weekly groceries.

Bob Huxley has become the “sandalwood guru of Mount Marshall” through study and experimentation. Wodjil soil is poor for grain but good for sandalwood. Huxley is making use of an underutilised resource that would otherwise be almost wasteland. The sandalwood plantations need to be maintained; that provides work and spreads some money around the area.

As for an investment, sandalwood needs people who take a long view. The market is there; sandalwood has a multiplicity of uses. The wait will be long, but it is likely to pay off in the end for those who are patient.

Jeffry Babb is the great-grandson of Robert James Huxley, founder of Dudley Farm at Gabbin, WA.

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