It was some ghastly hour in a miserable morning; raining and cold, and there was Kym McHugh standing in cow dung happy as Larry. “It’s a beautiful morning,” he says. Maybe he feels comfort in just waking up.
“Good boy,” he says to Snap, a black and tan Kelpie named after a bloke nicknamed Snapper, who gave him the dog. Like countless days before, and rest assured tomorrow, Snap herded 240 Jersey cows into the yard and watched each one file in the same order to be milked as they do every day, twice-a-day all year round.
No one is quite sure how these cows know their place in the line – it happens at other dairies too – but then, on the family Duncraig Farm, on the Goolwa-Mount Compass road, no one can understand how Kym always remains positive about the day’s outcome either.
In his other life as Mayor of Alexandrina Council – he calls that his full-time job with some weeks demanding 40 hours – Kym was at a Rotary function the previous night and was looking forward to another community show that day followed by one of the countless meetings at council. The gratuities are so insufficient.
And all through this pre-dawn daily chore in a milking shed with suction pumps going for almost three hours, not once did Kym complain, not even about his arthritis from his football days as an accomplished ruckman (he says a very ordinary one) with Mount Compass that has left him on a waiting list for a knee replacement.
Our pioneers forged this country on farming with pockets of settlements brought together functioned by the local people for the local people under the guise of local government, and in this modern day it is humbling that someone could be so heavily entwined in both. Brian Hurn, the Mayor of Barossa Council, is also a farmer, but he will retire later this year.
And, even Kym was surprised to learn that this is his 25th year in local government, including as mayor since 1995 with the Port Elliot and Goolwa Council, and from then when it was restructured to form the Alexandrina Council.
This is the last of our 12-month heritage series, and with the Fleurieu Peninsula built on a platform of farms and community spirit, it seemed fitting to focus on someone who inherited an amazing passion for both from his grandfather, Frank, who was a dairy farmer in New Zealand, his father Lance, who settled her in the 1930s, and his mum Betty, whose brother Jim ran a dairy across the road.
“Part of all this now is about our future; the future of our young people and generations to come,” Kym said, referring to the fact he and his wife, Heather, who gets the cows in, feeds the calves and does the farm bookwork, have three children and eight grandchildren. And four of the tackers – Joe, Sam Henry and Tom – do their little jobs and Kym has a glint in his eye when he speaks of one or two perhaps destined to become fifth generation McHugh dairy farmers.
There is every chance the tradition will continue on this 600 acre property, but after all these years Kym said he feels for the young ones who may not have an entrée into farming on the peninsula.
“A lot of the young people these days start off as share farmers and build up a herd, but with the cost of farming land and stock it is really hard,” Kym said.
“There is not the real value; it has been inflated by professional people buying up properties for livestock living in the city and coming down for the weekends and tending to a few beef cows. I can understand why, but unfortunately it has over inflated farming land and put it out of reach for the would-be farmers. It is also hard for the long-time farmers to buy more land and expand.”
Kym has seen the dramatic changes in the dairy industry across the Fleurieu Peninsula, and now his son Ben is working on its continued viability and growth having recentlty been appointed to the board of the South Australian Dairyfarmers Association.
“I can remember my dad making more money from trapping rabbits than he did from milking cows,” Kym said.
“Years ago it was more hands on; a lot harder labour wise. When I came home from school we milked 60 cows and employed two people. Now the costs are higher and the returns (per cow) are not as great.
“It is an industry that has been modernised, like automatic cup removers that, when they come off, they sanitise the cow’s udder as well as the machine.”
Kym’s jerseys are also bigger than those of years gone by, thanks to American and Canadian genetics, and when asked why there was no bull cruising by the milking yard railings he suggested to go inside and look into a tank of liquid nitrogen.
“I love doing this dairy farm routine; you have to,” Kym said. “It’s a lifestyle, but it’s also about believing in the need to produce our own food and do it really well in our clean, green environment. This is our future as a nation, and I am serious about that.
“You need people to produce food. It is a noble thing to do. If you think about essentials in life there are only four – food to nourish ourselves, fibre to clothe ourselves, air and water.
“It is easy to take life and the environment for granted living here in South Australia; it is special. Look at somewhere like South Korea with 50 million people on that small peninsula – an unbelievable density of people and they are really worried about their food security in the future.
“We can produce food right here in our back door… Asia is so close and looking for food. As more Asian people move into more middle class and have more disposal dollars they are looking for clean green food from Australia.
“Across our Fleurieu Peninsula, tourism is important, of course, but agriculture is probably the biggest industry, as it would be in a lot of the regional areas. People can drive from the city and enjoy our lovely environment.
“I was always destined to work on the farm, and I would not have it any other way.”
When reminded that this was his 25th year in local government, Kym’s dry humour emerged: “I must have done something horribly wrong to get that sentence”. He added: “Local government was an extension of what I was doing in the community… schools, sporting clubs, the local RSL. I have not regretted a minute.
“Like everything else, local government has changed. There is a lot more involved these days; more regulation and probity, consultation and those sorts of things. It has become more important because of what the state government has handed down to local government.
“I have always felt that we have all got a responsibility to put something back in the community. It’s all about people and your community. People going about their day doing good things; you just have to look at our volunteers; extraordinary effort. It’s about supporting them, and looking after and building upon our community assets for future generations.
“We have council elections in November, and we encourage people to think about it now. We need people from diverse backgrounds, younger people and more females. We need people who are interested in their community – and it’s better to have a broad interest. Most people find it rewarding.
“I do what I do because of the belief I have in our community. This farm is all about improving things from when you found them – we’re planting trees and doing all sorts of things – and the community is the same because we don’t want to leave it with run-down assets.
“I love this part of the world. I see the Fleurieu Peninsula as one region, not so much with boundaries. It has got everything; the lakes, the river and the sea. We have beautiful coastline and landscape, and drive through Langhorne Creek when the vines are at their best or see the crops growing to see what we really have.
“It’s how you see things through your own eyes. We’re here on this dairy farm on a beautiful morning and we don’t know what the day is going to bring for us; that’s exciting.”
However, we can safely predict another community function, more cups of tea and an assortment of triangular sandwiches, all of which he loves, followed by more council matters. Kym says he wouldn’t change a thing along his journey, no matter how repetitive the cold mornings may seem to those of us who enter his world of serenity on the farm that he shares with Snap. It is nice, but sadly it’s no longer a place for a once brazen bull. Such is life.