Country calls for Peter Austin

IN 50 years Mt Victoria resident Peter Austin has witnessed a significant change to life on the land.  The newly-turned author explains these changes in his book A Country Calling, released late last year, drawing upon his experience in country NSW.

Austin was born in Cremorne, Sydney, and spurred on by his grandfather’s fond memories of his time in the country, the only-child couldn’t wait to leave home and “go bush”.

Back in the ’60s, a job with your own car in the great outdoors was like a dream come true, Austin explains.

Starting out in the mail room for a Sydney-based wool firm, it wasn’t long before he was sent out west for the company as a stock and station agent at Brewarrina, a town of 1500 people on the Barwon River between Bourke and Walgett. Built around the wool market, in the mid-1960s Brewarrina was a vibrant, bustling town with an abundance of businesses and a large surrounding population.

Although Austin enjoyed his job selling lambs and merchandise, he was sent by the company to Crookwell near Goulburn to do book-keeping and merchandise sales. Here he met and married a local school teacher, started a family, climbed the ranks in the company, and discovered the fit wasn’t quite right for him in Crookwell.

“I’m not a blokey sort of person, I’m a private person,” Austin says. “There was a lot of slapping on the backs at functions and larger than life characters.”

Feeling a need for a change, and a yearning to write, he took a job as a rural reporter based in Tamworth for The Land newspaper.

He fitted the job description perfectly – an ability to write a bit and understand the country — and the  two-finger typist was in his element.

“They were two of the hardest working years of my life,” Austin recalls.

He covered some interesting stories during his time in Tamworth, including the rapid expansion of irrigation for cotton growing into the Macquarie and Gwydir Valleys, which made it an exciting time to be in that area.

But it wasn’t long before he grew tired of writing copious numbers of advertising features, having his stories cut to ribbons and having work commitments cut into family life.

He had a hankering to write about things that were actually “important” to agricultural Australia.

Austin and his family transferred to The Land’s head office in Edgecliff, Sydney, and later North Richmond, where Austin steadily moved up the ranks from agricultural editor, to deputy editor and two four-year stints as editor.

It wasn’t always easy deciding how to handle certain issues, and in the tough years of the ’80s, he had to contend with farmers complaining The Land was “being too positive when they were hurting”. But if the slant was all doom and gloom then the advertisers wouldn’t see the point in taking out ads. To be fair, “I’d give one bloke a go and then give other people a go the next week,” Austin says with a laugh.

At The Land 23 years ago Austin started his weekly Peppercorn column, recording his impressions of the rural scene over the years. He has observed the breakdown of rural towns, and says attitudes need to change to recognise the importance of agriculture in Australia.

“The government needs to recognise that family farmers won’t survive in an unprotected marketplace,” he says.

“Whether any political party is willing to grasp that nettle and do something about it ...”

He says Australia’s farmers can’t compete when they’re up against farmers from a protected market. So, the family farmers are disappearing, being replaced with farming corporations.

“It’s killing all the little towns. There’s no fire brigade, not enough bums on seats.” 

And as the urban areas expand, the coastal areas where the land is most fertile are being swallowed up by housing.

“This is not in the country’s interest,” he says.

Austin has almost finished writing his next book, which is about his childhood in Neutral Bay. A Country Calling is available at Gleebooks in Blackheath, Megalong Books in Leura, or online at ruralbookshop.com.au.

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