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Alan, 82, is still learning about the land that is home

WELL FENCED: Alan Wickham with the paling fence surrounding his home. The fence was built by his father Percy about 1921. Alan reckons his father “worked for years to set this place up”.
WELL FENCED: Alan Wickham with the paling fence surrounding his home. The fence was built by his father Percy about 1921. Alan reckons his father “worked for years to set this place up”. Toni Somes

WHEN asked to describe the landscape he has called home for a lifetime, Alan Wickham laughs and says "this is break- your-heart country".

He is only half joking.

At 82 he has lived and worked on his family's 1100ha grazing property, between Leyburn and Karara, since he left school and knows first-hand the challenges of earning an income from agriculture.

Simply speaking it's been a case of working hard always, like his father before him.

His dad Percy - or GP - Wickham first took up the holding in 1911, when it was a bush block without a house or shed on the place.

"My father was away for the 1914-18 war; he got back to Australia in 1919 and started work developing this property slowly and I've done likewise and it still needs more," Mr Wickham said.

"This is poor country. The creek flats are good, and the rest is sandy and the pits and only grows trees beautifully.

"And the faster you take the trees out, the faster God puts them back and it never ends."

MAN’S BEST MATE: Alan Wickham with his faithful dog, Twerp. Alan says he “didn’t rush into marriage” so for a long time his dogs were his daily companions.
MAN’S BEST MATE: Alan Wickham with his faithful dog, Twerp. Alan says he “didn’t rush into marriage” so for a long time his dogs were his daily companions.

 

It has always been "pretty tough" etching out a living in the lighter country he calls home, but now it's "getting tougher by the week".

Yet like many of his generation he never seriously considered an alternative career, although he jokes he would have "left Warwick years ago if I'd had the fare".

"What you do with your life depends on what you grow up with," Mr Wickham said.

Growing up, he was the eldest of three and the only boy.

His mum Lena, nee Gibson, had originally come from Brisbane to marry his father.

"Mum taught me at home for a while and then I rode a horse the eight miles into school in Leyburn," Mr Wickham said. "Later I got a pushbike and I definitely got on better with that.

"I never thought of it as a long way to ride; everyone was fit then and most of the kids went barefoot summer and winter.

"Then I was packed off to Slade School and only came home on holidays and the occasional mid-term."

When he left school it was to work and - he good humouredly adds - argue with his father on the family grazing property. Back then it was primarily a wool growing enterprise with a few cattle, a ratio that changed after the collapse of the reserve price scheme in early 1990s.

Yet as a young man, while he dedicated his share of hours to work, he still managed a major hobby: Racing cars.

"I dabbled in racing," he said with a laugh. "We'd race cars on the Leyburn airstrip and then we'd do hill climbs, sprints and quarter mile races.

"I just drove an ordinary MG TC; it was my normal drive-about car.

"I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun, but the money didn't come quickly enough and eventually I gave it away in the late 1950s."

Then it was a case of enduring the seasons and the market fluctuations along with the never ending daily tasks of running a property.

By the 1970s he was, after decades of "extended" family debate, finally making most decisions on the holding.

"We had sheep and cattle until the wool market crash," Mr Wickham said. "Even then we had plenty of sheep, but we slowly faded out of them.

It is tough going now. Costs keep rising at a greater rate than our returns. Basically you need bigger properties than this to maintain a family.

"Then we had a bad drought that started in 1990 and went without much of a break for 20 years.

"But we'd seen it before and we coped because we didn't know any better."

Reducing their sheep numbers, they shifted into a less

labour-intensive cattle operation running a straight Santa Gertrudis herd, then introducing some Poll Hereford bloodlines.

"I think this country is suited to either cattle or sheep; you just need to manage it differently and for cattle you need more water," he said.

"We are fortunate we are on Canal Creek and the country along the flats is good quality.

"But we rely on dams for stock water and this year they are holding okay."

His pasture country is also holding on well despite the lighter season, a fact he attributes to the time and energy he committed to establishing improved pastures during the past 50 years.

He has focused on establishing self-rejuvenating annual pastures, like digitaria, but has yet to find a legume to complement the summer grasses.

"Normally we feed out some supplement during the winter, but this season we have just staggered through," Mr Wickham said.

"You couldn't get a more pleasant winter than the one we had this year. But now we are just hoping it rains."

Once the Southern Downs grazier, who describes himself as more of a mechanic than a stockman, counted on turning off Japanese bullocks but recent seasons have worked against him.

"I sold weaners straight off their mothers last year and it has as much to do with the seasons as anything else, so I couldn't tell you whether it was an economically good move or not," he said.

Undisputedly economics has influenced his decision making for decades.

"Before the 1960s and 70s you could probably make a sufficient living from this size property to support a family," he said.

"But it is tough going now. Costs keep rising at a greater rate than our returns.

"Basically you need bigger properties than this to maintain a family."

As a result, he said many of his immediate neighbours relied on a combination of agriculture and off-farm income to make ends meet.

Fortunately in one way, he explained, not having a family to support or hand over his property to helped ease his anxiety about the long-term viability of the rural sector.

"I didn't rush into marriage," he said.

"After you get dumped a few times you get a little gun-shy."

Never-the-less, today he enjoys the companionship of wedlock and on a good day allows himself to savour the work that has gone into creating this family property.

"The thing about a property is there is always something to be done.

"So there is no sense thinking about retirement."

Besides, he explained, it's hard to consider shifting away to retire when you don't like cities and there is still so much to learn about being in the bush.

"A lot of our problems, in terms of what we do to our environment, is in response to economic pressure," he said.

"It has definitely become harder.

"But there is also more knowledge about too.

"I do things differently to how my father did.

"For a start I now do less intensive cultivation.

"You don't want the creek country ploughed up when it rains heavily or you lose all your best soil.

"And I believe that soil and pasture come first as a resource.

"If you improve them, you end up improving your livestock.

"At my age I know there is a lot to learn and you have to keep learning.

"I am still learning how to manage this place."

TIDY LINE: My father was a neat man and I like to keep it organised, Alan says.
TIDY LINE: My father was a neat man and I like to keep it organised, Alan says.

Topics:  history people profile


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