Reimagining the future

There’s a butter churn in the dining room of Rita Gee’s home, “Dalara”, at Jerry’s Plains in the Upper Hunter. Rita recalls that she used it as a girl, growing up on a succession of Hunter Valley dairies run by her parents.

Rita and her husband Colin’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren may not know about hand- churning butter, but they do know about dairy farms. “Dalara” is a dairy farm where Colin has lived for all his (almost) 80 years and where Rita joined him when they married in 1962. They had four children – Paul, Pamela, Shane and Shanelle. There are ten grandchildren and the third great-grandchild is on the way!

There have been six generations of Gees at “Dalara” ‒ but sadly, an era is drawing to a close. With the agreement and understanding of all family members, they are selling the farm.

For many years now, dairying has been less and less profitable. There’s a family consensus that deregulation – the removal of restrictions and regulations in 1999 – is the culprit, but farming folk are tough and the Gees have worked harder and harder to maintain a viable property. The grass is green, the calves (lots of them) are happy and the sign at the entrance to the property proclaims that “Dalara” is a “Gee Partnership”.

Succession planning is not always easy but the Gees – like many families on the land – began the process years ago. When I visited “Dalara”, Rita and Colin showed me material assembled many years ago to help in their discernment of the best way forward. “It was the best thing we ever did, because everyone wrote down exactly what they would like to happen,” says Rita. “It won’t work out as we hoped now, but the process brought all of us closer together.”

Paul Gee indicates that the price of cattle feed, cartage, electricity, fuel and so many other necessities rises and rises, but in real terms the price received for milk is at an all-time low.  

Daughter-in-law Di says, “We’ve done everything that’s been suggested, taken every opportunity, but the price of milk paid to the producer is just not enough.” The Gees had built up a herd of over 500 cattle ‒ a long way from the 25 Colin remembers milking by hand as a lad – but they were not able to maintain such numbers with the return so low.

Paul and his family and Shane both work the farm with Rita and Colin, and would love nothing more than to continue doing so, but it’s simply not viable. After leaving school, they followed their parents’ advice and worked ‘off farm’, and those skills have been brought back to “Dalara”.

Rita has always felt strongly that she wanted to leave the property in a better condition than she found it, and she and Colin have planted “thousands of trees over the years – and some of them have survived”. Now, however, although there’s a younger generation interested in an industry that demands daily commitment – cows needing to be milked wait for no man (or woman) ‒ there are no prospects.    

Paul and Di’s daughter Shayne-Anne, 18, is “devastated” that the farm will no longer belong to the family. When she was a student at St Catherine’s Catholic College, Singleton, she showed cattle and she continues to do so. Shayne-Anne’s confident of finding work on another property “but it’s not the same”.

In 2010, Aurora published an item from The Sentinel (1941) lamenting the challenges facing anyone on the land, whether growing crops or raising stock. Rita contacted me then and said that if anything, the situation was worse. In 2018, despite regular appeals to Members of Parliament and communication with representatives of the dairying industry, nothing has changed.

At the same time, vegetable and fruit growers don’t always find it worthwhile to pick the fruit or harvest the vegetables – while supermarket shoppers buy American oranges and Turkish apricots.

Colin and Rita Gee are not complaining about their situation. They have lived long and fruitful lives at “Dalara”, and their extended family has reaped the benefits of their hard work and built up a business on a firm foundation.

Something that has helped the Gees is the concern shown, through phone calls and letters, by members of the community. As Rita says, “These people don’t know us but they have taken the trouble to contact us.”

Rita Gee is a woman of prayer, and while she’s grieving the loss of the future her family envisaged, she takes time for daily contemplation and still reminds her grandchildren to pray and to spend time with the Word of God. Back in 2010, Rita wrote, “The power of prayer is the only thing that will make a difference.” She stands by that today.

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the former editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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