Retired Krowera farmer Les Kirk, 89, has always been a practical man. At school, books never stood a chance against the allure of a Fergie tractor.
“I hated school, I really did. All I ever wanted to do was be a farmer,” he confesses.
His apprenticeship was a tough one. His father left home during the Depression to find work on the wharves and was killed, crushed by falling equipment. Young Les, the eldest boy, was just nine years old.
“My mother was left with five kids and the farm,” he says. “We milked about 18 cows; that was your living at the time. Mum used to lease out most of the 100 acres and we kids’d milk our four or five cows before and after school. We separated the milk and took the cream to the road by horse sledge. It was picked up in a four-wheel covered wagon by Hughie Henry and he’d take it to the Loch railway station and put it on the train to Korumburra.”
The kids’ work didn’t stop there. They were always cutting wood and slashing ferns. In those days, the farm was covered in weeds and ringbarked trees with patches of grass here and there. “We certainly knew how to cut blackberries. If you could cut ’em five or six times a year you could probably destroy ’em.”
At the time, Gippsland was overrun by rabbits: not hundreds, Les points out, but thousands. “I used to go spotlighting with my brother and if we didn’t get 150 we had a bad night. It wasn’t until myxo came in we got on top of them. The damage those rabbits did to the grass ... It was amazing what the myxo did for Gippsland. The rabbits were gone within three to four months and the grass just regenerated. You went from 18 to 40 cows straight away.”
The education of young Les took on greater point when he left school. “The day I turned 14, I said to Mum: ‘Buy me a pair of horses and a plough and I’ll clean the place up,’ and that’s what I did.” Fourteen, lacking the knowledge a normal farm kid gleans daily from his dad, and adult responsibilities: there was a lot of ground to make up. “I can’t remember my father,” Les says.
He never forgot the men who stepped in to help. Their neighbour, Jack Gane, was a stalwart. “If I needed advice I always went to him.”
There were also some crucial one-off lessons. “When I first started ploughing, the bloke that was running the mail, Bernie Rowse, stopped the cart and said, ‘Those horses are working their guts out!’ and I said, ‘Yeah’. And he said, ‘You’re ploughing too deep.’ And so I changed the way I was ploughing. When I went to his funeral I said to myself, ‘There goes a bloke who showed me how to plough a paddock when I was 14 years old’.”
As his resources grew, he turned his attention to jobs he’d never been able to tackle, like the old ringbarked trees. “The quickest way was to put a plough through ’em. The Fergie tractor done the job there. The dead timber you got rid off by charring. You’d set fire to the stump and cover it with dirt. It could burn for weeks.”
The family were poor but they never went hungry; they always had spuds and rabbits. His mother was never able to afford a car. If they went anywhere, a neighbour took them. “When you wanted to go to a dance you’d throw a chaff bag on the back of a draught horse.”
The farm took on a different meaning again when he brought his new wife home and started his own family.
Jean Kirk was a Poowong girl employed at the local butter factory (“We wrapped butter by hand. You got used to it, the cold hands.”) when Les first saw her. “I seen this girl on the dance floor and I reckoned she was all right. I said to my sister, ‘Find out who she is’, and that’s how it started. I can tell you what she was wearing. She had a nice coloured blouse and a skirt on.”
“It was a blue, pleated skirt,” says Jean.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” says Les. “Sixty-five years of happy marriage.”
“Well, 65 in October if we make it,” says Jean, who likes to keep a rein on the facts.
With a family of his own to focus his energies, getting the best productivity from his farm became a daily mission. Like the business of supplementing feed when the grasses died. “You had to know when to sew your paddocks down to grasses and how to store the cut grass to feed out over summer and autumn. Early on we used to grow crops of oaten hay, cut it with a reaper and binder, then you’d stook it and leave it to cure.” Silage, the richest, most nutritional feed, was different. “You’d make a wedge-shape stack, cover it with tyres to seal and cook it and then feed it out in January and February.”
He’s seen the lot: haystacks, wire-tied bales, automatic string-tied bales and now round bales weighing up to a tonne.
At the point they were milking about 80 to 90 cows, he and Jean sold their dairy herd and went into beef production. Over the last 20 years on the farm, they grew and contracted hay.
Now, long since retired and living down the road in Loch, Les enjoys his walk down to the general store to get the morning paper. With eight grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren, he and Jean have time to appreciate the bigger picture. He’s proud to think his granddaughter and her partner now run the much-expanded property he worked for so long, the original weed-infested, rabbit-ridden 100 acres that he took on as a boy.
But the picture keeps growing. He’s recently been musing on some family history his daughter-in-law has brought to light – the family history he’d always assumed had started with him, in his own boyhood.
Now he knows that his mother’s father, David Harris, born in Maldon in 1859, arrived in South Gippsland by 1882. Aged just 23, David pegged out a selection in the forest at Krowera and, granted a licence, put up a two-roomed paling and galvanised iron-roofed house. He was one of the first and youngest pioneers in the region.
One of his three children, Gertrude, married Les’s dad, Mark Kirk, whose forebears were Scottish ploughmen. It was this land, this tradition, that Les had inherited and, in turn, passed on.
It amazes Les just to think about this. “The young ones will never know what the land was like when I started ─ the amount of work that had to be done to bring in a living was amazing ─ just as I’ll never understand what it was like for my grandad in the 1880s.”
Most satisfying of all is the continuity of ownership and care. “To think that it’s stayed in the family for all these years, the farm, that tradition of work. Five generations!” He shakes his head as he thinks about this extraordinary history and his place in it. “To think that we’re a part of that first selector who came into the area, a part of the earliest days. The way we worked on it to clean it up when we were not much more than kids. To hand it down and for it still to be in the family’s interest. It makes you feel that it’s all been worthwhile, the effort you’ve put in.”
He thinks some more, and says: “It makes you feel that it hasn’t been lost.”