Pieces of the puzzle

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together gives insight to my inherent affinity for farmers.

I’m often asked why I love coffee so much, in particular the farmers whom I idolise. I wasn’t raised on a coffee farm, nor have I travelled to countries within the coffee belt. This hasn’t hindered my lifelong interest in the journey coffee takes before it arrives in my cup. Perhaps it’s because I come from a family of farmers, and I understand that goods don’t just magically grow on supermarket shelves. My grandparents, father & relatives spent their early years in Myrtleford trying to make a living growing tobacco.  Much like coffee, tobacco was an intensive manual labour crop. I’ve spent countless hours listening to both my nonna & dear cousin Bruno voice the hardship they endured, and it left me with a bittersweet sense of sadness & gratitude.

My family lived in old sheds with dirt floors, unless they were lucky enough to take refuge in derelict houses. They had to collect & chop wood each morning to heat wood combustion stoves for cooking & making coffee. There was no electricity, and kids would spend their evenings entertaining themselves; some by killing flies with homemade rifles that shot preserving jar elastic seals.

Those fortunate enough to live in houses had only cold water sourced from old tanks. There were no showers, and only old bath tubs they’d fill with water collected from a nearby creek. At bath time, everyone used the same water. A hole in the ground covered with an old wooden cubicle served as a toilet, and old newspaper was used as toilet paper.

When tobacco season began, seeds were sown and constantly monitored & watered, and steps were put in place to avoid mould, fungus, and pests. Farmers worked in gangs helping each other in the scorching heat. Pests ran rampant, especially green caterpillars that could kill a plant in days. Insecticides were manually scattered onto crops, and once trees became too tall, paddocks were sprayed by crop dusting planes. Children would be used to signal dropping points to pilots by waving a white rag tied to the end of a stick. They ended up being covered in deadly chemicals, and if they didn’t duck in time, they risked being struck by the planes wheels.

Once crops were fully grown, gangs of farmers would walk through endless rows filling their aprons with the leaves that were later sent to the women at the sheds who tied the tobacco in bundles, which would then be loaded into kilns.  Drying was a delicate process, and if not done correctly, would lead to mould growth.

Tobacco was graded in cold dusty conditions, and baled into 100kg bundles awaiting transportation to sale yards in Melbourne. All that hard work, and ultimately my family’s income was decide in minutes by a few auctioneers representing the interests of cigarette companies. Life was tough enough, but there was always a constant fear of crop failure, disease, drought, or hailstorms that would destroy my family’s livelihood.

This is but a short account of decades of hardship and suffering, which eventually become the soil for their lifelong resilience.


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