He lives where he farms, on the Darling River near Bourke, and this alone tends to set him apart. He's elderly, softly spoken, with a slight western drawl, and takes any opportunity to make a self-deprecating aside about his farming expertise. He's reflective, not reactionary, and this is probably why the good journalists often find their way to him when they report from a town that has long represented the quintessential ‘rural' locale in the Australian popular imagination.
I met Neville two years ago, when a colleague and I drove to Bourke to undertake research in the library's local-history collection. We'd also planned to fit in some time walking the floodplains, as well as hiking and camping at Mt Gundabooka National Park.
Over the past two years, I have been travelling the Macquarie Marshes and Barwon-Darling country, researching the history of agricultural and conservation science. Speaking to people like Neville, and wandering through the country, offers the chance for a better understanding of rural place, agriculture and the environment than could ever be achieved by listening to headline-grabbing lobbyists, politicians and agro-industrial input suppliers – those who say they speak for and want to improve the lot of farmers and rural communities, but who are motivated by a desire for votes and money, and who are working on a national or international scale, not an ecological or bioregional one.
Take the National Party's John Cobb, the Shadow Minister for Agriculture. ‘Why has the Rudd Government declared war on the town of Bourke?' he asked, after the British-owned Clyde Agriculture sold the iconic Toorale Station to the federal and New South Wales governments in 2008. Toorale, at the junction of the Warrego and Darling rivers, is conspicuous for its squattocracy and corporate-farming heritage, as well as for being the place where Henry Lawson spent a month working as a rouseabout in 1892. The federal government has taken Toorale's water entitlements, and NSW National Parks is managing the 91,000 hectares of land. According to Cobb, the outback community of Bourke, sixty kilometres upstream from Toorale, was ‘sacrificed to the environmental green-shoe brigade' by a government that ‘couldn't care less about the future of regional Australia'.
Bourke shire councillors, vying for re-election in the weeks following the purchase, staged a rally protesting against the government's actions. Their scaremongering spread fear in a community already doing it tough. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the local newsagent was ‘petrified' for the future of the town. John Cobb described the purchase as an ‘anti-rural-Australia act'. Inevitably, a well-worn political catch-cry appeared in media comments: if the government was putting the rural sector out of production, instead of supporting it, how could Australian farmers continue to ‘feed the world'?
THE GOAL OF feeding the world is an admirable one, but it does not reflect the reality of Australian farming. Most of Australia's wheat and meat are exported, and this has become the basis for a national myth, a comforting narrative that sees golden harvests and choice cuts being shipped and distributed to hungry mouths across the world. In 1925, the leading Australian meat-industry figure John Cramsie declared that the development of the ‘unoccupied northern areas' presented an opportunity to ‘feed the world with beef'. The prominent doctor and journalist Edward Gault gave an address in 1943 arguing that Australia should not only feed India and China, but ‘it should be a permanent measure for us to feed the world as a whole.' After the sale of Toorale Station in 2008, the...