The Last Dairy Farmer

Merv Williamson. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Merv Williamson. Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

Merv Williamson has been photographed many times. Various local papers and rural magazines have told his story as the last dairy farmer in the Whittlesea area. His kitchen wall is covered with photocopy’s of images of him and Mary, posing with members of his herd of fresian cows, all of which have names. However he shifts uncomfortably in his couch as the camera is switched to video mode. “I wouldn’t want your job for quid’s he mutters, before cryptically adding,

“I’m not too flash with the technology, not really a TV person you see!”

Merv and Mary Williamson are old-fashioned and they like it that way. Born of an era where hard work and toil was worn like a badge of honour, the 77 and 79 year olds still rise at 4.30am, 360 days a year to round up and milk the herd. The milking shed is old and weathered but still serves its purpose well. ”We’ve been successful and that’s nice,” offers Mary as our faces bask in the rising suns  warmth. “But it’s just so beautiful here in the morning. We get to see the best sunrise.”

Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

The Kinglake ranges, razed by the Black Saturday bushfire in 2009, stand proud looking down over the valley where the Williamsons dairy farm, green and lush from the winter rains, holds back the ever widening sprawl of housing developments, 50 kilometre’s north of Melbourne.

“This farms been in my family for 104 years. My parents were so kind as to give it to Merv and I when they moved on and we’ve been here ever since.” Married in 1959 Merv and Mary have known nothing but the farm. When quizzed about the solitude and isolation of being a dairy farmer in this area Merv says with a drawl,

“Lonely, no I’ve never been lonely. I like to work alone; it’s just the way I like to do things. Anyway’s I couldn’t get help even if I wanted. Anyone who could help has moved on.”

And isolated he is. Theirs is the last operating dairy farm in the Whittlesea area, providing milk to a local cheese factory. After rising at the crack of dawn, he musters the herd into the yard where one at a time he gets the cows into one of eight stalls, tethers a leg and hooks the cups. After all 46 cows are done, the clean up begins as Mary makes her way to the house to ’do all the women’s jobs’ as she puts it. The tanker comes and drains the milk vats, some breakfast is eaten,

“then there’s always something to do, strip feed the paddock, feed the calves, tractor work. Then it’s back at it again in the afternoon. Herd the cows, milk the cows…”

Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

What would seem like a tedious and controlled lifestyle to most, Merv thrives on it. “He just loves it,” says Mary, who needs Merv to take her to Melbourne for a regular checkup on her eyesight, which has started to fail her. “ He wants to keep going, but I’m getting older, I don’t know if I can do another winter.” She admits as Merv skillfully evades the new bull.

With not much social time, “I find the job relaxing!” exclaims Merv; the couple still finds time to be involved in the Whittlesea Agricultural Show. Merv s Holsteins are part of the milking demonstration and Mary still sits on the board.

Mary also has a keen interest in fashion. “ I always dreamt of being in, what we use to call the rag trade, and still love checking the latest fashions. I use to love dressing up my grand-daughters.” Merv and Mary have two children, one of each. Their daughter is a schoolteacher and their son, not surprisingly, a dairy farmer. “He always wanted to work on the land,” says Merv. “ We never forced him or anything, but it’s a good life.” Convenient too, as he tends Merv’s farm when Merv and Mary head on their annual five days off. “They’ve still got to be milked, so its handy I guess”

Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

Always smiling, Merv’s temperament is unflappable. He operates at one pace. A pace that has seen them stave off drought, fire and flood. All the while operating a financially viable business. As decreases in profitability and increased land values are forcing farmers into alternate occupations, Merv and Mary’s ongoing success is one of simplicity “Put money aside. Its hard for some, but if you’ve got a little bit of a storage of money it helps you through the bad times and droughts, which everyone encounters, no matter where they are in Victoria.”

Merv sees the face of farming changing from full-scale farms to smaller holdings. “I don’t think farms are closing exactly, they are getting smaller, like hobby farms. People are working in Melbourne and farming on the weekends. Only the future will determine what happens here though.”

Merv’s dairy farm is located in one of Melbourne’s outer suburban growth areas, which have seen the surrounding suburbs of Mernda and South Morang, grow at unprecedented levels. A population increase between June 2011 and June 2012 of almost 6000 has seen housing development in the area engulf what was, rich farmland. The City of Whittlesea had the second biggest growth nation-wide during 2011-12 according to the latest ABS statistics. However the farm is part of the “green wedge” which means it cannot be subdivided till 2030. Which at the current rate of progress Mary will be watching her sunrise over rooftops rather than the valley floor.

Although Melbourne’s impeding population boom is rapidly encroaching on the Williamsons farm, the last of its kind in a once rich dairy area, Mervs response is typically laconic:  “Well we’re not as young as we use to be, I guess we’ll take it day by day or maybe year by year and see.”

“It’s the best job in the world. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Chris Hopkins

 

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