Phillip Island & District Historical Society Inc - Oral History Project
Hello. I am Dr Andrea Cleland and today on Monday 7 December 2020 I am talking to Bob and Anne Davie at Bimbadeen, their 340-acre farm, located on Phillip Island in Victoria.
This interview is part of the Oral Histories of Phillip Island project, with the Phillip Island & District Historical Society. Welcome Bob and Anne
A: Andrea Cleland, interviewer
Anne: Anne Davie, interviewee
Bob: Bob Davie, interviewee
Recording 1 of 2.
Anne and Bob: Hello Andrea
Bob: Thank you Andrea
A: Hi lovely to be here and thank you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where and when you were born and about your family?
Anne: Ok Andrea, well I will start first and then Bob can follow. About myself, well both of us are going to be particularly talking about Phillip Island, but I will tell you about where I was born. I was born in Elsternwick in a private hospital, there in Caulfield, where I spent all my life, until we were married when we were 20. We [Anne and her family] lived in the suburb of Caulfield.
I attended Methodist Ladies College for my secondary year schooling and that was one of the best decisions my parents ever made I think. I loved school and I learned a lot, but I also learnt about life and what one could expect in life, and what one could contribute. And as I say, that had a really powerful impact upon myself.
I have one brother.
Bob: I was born in East Melbourne on the 11th of November, 1935. My father was Stanley William Dawson Davie, and my mother was Clarice Ina Davie. They owned and ran a guest house at Phillip Island called “Erehwon” and I came down here as a young child of about seven or eight years of age, with my grandfather and father to the guesthouse on visits and we used to live in Middle Brighton and before that we lived in Caulfield.
A: Great thank you and can you tell us about when you first came to Phillip Island, your first thoughts perhaps about the island and why you came to Phillip Island?
Anne: I first came here probably about 1943. We were very fortunate because my uncle knew somebody who was involved in Scotch College and they had a school camp on Lover’s Walk. So, it was a great time to come because everyone was so anxious about the war and we were lucky to be able to leave the city for a while. And my first impression of Phillip Island: well I fell in love with it straight away. You know the beaches, we used to run along the beach, and there was hardly anybody in sight. And, actually, another story is how my family came to Phillip Island. My mother was brought to Phillip Island when she was six, in 1912, so the passion and love of Phillip Island has gone back for three generations, and I still love the place today.
Bob: As I mentioned before I came down here as a young child, with my mother and father when they were running the guest house Erehwon. My first impressions of that were possibly with my grandfather bringing me down in a Packard car and travelling over the Gurdies, up near Lang Lang. Whenever we got to there, the Packard used to go up and down, and we’d hit our heads on the roof of the car and that would be the most exciting part of the trip coming down!
But, as Anne mentioned, those days, were very precious. After that, I came down here when I was 15, having had an accident at school. I was at boarding school and had an accident and had a brain haemorrhage and came down here to work on a dairy farm when I was 15, and we started to run our own farm. My brother purchased an 80-acre farm with our father’s help, and that was all paid back. Anne and I eventually bought that farm where we were, starting off our farming career. So, I had an early start to farming.
A: Can you tell me a little bit about how you met?
Anne: It was an interesting because my parents having had that lovely holiday at the public school camp on the beach, they decided after the war that we would go as a family and we stayed at Yackatoon Guest House for two or three years and then we decided we would go to Erehwon, which of course is on Erehwon Point, and owned by Bob’s parents – at that stage. It was interesting because my mother actually knew Bob’s father, so it was just one of those things. I mean a lot of people don’t believe it, but it really was love at first sight. We shared so many things in common and we had a lot of fun and the friendship – well of course – ended up in marriage, and a very good one at that.
A: How many children do you have?
Anne: We have four children. We have three sons and a daughter. We’re fortunate because three of the children live on the island with their families. Some of our family now live in Queensland, and so now have 10 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.
A: Wonderful. Were you married on Philip Island?
Anne: No. We were married in Melbourne, Wesley College Chapel in Melbourne.
Bob: Soon two great-great grandchildren.
Bob: We’ve got two great-grandchildren?
Anne: Well it’s in utero [laughs].
Bob: In utero. Alright, if I can just continue on from that.
Bob: Anne and I met when we were fourteen at the guest house and it was love at first sight. I offered her some bubble gum and we had a dance in the ballroom at Erehwon.
Anne: And the rest is history.
Bob: And we played tennis the next morning and we were virtually never apart since then. We were married at 20 and came to live here in this house in Bimbadeen, which my father and I built in 1955.
Anne: We were not able to see a lot of each other. I had always wanted to do medicine and realised I was probably going to come and live at Phillip Island, so I chose to do physiotherapy. I used to live in Melbourne and study during the year and work as a waitress at the guest house over the Christmas holidays so that was when we saw a lot of each other. I can remember in those days if you wanted to make a phone call even, you’d have to say to your parents: “would it be alright if I made a phone call tonight to Bob?” It’s nothing like the social media that’s out there now or mobile phones.
Bob: We used to write practically every day to each other.
Anne: Yes, lots of letters.
A: So you would be waiting for the postman to deliver them?
Anne: That’s right. Twice a day the postman came in those days.
Bob: Especially in the early days because I was a boarder at Wesley and I used to go out to Anne’s mother and father’s place in Caulfield of a weekend occasionally. We used to go for drives and things like that. That was good just to get away from the boarding school.
A: Was Erehwon a big guest house?
Bob: It had about 120 guests. It was very famous because it was well known for its hospitality, excellent meals and its concerts and games and ballroom events and hobby horses. In those days, male and female leg shows, and all sorts of things.
Anne: When the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester came and visited Erehwon, and from then on, it sort of had a vice-regal patronage.
Erehwon Guest House, approx 1930s. Phillip Island & District Historical Society Inc
Anne: It was lovely, it had beautiful gardens, and as Bob said, there was a ballroom and just across the road was the beach. In those days – my mother used to love to come – because it meant that she didn’t have to cook meals for two weeks and she used to sit with her friends under the trees and we’d go down the beach. They were beautifully happy times after the war. Very special.
Bob: We used to lay out on the beach and get brown and today we’re sorry for that [laughs].
Anne: We’re paying the price.
Bob: But we didn’t have sun creams and things like that in those days.
A: We’ll talk a little about the farming practices on Phillip Island. Can you tell us about your family property at Bimbadeen? It’s obviously a very special place to you. Can you tell us some of the focus of your farming activities from dairy to cattle and also, I believe free range chickens and bees?
Bob: My brother Bill and I started off on the original farm which was 80 acres called “Meeking’s farm” and we were dairying. In 1956 when we were married we borrowed from the bank with my Father as guarantor and bought Bimbadeen, which is another 120 acres. We milked on here from the time we were married until 1967. During those years, just after that, we purchased two more adjoining blocks which were what we call “Rhys’s” from Rhys and Daisy Jones and “Hurricane Hill” which we bought from the Byron-Moore’s.
They were both 80 acres and they’re all adjoining and all close to each other. It made a good property, but it was very saline, there was a lot of salt on the property and for about 15 years we concentrated on salinity and fixing salinity and today we don’t worry about salinity.
Anne: Perhaps Bob you could say when we were married, we were advised by the Department to clear melaleuca.
Bob: I knew nothing about farming, because none of my family had anything to do with farming so I asked the Department of Agricultural what to do about farming, how do you farm, and that [there] was a lot of melaleuca on the property and the first thing they said was to plough it all in. And that we’d make wonderful humus to grow grasses and then when you grow your grasses then you’re right. Well I said, when we grow our grasses what do we do then? They said, “oh you can put cattle on or you can put sheep on”, and I can distinctly remember saying “well I’m sorry we can’t do that”, and they asked why. “Well I said because we haven’t got any fences, we haven’t got any boundary fences”.
That’s how we started, we didn’t have any fences, we had very little. We started to grow grass and then we put up a boundary fence eventually. We started milking cows. At one stage we supplied milk to the local dairy in Cowes. We supplied the milk for Phillip Island, and we also supplied the milk and cream for the guesthouses. We used to take milk and cream into the guesthouses, and we’d pick up all the scraps from the guesthouses and bring them back and feed them to the pigs…
Anne: We used to supply them with pork, didn’t we supply the pork?
Bob: …and chooks. We used to supply pork, we used to supply poultry.
Anne: We used to throw them on the back of the ute.
Bob: We used to have guests from the guesthouse come out and help us clean the hair off the pigs, scrape the hair off and they used to love it, amazingly enough!
Bob: We had a wire fly proof safe, and it was all kept in the wire fly proof safe and then it was wrapped up in a big sheet and brought back into the guesthouse and used in the guesthouse, and nobody ever got sick to my knowledge, But if you did it today, you would be in jail!
Another time, which is quite interesting, is that we bought a lot of turkeys for Christmas dinner. We had them on the farm and fattened them up, all ready for Christmas dinner. And about 10 days before Christmas, a fox got in and bit the heads off every single turkey we had.
Anne: So, the guesthouses thought they would have to take the turkey off the menu.
Bob: We did process them all and they were eaten for Christmas Dinner!
A: What year was the Year of the Turkey?
Anne: That would have been about 1957.
Bob: They took it off the menu, but they put it back on because all the turkeys ended up in the guest house. We actually cleaned all the turkeys. It was the same as chopping their heads off because that’s what the fox did, just bit the heads off and didn’t do anything else. So, all of those turkeys ended up as Christmas dinner. We couldn’t afford for that not to happen.
Anne: Before Bob goes on from dairy farming to cattle, it’s interesting to note that in 1956 when we came as family, we were married, there were 45 dairy farms on Phillip Island.
A: Yes, I was going to ask you.
It’s extraordinary. Most families were of four children. There would be the mother, father and four children. They would just work so hard and it was a very, very hard life, I mean you never went for holidays or anything like that. It was a very active dairying industry and dairying community.
Bob: And chicory…
Anne: Yes, that’s right and chicory was very hard work, wasn’t it?
A: Was it quite structured in terms of the work women did and men did, or did everybody pitch in?
Anne: Everyone pitched in, and the children. Everyone.
Bob: Everybody had to help virtually. It was the only way of getting anywhere really. It was very rare for someone to have enough money to pay a wage.
Anne: So, in 1968, or 1967, it was difficult because the only secondary school was Wonthaggi High School. It really wasn’t a good situation…young people really weren’t encouraged to have a good education. But Bob and I knew, or felt, it was important that the children just didn’t just see a future on the farm, they could come back to the farm, but they would need to have a good education to make a decision. That then meant of course we had to send them to boarding school, which meant then that we needed to be able to take them up and then bring them down for weekends (which was difficult with dairy cows to milk). So, then we decided to go into beef, so Bob can talk about the beef in 1967.
Were there primary schools on the island, did your children go to them?
Anne: Yes. Stephen our eldest attended Ventnor State School before it closed. He then went to Cowes Primary with his younger brothers and sister.
A: And Phillip Island itself, was it mainly farmland and tourism?
Anne: Yes, and tourism was sort of from Christmas to March, but it was only a short, short period. It was nothing like the big tourist industry it is today. It was all about guesthouses.
Bob: Just guesthouses during the summer period mainly, and very interactive between the guesthouses. They used to have competitions between all the guesthouses, sporting competitions, and the same people would come down in the same fortnight every year. So, they were like extended families meeting up again every year. It was quite amazing!
Anne: Like extended families.
A: You obviously got to know them?
Bob: Oh, yes.
Anne: Heavens yes and still know some of them.
Bob: We still know a number of those people today.
A: That’s wonderful.
Anne: So Bob, you can tell Andrea about from them on when we went into beef from 1967.
Bob: 1967 I decided to do something a bit out of the ordinary in that we brought Brahmans down to Phillip Island because I wanted to start a Brahman herd.
A lot of the people at that stage wanted to lock me up because they thought I was quite deranged! But it proved to be a very good exercise in that we bred a Brangus animal which is a percentage of 3/8 Brahman and 5/8 Angus. That proved to be a very exciting animal in that it was virtually a hybrid, but it coped extremely well with the weather conditions. It coped with everything we had down here, the type of feed we had and everything else. As the weather was getting warmer and warmer and warmer, the Brahman influence helped the cattle production a great deal.
We started going in carcass competitions all over Australia. And a percentage of 3/8-5/8 came up with the best carcass results, the best growth results and most of the competitions were a combination of growth and carcass. We did extremely well there. We bred up a very, very good herd. We started selling the bulls to the Australian Agricultural Company and National Mutual Rural.
We later started a genetic company called Ultimate Genetics. We brought out the top veterinarian technician in embryo transfer in Texas from USA. We brought him out here and we started a company called Ultimate Genetics. And then the herd increased dramatically because we used the top animals for embryo transfer and we selected those with the best bulls that we could find in artificial insemination. And so therefore the top cows, say the top ten cows were being joined to the best bulls, and then using embryo transfer, we used all the rest of the herd as recipients. So, all the recipients were having the best calves as well at the top calves. That’s how we built up the herd.
Bimbadeen Brangus bull
Anne: Probably then we were going to be talking about how we’ve moved on to chooks and bees. One of our sons Richard and his wife Sharon and their family lived down the road at a property called “Karool”. Richard runs cattle as well, and we would not have been able to keep the farm going without him. He’s been the mainstay of our labour and our inspiration. As the years went by, it was obvious that Bob and I couldn’t be doing any more physical work and Richard too was starting to wear out a bit, so our eldest son Stephen, who’s actually an accountant, and the rest of the family thought that they would try something different. So I guess in a way this is our succession plan.
So that’s why three farm retreats were built on Bimbadeen, so we have people coming. Well we were having a lot of people from Asia, from China and Singapore, which stopped of course with COVID. But now we’ve got lots of Australian families coming here. But then the family thought about doing the free-range eggs, so we’ve got 2,000 24/7 free range chooks that live in caravans down in those paddocks which you just can barely see for the trees.
A: What do the caravans look like?
Bob: Caravans [laughs]
A: So they are actual caravans?
Anne: Yes, they are, they are.
Bob: But they’ve got big doors and they’ve got roosting parts and then they’ve got a nesting period, a section in the middle, in which all the eggs roll down onto a big conveyor belt then you wind a handle and all the eggs come out the end and they are packed into containers and then they come up to the grading room and the cleaning room. They are all packed and ready for delivery.
Free range chooks at Bimbadeen, with visitors. From bimbadeenphillipisland.com.qu
Anne: We supply businesses in Melbourne too, don’t we, and across the island.
Bob: Canning’s [Free Range] Butchers in Melbourne.
Anne: There’s quite a big demand.
A: They are the best eggs, I have to say.
Anne: Everyone seems to like them. And then there’s somebody who comes and does the bees, a separate thing. We don’t manage the bees.
It’s an interesting story about the chooks. Our son Richard with help [was doing the eggs]. Now Elizabeth, her husband Mark and their son Blake and Stan, a friend, do the eggs. Richard was getting tired of it. Our daughter Elizabeth was running the Going Places Travel in Cowes. The travel industry was smashed after COVID hit, so Elizabeth put her hand up and said she’d run the chooks and the eggs. It’s amazing! So instead of sipping champagne on the Riviera she is cleaning chook shit out of a caravan. We’re delighted, I would never have thought it would happen. But as just as we said before, COVID has changed things. Elizabeth is very happy.
Bob: She’s very happy.
Anne: She’s loving it too and her son too is enjoying it.
Bob: Her son Blake.
Anne: He was going to be doing first year uni so he put that off and thought he’d have a gap year and he started to be interested in the farm. It’s really quite exciting, the journey of Bimbadeen – we’re loving it.
A: Wonderful. With the Brahmans and the Brangus, what gave you the idea to go into that particular type of cattle?
Anne: You went to Queensland, didn’t you?
Bob: I saw some cattle that were joined to both Angus and Brahman. Some Angus cattle and the calves from the Brahman were just so much better than the straight Angus, that I decided, wow, I’m going to do that. I’m going to breed a herd. Originally, I was going to breed a herd of all Brahmans because the Brahmans did really well but along the way we discovered that the percentage of 3/8-5/8 was the best percentage.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we had a friend that went to America on a holiday and got in touch with me and said, “you won’t believe this”, he said – because there was no communication in those days, very little communication – “you’re breeding exactly what the United States breed as the international Brangus which is 3/8 5/8”. So accidently, we hit upon the right percentage that was where all the semen came from, all came from 3/8-5/8 cattle. Fortunately, we just hit upon that so then we started getting semen from overseas.
We had a little bit of a problem with selling bulls, because the sheath in the bulls was too droopy so they used to prolapse. We fixed that up with one bull from artificial insemination from the States. And then we were selling bulls. We couldn’t breed enough bulls we were selling them so quickly! That was all really good, really good.
A: Was Bimbadeen quite well known in the farming community?
Bob: Yes. We have lots of semen and embryos stored in liquid nitrogen, just in case. We could start up another herd tomorrow if we wanted to.
A: Can you describe the most memorable changes in farming since you first moved to Phillip Island, and what you think have been the biggest challenges and your greatest achievements?
Anne: Of course, there are far less farms since 1956. Some of the holdings are larger, but in numbers of the population of the farming community, it’s certainly been reduced. So it really has gone through a transition of being quite a large population of farmers to a small number. But I think the ones who continue to farm are still quite passionate. And I think more than ever, the people appreciate the landscape of the farms because of the development in the subdivisions. I believe people have a greater wish for the farming to survive.
But the challenges have always been the years of drought, and the uncertain markets. One year the beef prices are fantastic, and then they can crash because of some trade deal or something. You have to be an optimist to be a farmer. You can’t be a pessimist because you’re always thinking well next year is going to be better. But we wouldn’t change it for anything. The uncertainty is the biggest challenge, I think, for people who go on the land. And if you can’t ride through those challenges, you’re not going to survive. In many ways, you have to diversify and think of different things to do and I think we have sort of done that along the way.
A: Is there a degree of planning versus seeing what life throws at you?
Anne: Exactly and be sort of mindful what’s out there, what are people thinking, what are they wanting.
Bob: Salinity was a big challenge in the early years so we had to think of ways of how we could combat that. We came up with an idea of hump and hollow drainage which is called raised bed farming today. The idea of that is when it rained it would wash the salt out of the soil and washed it into the drains, and then it washed it away. So the salt would gradually get out of the land. And then we used to feed hay and run stock on that land and that built up the grasses until we eventually were rid of most of the salt. So today, salinity is not a problem to us because we have now covered virtually all of the land with grasses so we can run cattle on it.
A: By grasses, do you mean native grasses to Phillip Island?
Bob: Yeah, and clovers, rye grasses. [We still have some original native grasses]. Today we’re doing crops, we’re doing all sorts. We’re doing about 12 different species in sowing down because they have different root levels, which collect moisture at the different levels.
A: What has the farming community on Phillip Island meant to you?
Anne: It has meant a lot to us. As I said before, there’s not a whole lot of farmers here but the comradeship and the fellowship, and the love of the land, exists as strongly as it did when we first came here; and for me that’s really important. I think farming communities are important as part of the social fabric of the community, and it’s always been a very important thing to me. I know that often at the time, if there was a hayshed caught on fire, or something or other happened or a farmer had an accident, or somebody’s wife was unwell, you’d tear around with some food. Or ask: “what can I do?” Or if you needed to get to the hospital, there would be somebody to do the milking. There was always that attitude.
Bob: Always back-up. Always willing to help.
Anne: Always that expectation, so it’s always been a very close community and continues today.
A: Is there anything you miss from the old days, or were there any events?
Anne: We used to have (agricultural) shows and things, didn’t we? I guess life has changed a lot. We probably do miss that intimacy of the smaller farming community. It’s been a number of years now since that happened. Certainly, the comradeship is still there.
Bob: We used to have meetings in the local Ventnor Hall, which does not exist now. I remember at a meeting telling an elderly farmer that he need not be frightened of the Electricity that was coming. There would be 30 or 40 Young Farmers. That doesn’t exist anymore. We used to have dances at the Ventnor Hall. There’s nothing there now.
A: Where was this?
Anne: At the Ventnor Hall, we don’t have them anymore [corner Nobbies Cowes Road and Ventnor Beach Road]. It was a good meeting place.
Bob: They used to have dances on the occasion, birthdays and whether we’d get the power or not in the early meetings. Because when we first came here, we had to make a decision about the old house down on Troutman’s; an old concrete house that a German during the war built, which has a gun turret in it, because he was wary of people, because he was German. At that stage he was pretty well ostracised.
We had to decide whether we would build a house or change that into a house. We had a bit of discussion with my father and Anne, and family, and we decided we would build a house up here because we thought one day the power might come along and they would seal the road up here. When we first started we had a kerosene fridge and a generator and a bucket in the coke shed for a toilet. It was pretty primitive. Fortunately, the power did come along this top road and so we built a new dairy up near here later on – a herringbone dairy – and that’s where we started our milking virtually here before we were married: down in the old dairy.
A: That milking would have been quite different from practices now I imagine?
Bob: Our new dairy was a herringbone, an eight-a-side herringbone, which was one of the very early herringbone dairies. Our old machine was just four cows at a time and not very good because the engine used to stop at a certain time and all the cups would drop off. We found out much later that it was because of an incorrect dipstick in the engine which made the engine get hot and stop. They were pretty trying days in the early days of the milking.
Anne: But modern dairy farms, I mean they milk so many cows: two or three hundred! They are much bigger enterprises. It would be hard to survive at 80 cows…you couldn’t survive.
Bob: 70 or 80 we were milking.
Anne: We’d separate the cream and the cream would go to Archie’s Creek Butter Factory and we’d feed our pigs with the skimmed milk.
A: So the power and the road make a big difference?
Anne: It did yes.
Bob: The fridge used to blow up regularly and which led to a black ceiling, so that disappeared once we got the power,
Anne: Great thing when the power came on. And the telephone too.
Bob: In 1956 it was black and white television and the Olympic Games so that was the year we got married. We actually had a black and white television.
A: It’s amazing where you have come to! The next thing I was going to ask you was about your journey with carbon farming and what benefits that has brought to Bimbadeen and practices on the island?
Bob: Do you want to…?
Anne: No, that’s Bob’s baby the carbon farming. Can you see the question?
Bob: Yes. Carbon farming is just something I took up and was very passionate about because I knew that climate change was here. Several years ago, we brought down northern grasses and crops to trial here because of the different weather pattern. I had very early awareness of climate change. We started to do carbon farming and just to know that as you build up your carbon, you are pulling a huge amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is helping in climate change, and it is also assisting your land in that it makes the land much more productive. A one per cent increase in carbon in your soil can increase your moisture content holding from between 120 and 150 thousand litres per hectare. So that’s a win-win situation. Everything about carbon farming is a win-win situation.
I then started to market the carbon in that we could inset. We started with Totally Renewable Phillip Island TRPI. We donated – 367 tonnes of CO2 equivalent to them which they sold at an auction in Cowes to raise money which gave five other farmers the opportunity to start carbon farming by paying for their carbon tests and their audits. Everything was going along well at that stage, and then I started trading carbon and we had insetting, because Moragh Mackay started an insetting scheme with Totally Renewable Phillip Island and we started to trade that as insets certificates. Bimbadeen has offset from small ones of six tonnes, eight tonnes; we have donated for the local CWA to be the first in Australia. We have offset environmental companies. We’ve done large companies like Dineamic Australia Proprietary Limited which was 1227 tonnes, which is a lot of CO2 emissions. But they have increased their business so much that we started off with them with about 60 tonnes and then it went up to about 300 tonnes, and now 1200 tonnes so we have been with them for about three or four years. So that’s where we were heading.
Then we started to advertise it. We built and put up a new website called Carbon Neutral Online and started promoting it through the site. We had people coming on board and enquiries and questions, which sadly is what is really needed in Australia, because farmers do not realise what value they have and what carbon they have because they don’t actually test for carbon to determine what they have in their soil. And if they only knew it, they’d have another income that stays in the soil the whole time, not like if you’re cutting hay or cutting silage and removing it from the farm. You’re actually getting an income from it, and it’s not leaving the farm, you’re just building it up. But a short period ago, the family had a meeting and decided that they did not wish to trade carbon anymore and so that side of the carbon business has stopped; it’s finished.
Image of Bimbadeen showing numbered carbon sequestration paddocks. From carbonneutralonline.com.au
Anne: We’re still carbon farming, we’re not trading.
Bob: Well, we won’t be carbon farming as much, no.
A: In terms of your professional development, what are the sort of things you have undertaken, and what do you offer at Bimbadeen?
Anne: It’s interesting because when I sold my physiotherapy practice in 1996, having looked after people’s health for a while, I decided I’d like to be involved in the land, so I actually did a couple of courses. I did a course with Chisholm TAFE in the Certificate of Natural Resource Management. We also did an environmental management system for Bimbadeen Farm, which meant that everything that happened on the farm was documented. We became 14001 compliant, ISO 14001 compliant.
It was good because we documented everything we did, and it meant that we could be accountable. So that was an interesting time because we started to form a group of people who were also involved and committed to sustainable farming. We developed a product called Enviromeat which we sold to restaurants in Melbourne. But it was about that time about 2005, 2007 when everyone was getting really anxious about climate change and having to do something. But it all just fizzled with the Kevin Rudd thing, it all just dissipated. And all the enthusiasm and the excitement of that just dissipated, didn’t it Bob? But now it would probably take off like a bullet. But people just turned away. People weren’t prepared to pay a little bit extra.
Bob: People weren’t prepared to pay 10 cents a kilo [higher] for beef with all the credentials of what we had.
Anne: It didn’t actually happen.
A: So you were a bit ahead of your time?
Anne: I think that’s exactly what it is.
Bob: Unfortunately, we have been right along, which is quite a problem.
Anne: So what do we offer at Bimbadeen in terms of (the environment) Well for years we had visitation, didn’t we, from international volunteers - young people who used to stay and work on the farm. And we’ve had a number of farm field days. We’ve had one about the carbon farming, we’ve had one about the EMS, we’ve had all sorts of things. People often come to Bimbadeen to learn about things, which we really enjoy.
Bob: Schools and colleges.
Anne: Young people from RMIT, Melbourne and local schools, local volunteers, Landcare and our family have planted 45,000 trees!
Bob: Groups and companies come down and spend a day planting trees, bring their own portaloo and don’t use it [laughs]. When they come up to the house for lunch, they flooded the place out by blocking up our toilet.
Anne: They use this toilet. (advanced from the bucket in the coke shed)
Bob: We’ve had some funny incidents.
Anne: We really enjoy when people come and ask if they can see our farm and have a chat about it. That’s sort of ongoing.
A: Do you have a lot of exchange of your information and knowledge with overseas?
Anne: Oh yes, very much.
Bob: We’ve had visits from Japanese people, we’ve had people from China, we’ve had a group from the United States, and China just six months ago.
A: What do you think they think when they see Bimbadeen, is it very different to what they normally know?
Bob: It is. I think they appreciate that like on a small farm it’s fairly productive, and most of those people at that stage, we were talking about carbon farming, and they thought that was a marvellous idea and it wasn’t really happening where they were. They were looking at some sort of an understanding between us and them about carbon and trading and all that sort of thing. So, yeah when we pointed out what could be done with carbon, they were pretty interested in all of that.
A: So you spoke a little bit before about the wonderful accommodation that you have near the café which obviously is not operating at the moment during COVID. Can you tell us about how you decided to introduce and approach farm tourism? I think your children had some interest in that.
Anne: Yes, it was the children really. It was the children. Richard is not only a farmer, he is also a qualified builder, so he was able to give advice about the retreats and our son being an accountant, could work out the pros and cons of all these things. It was really the next generation that started to look at farm tourism and we were more than happy to go along with it because it meant that the family was still going to be a part of Bimbadeen. Clearly, with such a high tourist visitation to the island, it made a lot of sense that there was a market there straight away, particularly with being on the road to the Penguin Parade. It’s been great with some of the families, hasn’t it Bob, like from Singapore.
Bob: Singapore has been marvellous, I would say possibly 70 per cent of the people staying there would have been from Singapore.
Anne: They were so friendly; they will probably come back. The word spreads when they go home.
Bob: The families come and it’s quite amazing, the kids get out and run around. They just can’t believe the space, you know. They sort of say, “well do you own to the fence there?” and we say, “well yes actually, we own to down there and up there”, and they can’t believe it. They say, “but how can you own that land? Do you lease it off the government?” They are very surprised at the space and the fresh air which we possibly take a bit for granted.
Bimbadeen accommodation unit. From: bimbadeenphillipisland.com.au
A: Do you have any issues or concerns around biosecurity with people coming onto the farm?
Bob: We’re pretty careful with biosecurity, we don’t let any vehicles. There’s notices up everywhere that vehicles can’t go travelling around the place, and they usually get boots from over at the egg grading room, to walk around and see what’s going on. I think Richard and Stephen are on to the biosecurity pretty carefully. I don’t think it’s at the stage where everybody has to sign a declaration or anything like that, but they’re well aware of it.
A: Have you participated in the Royal Melbourne Show or other shows, and can you describe your most memorable experiences?
Bob: We’ve done very well in shows….
Anne: Steer competitions
Bob: In live cattle we won Champion Brangus Bull and Female at the Sydney [Royal Easter] Show and we’ve won at [Royal] Melbourne Show and we don’t like – it’s a little bit difficult to say – but we don’t like leading animals and then having them killed in a carcass competition, and so we never went in a led carcass competition. We’d put animals in that were processed directly and we had a lot of success in those awards for carcass competitions, which helped us sell a lot of bulls after that because people knew what the bulls could produce. And for instance we won the Safeway Award which is the top steer in the show for the Safeway Award, Domestic. And just a couple of years ago we were in the top 100 MSA breeders in Victoria. So MSA is a Meat Standards Australia grading system. For cattle it goes through they are the top cattle and we were lucky enough to be in the first 100 breeders in Victoria.
A: And what years were the wins at the Melbourne and Sydney shows if you recall? What year did you win?
Bob: [1992 Royal Sydney Show. All awards are on our web site www.bullsemen.com.au].
A: Are there any tensions between your farming activities with the environment and wildlife on the island, which has been steadily increasing over the last couple of years?
Anne: Yes, it’s interesting. I’ve been a member of the Phillip Island Conservation Society ever since it was formed, and I was president for seven or eight years, so in many ways I’m a very different farmer from a lot of other farmers because we’re very keen environmentalists. It is an interesting situation now with the Wildlife Plan (being developed) because with the number of the Cape Barren Geese affecting the growth of crops and planning and management of the farm, it’s having a serious impact. I think like most farmers we feel these things have to be managed.
With the Cape Barren Geese, I know they were introduced to the island, they weren’t always here. We’ve not had Cape Barren Geese for years and years. And the possums are clearly doing an enormous amount of damage. They are difficult issues, but they are doing a lot of damage to existing trees. And also, with the wallabies – we were fortunate because most of the tree planting lines that we did, we didn’t have the wallabies – but the wallabies stop all the regeneration. Usually after a bit or rain or in spring, you’ll start to see the melaleuca come back or other plants and trees, and they just get nibbled away so it’s an issue that has to be resolved if people want to keep the farming landscape, the farming community, I do think the wildlife has to be managed.
It’s going to be a difficult one but I think it’s very important for the future of the island because if people can’t farm, then the next thing would be that people would walk off their farms or potentially walk off their farms, and that’s only going to create a greater problem with the wildlife but it will also mean that the land will then probably be subject to the pressure of subdivision. It’s certainly a very current issue.
Bob: The farm land will gradually disappear.
A: In terms of resolving those tensions, do you have input? We’re going to talk about Landcare in a few questions
Anne: Individually, we’ll be submitting yes.
A: In terms of animals, or even vegetation, what things have you noticed have disappeared or have grown over the last 50 years?
Anne: There’d certainly be more weeds. As I was saying it’s a lot to do with the health of some of the trees that are being been chewed away by possums. Yes, possums are having…
Bob: Possums will just kill trees. In the wildlife corridor there’s trees that have just been completely eaten out by possums and they are just dead.
Bob: I’m sure it’s not just a farming problem, I’m sure there’s plenty of residential places in Cowes that have their gardens eaten out by possums. It is a problem, it’s a big problem, that and Cape Barren Geese. They’d be nothing to see 40 or 50 Cape Barren Geese on a small one hectare or two-hectare paddock. There’s literally thousands of geese on this property at any one time during the breeding season.
Anne: We were thinking about growing some Indigenous plants to be produced to have at the café or the store, but it became impossible because they were just being eaten out.
Bob: They come to fresh crops, fresh grass, and eat it out. There’s one paddock I had for carbon which was a two-hectare paddock and that was just covered with birds, when I first planted it, absolutely covered with geese and magpies, you name it, it was there. We bought some bird scarers…
Anne: That’s right; from Kogan.
Bob: …To scare them off the paddock. We had three bird scarers going then as something approached it let out sirens and ambulance calls and God knows what to keep them away, and that worked for a while. And then I had to fire shots down the paddock to scare them off, so they went on to another paddock somewhere else which wasn’t as important as the carbon paddock at the time. And then I trained an eagle from the top of Hurricane Hill which lives on top of the hill there.
We used to put dead rabbits and hares along the paddocks and work the eagles down towards that paddock, and actually succeeded in having the eagles scare off the birds from that paddock. There’s a bit of everything that went into that and not a lot of people would be pleased with how it was done but it was very effective, and it worked without doing any harm to anything. I daresay you could call that managing; managing the problem.
A: And in terms of Bimbadeen’s future, obviously your children are a big part. But have you put in place succession plans?
Anne: Not really, we’ve just let it evolve, haven’t we?
Bob: We know where it is going. We know that they will all end up with a portion of the farm, and I think they know that too, and virtually which portions they will be getting. It’s up to them what happens with it eventually.
A: Do you hope they will continue?
Anne: Very much, yes.
Bob: I hope so. I don’t know whether that will be the case, but I think some would like to keep farming it, but I think others may not.
A: Thank you. We’re going to talk a little bit about your involvement in the community and some of your reflections and memories. Is there something you wanted to say about that?
Bob: Speak to Anne [laughs]. I was on hospital committees and school committees.
A: Can you tell us about your participation in the Phillip Island community, I understand that you were the founding members of Landcare?
Anne: That’s right yes. The whole of the Phillip Island community? I don’t suppose you know, I mean you don’t, that I have an Order of Australia…
A: Oh, no I don’t…
Anne: Yes. For my contribution to the environmental, social and cultural life of Gippsland which of course included Phillip Island. Oh gosh, a long history of community involvement because I…Well, it was a bit about during the war too. After the war was over they showed the films of the Belsen concentration camp and the parents and children had to leave the cinema and I crawled up and looked to see what had happened in the concentration camp and I think it affected me all my life.
I could not believe people could do that to each other so if you kept people together, it couldn’t happen, and so that was my pathway. But I was in an interesting situation because I’d been fortunate to be educated and I had a really wonderful childhood. I then came across in my work, women who had so much potential and really had never had the opportunity to have education or social experiences.
I was very mindful that they could have a very different life but were destined to be on the journey they were on. In 1973, it was when the Whitlam Government came into power, I saw an advertisement for a Community Development Officer. I applied for that job, and I became a Community Development Officer across Bass, Wonthaggi and Phillip Island. It was an interesting job because you didn’t really have to be accountable to the council, you were accountable to the Australian Assistance Plan, and so I was able to start things like playgroups and do recreation centres and all sort of groups, teenage groups. Bob often came with me. I was able to improve library services and in one special case, the closure of a substandard nursing home.
It was an amazing time of my life, and I’ve got the telegram from [Prime Minister] Gough Whitlam that when he was defeated, I said to him “thank you for the opportunity” and he said, Anne “It’s people like you have made it so worthwhile!” I really continued to do that. I’ve been on dozens and dozens of committees, had community days. Then I was on the council. I was Deputy Shire President [Shire of Phillip Island] and we used to have community days because I don’t think people realised what an amazing community they lived in. Because Phillip Island, being an island, had always had to entertain itself and do things together, so we used to have exhibitions in the rec centre. Every group did something or other. We did those for years and years.
In 1992, when I was on the council, I moved a motion that the council investigate having a community and arts centre in Cowes and I remember when they voted, by one vote, that they would go ahead, I stood up and said, “Hallelujah!” Well, can you imagine how I feel now in 2021, we have been through seven plans and we’re nearly there.
A: It’s an amazingly long time.
Anne: It is an amazingly long time and I want to live long enough to walk in that door in 2022! It is a remarkable community. It copes with people, tens of thousands of people coming to the Grand Prix; it looks after penguins, it looks after hooded plovers; it’s a very dynamic, clever community. I don’t think people realise how smart they are.
A: Do you see your identity primarily as a Phillip Islander, or a Victorian?
Anne: Probably very much a Phillip Islander now. We were amongst the first people to be members of Landcare. The island, the farmers wouldn’t be anything without Landcare. Very active group isn’t it, Phillip Island Landcare, and we’ve won awards, we’ve won a state Landcare award.
A: Joan Kirner had a lot to do with it from what I understand.
Yes, a lot to do with it. It was amazing because a Labor person and Heather Mitchell from the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, they achieved it. But to think it’s still going strong. It’s been a great organisation, we’re still members and in fact we’ve got the AGM, we’re Life Members I think, on Saturday.
A: What’s inspired you about the landscape of Phillip Island and its preservation?
Anne: I suppose, I think the very fact that we live on an island. I mean how many live on an island? And the variety of the beaches and the landscape is exciting, but also its Indigenous history. Bob and I used to own the property called “McHaffie’s” down on the Western Port side, next to “Trenavin Park”.
Bob: McHaffie’s Lagoon.
Anne: That was just gorgeous, a beautiful property, and we restored the lagoon. The people who owned the property before us let their cattle go through the farm, over the sand dunes, and almost walk to the Nobbies.
Bob: The cattle would go down the beach and walk right along and the owners had fish nets along to try and stop them getting through fences.
Anne: We’d go down in the early morning and I’d sit in the sand dune and look across Western Port and I’d think what it must have been like for Mrs McHaffie to be here from the other side of the world. There are many Aboriginal middens in the dunes. There is much Aboriginal history about Phillip Island.
Bob: There was a bare patch of part of the headlands, or part of the sand dunes, and I was taking an Indigenous person up there one day and about 80 metres from it, he started to tremble and shake, and he said, “Bob, I don’t like this, has something happened here?” And I explained that there was a bare patch of ground, and he said, “It’s a slaughter site, there’s been killing there, and people have been taken.” Looking back on it, that’s exactly what could have happened in the early days. I understand the sealers came and shot people.
Anne: They took the women to the Bass Strait islands.
Bob: I firmly believe that he [sensed] something, he just knew something had happened in that area. It was a pretty powerful experience.
Anne: That was a powerful experience.
Bob: Just to see him start shaking and shaking.
When Anne was talking about the vegetation, I think a lot of our vegetation is because of what happened in our very early days when we were told to plough everything in. We weren’t told to keep strips of trees for shelter or anything, we were just told…
Anne: …to knock it over.
Bob…and that’s what we did and so we’ve been trying to restore the tree growth and now about 18, possibly close to 20 per cent of the farm is treed so every paddock is lined with trees or got trees somewhere. We’ve put in about 45,000 plus, possibly near 50,000 trees now and a lot of those trees are melaleuca ericifolia and they sucker so they travel along and come up again. There would be a large increase in vegetation now.
A: Was there anything else you would like to add around that question, Anne?
Anne: No, I don’t think so, thank you.
Bob: If we could just say quickly, we didn’t know which trees to plant and the old-timers at that time told us to plant Cypress, which aren’t a good thing today, but we have a row of Cypress out there and we’ve Cypress along the front. Fortunately, we bought the variety of Horizontalis Cypress so they seemed to have been a much better variety than the macrocarpa so they’re growing well. So fortunately, crossed fingers, they haven’t died out like a lot of other Cypresses in a lot of other areas.
A: Can you describe the biggest changes that you have seen on Phillip Island over the past sixty years?
Anne: Of course, the subdivision of farms into housing estates. I think it’s been particularly tragic that a lot of trees have been felled. Why we didn’t retain some of those precious trees that were habitat! But still whether or not now, whether people are going to be more conscious of it? I’d like to think so. But then, when I look at the new houses being built at San Remo, they’ve virtually have no trees or anything around them; so I think it’s going to take a while.
It’s interesting, because everything changes of course. Sometimes people say to me, it must have been different when there were less people here. But many of the people who have come to live here are very environmentally conscious. You know, they’ve become members of the hooded plover, or they’re Friends of Churchill Island Society, or they’ve started U3A, so they have made a contribution to a richer community. I have no regrets about that, that’s been a good outcome. It’s really opened up Phillip Island. But I am concerned about the volume of day-trippers and the people pouring over the sand dunes and perhaps not having the same respect and understanding about these precious assets that we’ve enjoyed on Phillip Island. So, I think that the biggest challenge is the visitation numbers, and I guess that’s been the changes I’ve seen in the day-trippers. There’s just so many more. We’re so close to Melbourne now with the highway; they come down in great numbers.
Bob: And we can’t see any reason for a double highway through the island for such a short period to such a small destination. You have a single-lane bridge anyway. They’re taking farmland to do that, which I think, you know is unreasonable really because it’s not going to prove advantageous for anything. The speed limit over large parts of is 60 [km/h] now so I think it should control itself. There’s only very few occasions like the Grand Prix, (when travelling on the island) takes longer of course because of the volume of traffic. You know, it’s only a few times a year, if people can organise themselves for these events.
A: Do you have a favorite memory or story that you like to tell about Phillip Island?
Anne: Probably lots of them.
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Anne: Yes, I have lots of wonderful memories and stories. I used to really love it when we had the Warley Hospital in Cowes because it was the centre of activity. We used to have a garden party every year and everyone dressed up in their finery and everyone made plates of cakes and sandwiches, and you just looked forward to it every year. The exciting part about Warley was every baby that was born, was born in Warley Hospital. When the baby was born, the kids used to run down from the school and run into the nursery and look at the baby. I mean as if you would be able to do that now! And when you had the baby, you stayed in hospital for two weeks. You had a cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner, morning, afternoon tea and supper. Everyone came in to see you. There was just this amazing amount of excitement and joy when a baby was born!
When we lost somebody, when somebody died, everyone would come to the funeral. The sandwiches and cakes would come out and there would be lots of memories, lots of tears, and lots of laughter. It was the smallness and the closeness of the community that I connected with which is a beautiful memory that is lingering, everlasting. A lovely time it was when we were a small community.
Bob: We used to have at the guest house - Erehwon Guest House - competitions and concerts to raise money for the Warley Hospital. There used to be lots of events and concerts and passing the hat around, and just solely to raise money to keep Warley going.
Artists' impression of the Warley Hospital design, 1962
Anne: And the car raffle. We sat outside Gulliver’s, which used to be a garage. Someone would bring the car out every day during Christmas holidays and people would buy a ticket to keep the hospital going.
Bob: My father had Surf Beach Estate and he offered a block of land for the raffle, for the hospital, so that went on for many, many years. My memories of a younger boy were that I loved swimming. I loved swimming at the back beaches and I loved running across the rocks, never thinking you would slip or fall, which I never did. I wouldn’t like to try it today! [laughs]. And as Anne said, the people and the small community, and the meetings and the arguments about whether you would get electric power or not and things like that.
Anne: It was very important at the time.
Bob: Important at the time, but you know people were afraid. I can remember arguing with somebody, a very old-time farmer, about electricity, and he didn’t want electricity because he was scared of it. We had an argument at the meeting, but electricity eventually came.
A: What are your hopes and concerns for the future going forward for Phillip Island?
Anne: I’m an optimist. I believe Phillip Island is highly regarded, at the State Government level. I think it’s loved by a lot of people who know it’s quite unique, that its assets are precious, and I’d like to think that there will always be a voice to preserve that which is precious.
Bob: Look, I just hope that sensibility prevails with the landscape and with the development and with the roads. It’s going to be a very hard thing I think because it’s going to become more popular as a destination from Melbourne. There’s going to be volumes of people coming down here and I think it’s a pretty delicate balance as to what’s going to happen. I really don’t know what the future will be, but I hope it remains the beautiful place that it is today.
A: Thank you. Did you have anything else that you would like to share?
Anne: I think that’s about it. Very comprehensive.
A:Thank you very much for today, Bob and Anne Davie at Bimbadeen Farm.
Anne: Thank you Andrea, we really enjoyed it.