“Fifteen”, Mum said.
I was helping Mum stack slashed hay from a trailer out around one of the cherimoya trees in the upper orchard. My two-and-a-half-year-old son was “helping”. Mum was about to tell him to be careful climbing around, then she realised it wasn’t random. He wanted to reach a particular bit of hay, the trailer was taller than he was, so he worked out a way he could get up onto this bar, then onto that, then over a little and reach the hay, then jump down with it to put it on the tree, one tiny fistful at a time.
“Fifteen?” I said, wondering what that was about.
“He’s two now, so fifteen years until he’s seventeen”.
I must have looked as puzzled as I felt. Mum kindly elaborated.
“This is the one that we were waiting for. He’s the one who’ll take over the farm.”
I grinned. “I’ve thought that some times. He’s got the interest and the willingness.”
“And the mechanicalness”, Mum added. “He solves problems, he sits there and works out how to make things work.”
“Fifteen”, she said again. She turned to my son, obliviously and steadfastly making his way up to get the next handful of hay. “Sorry kid, I’m only going to make it another three if you’re lucky.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt with that conversation. We have a lot of little discussions here and there, my mum and my brother and I, about Mum’s approaching retirement, what we’re going to do with the farm and the fact that neither I nor my brother can easily take it over. If we knew for sure that my son would want to work it, we might find a way to hold out for the fifteen years. But to lock that in for his future when he’s just two? This is the kid I keep telling people will be the next Heath Ledger, with the way he acts. Or who I imagine completing an apprenticeshop as a patisserie chef, serving fabulous glittery concoctions to ladies who lunch. It’s true I also imagine him as the farmer in the family. Kids have so much potential to go any direction. Should you curb that?
When did we start asking if we should curb it?
When did we stop thinking that the best way to a successful job was to work for our parents?
When did the sky open?
On the way down to Mum’s, I stopped in to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in years. He’d finished his teaching degree and moved down to the harvest-and-forest belts of WA near where his inlaws were farming. We talked about about succession, and the farm-belt kids he sees at the boarding school where he teaches.
“You can tell the ones who are going to take over their parents farm”, he said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh?”
“They’re the ones who when you ask them what they’re going to do on the weekend, they say they’re just going to go home and ride around the farm on their motorbikes. That’s all they want out of life, and they’re perfectly happy with that. They don’t need to go anywhere else or do anything more.”
I was asked many times during highschool what I wanted to be. What I wanted to study. What career I wanted. Life around the age of fourteen or fifteen was filled with careers charts, concentric rings showing the possible careers if you studied this subject or that subject to a greater or lesser amount. I did aptitude tests to help me narrow down choices or come up with suggestions, had interviews with careers counsellors, listened to talks by university representatives. I thought about what subjects fascinated me, what I most liked doing. The 80’s was a bit of a dream in that way. There were no limits, the world was expanding. We were told we could be anything we wanted to be, if we worked hard enough and studied the right things. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to do what my parents did.
If they had, I don’t know what I would have said. Back then, my future was vague. I knew I would have kids by the time I was thirty because that’s what you did, even though the thought of settling down and being married filled my fourteen-year-old (and 15, and 16, and 17-year-old) self with loathing. I just assumed that by thirty I’d be more interested in it. I also assumed I’d go to university, because that was something my family did without question even if many of the other country town kids didn’t see the point. And I just assumed that the farm would be there at some point in the future too.
As we drove along the Porongurups Drive the other week, I noticed a lot of For Sale signs. More than I was expecting. I asked Mum if there was anything particular going on in that area. She said “North of the ranges? It’s gotten a bit hotter and drier up there so things aren’t going quite like they used to. But it’s also just what’s going on everywhere. It’s the end of the generation that farmed. B’s mum’s place is like that. B doesn’t want it, his brother’s a lawyer, his sister’s something else high-powered. None of them are going to take it over.”
The end of the generation that farmed? Or just the the end of the generation that followed on in the family business? The job world of the 80s and 90s was rife with possibilities, new energy, new technologies, new industries developing. I’ve trained in, worked fifteen years in and quit a career that hadn’t come into existence yet when I was in highschool. We didn’t have to take on the jobs of our parents in order to make a crust or to establish ourselves. We were told we could be anything we wanted to be, and for better or worse many of us chose to follow all those dreams.
Somewhere back behind us in our wake was the world we left to our parents.