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Title: The Martyr on the Land
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1202451h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2012
Date most recently updated: June 2012

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The Martyr on the Land
Arthur Gask

Published in The Advertiser, Adelaide, S.A., Monday 4 February, 1935.

In this arresting article, a former city dweller, who once cherished the comfortable belief that farming is a charming and profitable occupation, tells how he has learned the truth, and what bitter reflections it has engendered in his mind.

BEFORE me, upon my desk, lies a purchase-docket from one of the largest firms of cream-buyers in South Australia. It is dated December 18 last, and reads:—"Weight of cream, 25 lb.; cheque enclosed, 7/7." And this docket is symptomatic of the whole life story of the farmer of today.

Up to a year ago, living always in the cities, I regarded the plight of the farmer as being wholly due to his want of foresight and lack of business ability. Fair weather or foul, said I, he was always complaining; and, if he were now impoverished and in financial straits, it was because, among all classes of the community, he, least of all, had accommodated himself to the changed conditions of the times. He should count his blessings, I thought. He lived a free and glorious life in the open air; he was spared the strain and nervous tension of the city; he had the best of things to eat at his very door; and if, in the pursuit of his calling, he did occasionally meet with adverse conditions, then the good seasons must make up for the bad, and he must be thankful that he was in any employment at all!

That was a year ago. Since then, having lived with farmers, and with farmers only, I have changed my mind; and, indeed, have come to marvel at the man upon the land as a very patient, and, in the main, ungrumbling individual struggling manfully beneath a burden that it seems quite hopeless he will ever be able to bear.

At no time is there an occupation that offers more uncertain reward than the farmer's; and now the margin between profit and loss is so very small that his days are one continual round of harassing anxiety, with but the remotest chance of things coming out on the right side of the ledger at the end of the year.

The dweller in the city does not realise that from seed time unto harvest the farmer never knows from day to day what calamity may befall him, being never sure that in one short hour, almost, he will not lose the fruit of a whole year's labor.

Sun, wind, and rain out of due season mean only a passing inconvenience to those in the city; but to the farmer they may, and very often do, spell absolute disaster.

Take that Black Monday of last month, for instance—December 17, the day of the most terrible dust storm within living memory. Adelaide folk, absorbing their iced drinks, could not know that in many districts it was being fatal to thousands of acres of unreaped oats, shaking out all the grain and leaving nothing but the empty stalks.


"While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest shall not cease," says Holy Writ; but that surely does not apply to the farmer in Australia. Seed-time, if you like. Seed-time with all the long days of heavy and patient toil that precede it: the ploughing, the harrowing, the cultivating and the cultivating again, but the harvest—ah, that is quite a different matter. The farmer is never certain, until the grain is actually in his barn, that there is going to be any harvest at all.

On that morning of December 17, a farmer near me was reaping a small crop of seven acres of oats that he sows every year as feed for his horses. His normal harvest from this little patch is 70 bags. The first time he went round with the harvester, he got two bags; then up came the wind, and he had to go round ten times to obtain the next two bags. In all, that day he harvested 10 bags of oats instead of the usual 70.

And that happening is just a very ordinary instance of the uncertainty of the farmer's life, for he is always at the mercy of the caprices of the elements. Drought, frost, hail, tempest, and the blast of the hot north wind, are for ever threatening him; and it is just a gamble that at least one of them does not injure him in some way or other during the course of each year.

After a good rain he may hopefully sow his seed. A light rain may then follow, and after that a drying wind may sweep down and bake the surface of the ground so hard that the sprouting grain will not be able to push its way through, so that the whole sowing will have to be done all over again. Or a dry spell may follow upon the seeding, and the seed malt and become useless.

Once more, the crop may come up and show all the promise of a good harvest. Then, just as it is maturing, a hard frost may ensue and kill the flower, and the whole crop be lost. Or, when the grain is in the head, a hailstorm may come and break all the heads off. Then, in sandy soils, a succession of hot winds may destroy everything, or, in heavier soils, so pinch the grains that they will become light and totally useless for making into flour.


Yet again, if the reaping of the ripened crop be retarded by days of continuous rain—as, indeed, has happened in many districts this year—the grain will become bleached, and, with the gluten washed out, of much poorer quality. Sometimes, even a total loss may follow by the grain starting to grow in the heads. Also, the winds may so flatten down the stalks that up to 50 per cent. of the crop may not be able to be gathered in the harvester. Much of the grain, too, may then have been shaken out, and, as we have seen in the case of oats, the whole of the crop may thus be lost.

Despite all this, I have by no means exhausted the hazards of a farmer's calling or the misfortunes that are continually befalling him. This year, in particular, has been a most unhappy one. Owing to the drought, there was no green feed for stock right up to the end of the winter; and, although a farmer might hand-feed his sheep with the wheat that he could so ill spare, many of the ewes became so weak that when they dropped their lambs they had no milk for them, and, in consequence, morning after morning, the paddocks were strewn with the bodies of the dead. Then, after the drought, came the plague of grasshoppers; and, in those districts where they arrived too late to ruin all the crops, they stripped bare the precious lucern and played havoc with the other kinds of feed, so that today in many places the farmers have already had to draw upon their winter stores of hay.


And even when all things are propitious from a seasonal point of view, what does the ordinary so-called mixed farmer get out of everything? Seven shillings and seven pence for 25 lb. of cream; 6d. a pound for butter; anything up to 5d. or 6d. a dozen for his eggs; and perhaps 2/ for a good fat fowl. He may feed a pig twice and even three times a day for six or seven months, and maybe think himself lucky if he collects 50/, or even only a couple of pounds. He will sell a calf as big as a Newfoundland dog, and perhaps get only 27/6 or 30/; and for a prime fat young sheep he may get anything from 15/ up to £1. As for his wheat, well, all the world knows what he gets for that; but how many people realise what its low price means to the man who produces it?

It is upon the wheat crop that the farmer depends mainly for his livelihood, and he labors all the year round to obtain it. Suppose he farms, as we do, in the lower north, and wheat is quoted at 2/6 a bushel, delivered at Port Adelaide. That means 7/6 for a bag of three bushels, or, deducting 7½d. for the one-twelfth he has used as seed, he will be receiving only 6/10½. it has cost him from 8d. to 9d. to buy each wheat bag, and, roughly, he has spent another 6d. upon the super he has had to use to obtain the three bushels. That brings the 6/10½ down to 5/7½. Deduct, then, another 4d. for the upkeep of his horses or his tractor, and it leaves him with 5/3½. After he has had the expense of carting the bag of wheat to the Burra railway station, he has to pay one shilling more for the freight charge to Port Adelaide, so, in the end, making no allowance for the ageing of his horses or the depreciation on his tractor or the repairs and replacements to his implements, he nets 4/3½ upon each bag, and, assuming that he averages six bags to the acre, which is a good average for good land up here, he receives the magnificent sum of 25/9 upon each acre.


If he has harvested 200 acres under the best of possible conditions, and has escaped all the disasters I have enumerated, the money he will receive for his entire crop will be only £257 10/, or, if the price of wheat keeps up to 2/9 a bushel, just over £300. Consider, too, that to reap 200 acres of wheat each year upon a mixed farm, the acreage of the farm must be at least 500 acres. Then think, quite apart from the £600 to £700 that he has expended upon his plant and implements, what he must have paid for 500 acres of good farming land. Almost certainly, at least £6,000; and, if that be so, it is more than probable that there is a mortgage running of £4,000, with £200 to pay each year in interest.

Then how can it be expected, at current prices, that he will ever be able to live and pay his way? Moreover, upon all sides he sees shrinking markets and a glutted world; a world that does not want his produce, and, indeed, could not pay for it if it did. Can it be that, instead of being the backbone of the Commonwealth, the farmer has become now its withered arm, needing constant and expensive treatment from the Treasury to support him upon the sick list? In any case, he is the victim of circumstances over which no one, and he least of all, has had any control; and it is not his fault if he stands today, a pathetic figure, silhouetted against the dusk of the one-time prosperity of the world—the martyr on the land.


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