The Duckman: With empty nests, nostalgia sets in

A FARMER friend recently shared with me a most interesting chat she’d had with some visitors to Australia.

The out-of-towners were on their way back to Melbourne after pecking about the Great Ocean Road and were overcome by a sudden craving for poultry.

They parked the hire car by our friend’s farmhouse and politely asked if they might requisition a few of the chickens scratching about one of the paddocks near the house.

The visitors were from Asia and most of the northern neighbours I’ve had the good fortune to meet covet their fresh food. Such refined tastes are one feature of a colossal menu Australian farmers already serve up to them – but there is room for more dishes.

Jodi and I took the recounted story as a brilliantly odd example of the export opportunities that exist for all of us and it further reinforces our ambitions for this year.

Our farming neighbours politely refused the sale – if they have export ambitions they clearly don’t run to chickens – but the export dreams for our birds are still on course. With some luck our first clutch of featherless, decidedly lifeless ducks, may be flying to Hong Kong within months.

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Once the batch of export ducks has taken flight I’m seriously thinking of putting my mind to a horse. The plans for the future haven’t deterred me from looking to the past.

This autumn I’ve been turning over worn sections of duck paddocks with a shovel. We don’t own a rotary hoe and the work with the shovel takes up chunks of time.

I’m trying to encourage the grass to regrow in places. We put out small ponds of water for the ducks to drink and preen from. Ready access to lush amounts of water puts a spring in a duck’s waddle, but the area around the ponds turns from grass to mud faster than the time it takes my good wife to burn a barrow-load of wood.

I’m completely over the shovel, but also reluctant to industrialise the task. My mechanical prowess is on a par with my natural affinity for power tools – I once secured a piece of corrugated iron over the top of my hand – and anything with a small engine like a rotary hoe has an extraordinary ability to bloody my day, not only during operation but when the sodding thing will, as is inevitable, break down. I’ll get out a spanner to try to fix the problem and end up ripping flesh from my knuckles instead of removing a spark plug.

A large horse and a small plough might be my most sensible (and romantic) option. Clydesdales, unlike rotary hoes, run in the family. Relatives on Dad’s side helped build the water channels of northern Victoria with teams of Clydesdales after World War II.

Dad used to take my brother, sisters and me to visit a milk depot in the suburbs of Melbourne where the regal Clydies who once pulled milk carts were stabled. It thrilled us, but looking back now I think it also must have reminded Dad of cherished childhood visits to rural cousins.

I like the ancestral tradition a Clydie will run through our farm. While I may be a smidge daunted by a lack of experience working with giants, the fact the good wife and I knew nothing about ducks when we began our farming adventure is a little like the chicken story and a source of encouragement. We now manage about 1200 ducks, surely I can deal with one horse.

In any case, it’s not like I’m clueless: I hear horses don’t have spark plugs. What could possibly go wrong?