6 Regional Trailblazers Making a Difference

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Dec 29, 2017

Travel Insider x Toyota

They are the innovators and leaders setting the pace beyond our big cities. Working in agriculture, education, community, health, arts, and food and wine, some shine bright and others are quiet achievers. All have grit, determination and spirit by the bucketload.

 Dr Kym Patison, Derrinallum, Victoria

To hear Dr Kym Patison talk about the cattle herds she monitors as part of her research with CQUniversity near Rockhampton in Queensland, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was describing the social dynamics of parents at a primary school. “Before cows calve they mostly hang out with others who don’t have calves,” she says. “But once they have a calf they form little mothers’ groups.”

The mums even create a crèche system; a couple will watch over 10 or 12 calves while the others go out to graze, warning of danger if the little ones are threatened. And pity any interloper from outside the herd who gets introduced to one of these tight-knit cliques – she’ll probably get treated like a new mum at the school gate. “The others can be quite snobbish and exclude them,” says Patison, laughing.

This fascinating insight into cow psychology is all part of her work as a postdoctoral research fellow with CQUniversity’s Precision Livestock Management Group. Patison investigates cattle behaviour to help develop systems that monitor their welfare, creating happier animals that reproduce well and yield better-quality meat. Through her studies – which includes a PhD at The University of Melbourne and the CSIRO – Patison has developed electronic collars that are capable of letting producers know if their livestock is stressed, threatened by a predator or ready to calve.

Although much of her work is still in the research stage, she hopes her findings will eventually have far-reaching benefits. Her team is developing an app that will allow farmers to track their animals’ movements in the most remote corners of their property, as well as their cattle’s weight, water intake and other data. If commercialised, the system would potentially allow producers to market their beef as “higher welfare”, translating into premium prices on supermarket shelves.

Having grown up on a dairy farm in South West Victoria, Patison admits that she sometimes grows fond of her four-legged charges. “Cows are gentle, graceful creatures that cruise along at their own speed,” she says. “They’re friendly
and have amazing personalities.”

Does this make it harder to say goodbye to her favourites when they come to the end of their journey? “Yes, a bit,” she says. “But I’m a realist; I eat meat. I know that’s what they’re for and it’s just part of the great circle of life. My goal is to improve their welfare while they’re here in a way that gives returns to producers.” Alexandra Carlton

Waverley Stanley, Mount Tamborine, Queensland

Waverley Stanley distinctly remembers the day, back in 1980, when he left his small town in country Queensland to board at Toowoomba Grammar School. Stanley’s beloved teacher, Mrs Rosemary Bishop, had seen something special in the 12-year-old and recommended he be considered for a scholarship.

As he arrived at the new school, Stanley realised he was the only kid who’d turned up in a school uniform. “My mum and dad didn’t know,” he recalls, chuckling. But that wasn’t the only thing that made him different. His was one of the few dark faces in a sea of white ones. “The loneliest moment of my life was when my mum, dad and six younger brothers and sisters drove back to Murgon,” he says. “I think I cried for the first two weeks.”

But something made him persevere and today he says Toowoomba Grammar School is one of the best things that’s happened to him. It’s the genesis of the work he does now as founding director of Yalari, one of the most successful Indigenous education programs in Australia. “It gave me a burning ambition to give other children the same opportunity I had,” he says.

Yalari means “child” in Birri Gubba (Stanley’s mother is from the Barada clan of the Birri Gubba traditional owners). He and his wife, Llew Mullins, a former musician, founded the not-for-profit in 2005. It enlists government, business and private philanthropists to sponsor promising Indigenous students from rural and regional areas to board at private secondary schools across Australia.

In its first year, three children started the program. Today, nearly 170 students have Yalari scholarships and 275 have gone onto university, further studies or work. “I have a young man who went to The Scots College in Sydney and is now a primary schoolteacher,” says Stanley with pride. “Another girl studies psychology and works with Yalari two days a week because she wants to give back to the program.”

He and Mullins instil in their Yalari kids – many of whom are like extended family to the couple – that the children’s home is still their home, no matter how far they travel. They’re also told that the opportunities afforded to them are just the beginning. “It’s like what Mrs Bishop said to me, ‘I just opened the door for you. You had to do all the work.’”

The couple says they’ll retire together when they can hand over the reins to one of their “children”. “My word, that’s what I’d like to see: one of my Yalari children running Yalari,” says Stanley. “Then Llew and I will be able to look back and know we lived every day to the fullest.” Alexandra Carlton

Simone Kain, Penola, South Australia

Simone Kain has tried city living. After an idyllic childhood on a sheep and cropping farm in Millicent, South Australia, she spent five years at boarding school in Adelaide. But she yearned for the freedom of the farm. “I was pretty homesick,” she says. “My parents put in a 1800-number because I’d ring home about 10 times a day.”

She’s back in the country now: in Penola, 25 kilometres from the 1820-hectare cattle, sheep and potato farm that her husband, Justin, runs with his brother, Allan. And though they don’t live on the property, the couple makes sure their three sons – George, seven, and five-year-old twins Frank and Louis – spend as much time there as they can.

In fact, it was George’s love of the farm that made Kain realise there was a gaping hole in the picture-book market. “I started looking around for an inspirational farming character for kids but all I could find were one-off stories about old men who milked cows and collected chook eggs.”

That’s when Kain and Ben Hood (pictured), her business partner at creative agency Hello Friday, came up with George the Farmer – a character who would make agriculture cool. “I think it’s important for rural and regional kids to have someone they can look up to,” says Kain. “But, additionally, there’s a massive disconnect and lack of education regarding where food actually comes from.”

George and his agronomist wife, Dr Ruby, first appeared on an interactive iTunes app. Hardback picture books soon followed, including George the Farmer Plants a Wheat Crop – loosely based on an incident where Justin ran out of seed – and songs such as The Harvest Hop and We Love Beef.

Kain, who was named the national runner-up of the 2017 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, has such a passion for educating kids about food and farming that she’s also ventured into the classroom. Her $15,000 AgriFutures prize money has gone towards developing three curriculum-aligned teachers’ resources for primary schoolkids, available later this year. Although there’s a serious side to Kain’s work – the new teaching guides will focus on the range of careers in agriculture – ultimately she just wants to make farming fun. “I had a really beautiful childhood growing up on a farm, as did Ben, but so many kids aren’t lucky enough to experience that or even visit a farm regularly. This is our way of providing that connection for kids who aren’t as fortunate as we were.” Joanne Hawkins

Dr Colin Farquharson, Macleay Valley, NSW

When Dr Colin Farquharson first flew into Kempsey, NSW, some 30 years ago, he was feeling a little dusty. The previous day, he’d completed an intense round of postgraduate exams in Sydney and had headed out in the evening to celebrate with a mate. Though most hangovers are quickly forgotten, this one is memorable for the fact he was still nursing it when he fronted up to Kempsey Medical Centre to interview for a GP position.

Spoiler alert: he aced it. Three decades on, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia named him Rural Doctor of the Year 2017 for his work in the Macleay Valley. “Me? Wow,” thought Farquharson when he won the award. “I was very surprised, delighted and proud.” No doubt it was less of a shock to his colleagues and the patients he sees at Kempsey Medical Centre and Kempsey District Hospital, where he works in obstetrics and the rehabilitation unit. He also consults at the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre and the local Aboriginal medical service.

Medicine wasn’t always part of the plan for Farquharson, who grew up in the United Kingdom and was headed for public relations until someone said he’d make a good doctor. In his early twenties, when the opportunity to move to Australia arose, he “decided to have a crack at doing medicine here”.

That adventurous spirit took him to the Northern Territory early in his career, where he worked with Katherine Hospital’s aerial medical service, treating people in Aboriginal communities. “I remember the heat, the sweat,” he laughs. “You saw 20 people [at a time]. I remember treating kids with awful ear infections under the wing of a plane and trying to get someone to translate during a difficult labour, as the patient was from Ngukurr [a remote community] and didn’t speak English.”

The temperature may be different in the Mid North Coast region that he and his wife, Margot, and their two now-adult children have called home for so many years but the varied nature of Farquharson’s work hasn’t changed. “You never know what’s coming; every day is a surprise to me,” he admits. So, what does it take
to be a good doctor in a regional town? “Being adaptable, keeping your emotional tank full and being sensitive to the non-verbal cues you get from people.”

Living and working in the same community does come with challenges (having a patient ask about test results during a chance run-in at the local RSL among them) but the pay-off is worth it, says Farquharson. “When someone who’s not well-off gives you a little gift or card for whatever work you did, it’s really nice. I have colleagues in the big smoke who can’t remember getting anything like that – we’re very lucky.” Jessica Irvine

Thomas Busby (left) and Jeremy Marou, Gold Coast (Busby) and Rockhampton (Marou), Queensland

A band’s earliest days often play out in high-school halls or shoddily soundproofed garages. Debating melodies over government phone lines? Not so much. But that’s how it was for Thomas Busby and Jeremy Marou, the duo behind blues and roots band Busby Marou. Before topping the charts became a full-time gig, the Rockhampton-raised boys worked for the Queensland Government
– Busby as a prosecutor and Marou as a ministerial policy adviser. Musical aspirations, at first pursued after hours, began to infiltrate their nine-to-five day. “We laugh about it now,” says Marou. “We say thanks to the Queensland Government because they funded our first couple of years – we had unlimited emails and phone calls to each other. I’d ring Tom’s EA, saying, ‘Hi, it’s Jeremy from the Rockhampton office. Is Thomas Busby there?’ I made it sound like it was a work matter.”

These days, it is. After a decade of performing together, lead vocalist Busby and guitarist Marou have released three albums, including last year’s Postcards from the Shell House, which was partially recorded on Queensland’s Great Keppel Island
and debuted at No. 1 on the ARIA Charts. They’ve supported Dolly Parton and Elton John and scored a nomination for Best Blues & Roots Album at the 2017 ARIA Awards. Their songs, once played at Rockhampton’s Oxford Hotel “to our drunk mates – there were 10 of them, then 20, then 30”, says Busby, have been heard live by tens of thousands. “The sound of the crowd roaring back, that is intense and a feeling I want to keep feeling.”

Busby describes the duo as having “different cultures, different beliefs, different politics, different taste in music, different everything” but what they share is a commitment to the sound that’s taken them this far. “I don’t get sick of playing our songs,” says Marou, a Torres Strait Islander. “They’re about friends and family and places we love.”  

“Individually we can do our thing but put us together and we create some kind of unique sound,” says Busby. “It turns out we have a summery Queensland sound. Why not spread the love and tell everyone across the world where we’re from and what we’re about?” The duo spent much of last year on tour – they hardly missed a beat despite Marou suffering two heart attacks in May. “It changed Tom’s and my outlook on life: it makes you realise how special life is,” says Marou. The highlight of their careers was a 2016 concert back where it all began: Rockhampton. This time, instead of a handful of mates, it was a 2500-strong crowd that included their wives and kids (Busby has two children and Marou has four). “That was really awesome,” recalls Busby. “It was just the two of us on stage – the same set-up it’s always been.” Jessica Irvine

Cameron Syme, Buntine, Western Australia

When Cameron Syme told his dad that he wanted to go into the whisky business, his old man wasn’t entirely surprised. “He related a story of my forebears who were involved in illegal whisky production in Scotland,” explains Syme, who began his working life as a lawyer. “The English police were offering a ‘dob in your distiller’ reward. So they reported the location to the police, took the reward money and set up an even bigger distillery.”

The tale – whether tall or true – appealed to the larrikin in Syme and reinforced his determination to help get Australia’s whisky industry off the ground. There was just one problem: he didn’t know a thing about making whisky. What followed was 16 years travelling around the United Kingdom to refine his understanding of Scottish single-malts then a trip to see Tasmania’s blossoming industry.

In 2004, he founded the Great Southern Distilling Company in Albany, Western Australia. On Christmas Eve the following year, Syme stole away from his in-laws’ house to switch on his still for the first time and drink the spirit he’d put so much of his heart into creating. “’Elated’ is the word I’d use,” he says of that defining moment. “I felt like we were breaking ground.”

Since then, Syme and his team have started two more distilleries in Porongurup and Margaret River. The flagship spirit, Limeburners’ Darkest Winter single-malt whisky, was named Southern Hemisphere Whisky of the Year in influential critic Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018. In April last year, the American Distilling Institute named the drop Best International Craft Whisky in the World.

The success, says Syme, only makes him hungrier. “My business plan was to create the best whisky in the world,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we’re there universally yet – we’ll keep trying to make a better and better whisky.” He believes the secret to his exceptional product is the clean air and cool marine climate of southern WA, the passion of the 45 people who work for the company and the relationships they nurture with local producers.

“We can’t compete with the multinationals in terms of the volume we produce but what we can do is make sure that we source local grain and other materials.” Bottles of whisky are bartered for peat from the Valley of the Giants near the scenic South West coast and barrel coopers will set aside special barrels for the distillery. Locals tell Syme that they’re proud of the way Limeburners is putting the state on the map.

“When you try our product,” says Syme of the results of his years of passion and perseverance, “you’re tasting a little bit of Western Australia.” Alexandra Carlton

 

SEE MORE: Why Locals Love Tamworth, NSW