WE ALL know about the tribulations of golf widows and long-suffering partners of footy tragics. I was recently introduced to another obsession that’s been around since the industrial revolution: the compulsive collector of agricultural implements. Farmers who just cannot resist clearing sales and swap meets, especially if within two days drive of the farm gate – though for many, interstate trips are not an obstacle.
Our next door neighbour, Greig Barry, is such a collector although probably more selective than most. He’s a dairy farmer who somehow finds time in a busy life to attend to his extensive collection of tractors and farm implements that are housed in his purpose-built shed. He confesses to keeping his shed to a size that copes with quality rather than quantity but it is still big by most standards.
Greig talks with knowledge and passion of the makes and models of tractors built down through the years as they changed with technology and buyer demand. He lists year of production, country of origin and the history of the mergers and splits between manufacturers. Names such as Fordson, Ferguson, Massey Harris and David Brown roll off the tongue. I am impressed by his knowledge. But “the old grey fergie” dominates the conversation. It would seem that every farmer owned one at some stage.
The fergie has many claims to fame. It appears on the New Zealand $5 note and their $1.50 stamp issued in 2008, to commemorate their use in Sir Edmund Hilary's expedition at the South Pole. Harry Ferguson (an Irishman by birth) and the Ferguson Black Tractor are featured on the £20 note issued by the Northern Bank in Northern Ireland. I see one framed among Greig's collection.
Closer to home, most of us have heard about the exploits of the South Gippsland Italian market gardeners preparing their hill country for planting. “The horse-drawn ploughs worked the steep land in circles but the Italians drove their fergies straight down from top to bottom,” Greig says.
In May 2003 the Guinness Book of Records listed a diesel fergie known as “Betsy” after it was driven 3176 miles around the coast line of Britain by Mr Terry Williams.
But here's a thing worthy of note: Greig tells a story of how his son Rob spent his long service leave travelling around Australia driving a 1962-63 Ferguson 135. The top speed was 42 kilometres per hour. It hardly stopped raining for the first four days and, with no cabin for shelter, Rob wondered if he was doing the right thing.
Months later, on the last day of his leave, he arrived back at his departure point, having covered more than 14,000 kilometres. He seeks no recognition for his accomplishment. The challenge was everything.
I hear many wondrous stories of the exploits of these tractor buffs. How one left his tractor mid-stream while trekking to Cape York Peninsular and waded to the far bank to capture the episode on film. That's when he saw the sign about the crocodiles. “He barely got his feet wet making it back to his tractor,” Greig says.
There are stories of the Cooktown to Cape York Peninsula trek, a 40-day return trip. Participants are warned it is not for the faint-hearted and it might be a good idea to give their fergie swimming lessons. Stories of teams crossing the Simpson Desert and yearly treks in the high country of Victoria …
Of collectors and enthusiasts gathering annually at Lake Goldsmith, near Beaufort, Victoria, to view steam working engines – those that provided power to sawmills and shearing sheds before the wonder and terror of electricity – and the biggest swap meets in Victoria, held at Ballarat and Bendigo, where you walk 12 kilometres between the rows of exhibits if you want to cover all that's on display.
The Ferguson Model TE20 was a British agricultural tractor and was Harry Ferguson's most successful design. Built from 1946-56, it was known as “the little grey fergie”. It became the first tractor for many Gippsland farmers as horses moved out and mechanical horsepower moved in. It has retained the romance of its time and is popular with the collectors of today. Development started back in 1916 and by the early 1930s a linkage (three-point hitch) design was finalised.
Just one prototype tractor known as the Ferguson Black was built and is housed at the Science Museum of London. There is also a fergie brown built in Yorkshire by the David Brown Company from 1936, but I am assured that despite the name they are all grey. The very early models ran on petrol but later versions were powered by petrol/paraffin, which in Australia was known as “power kero”. It seems Harry wasn't too keen on diesel engines, but a diesel model came out in the early 1950s.
As I listen to Greig, I realise it’s more than just the acquiring that's going on here. There is a sense of history in the air with many of these gatherers. They are not just accumulating, they are saving that which may be lost for all time. There is a feeling of reaching out to preserve memories of people and the working ways of people long gone.
Greig has his eye on a local tractor in case it should one day come on the market. “I know the family that own it and the country it has worked,” he says. Though he has another of the same model and vintage, this one has a personal story to tell, one that he is familiar with, placing it closer to his heart.
In the end it is a man's sort of thing. There are few women to be found poking around the dusty rows of hay rakes and balers. As one farmer's long-despairing wife put it, “When that time comes, the funeral will be at 11 and the clearing sale at 2.”
I hope the glint in her eye was one of humour and not of anticipation.