General News

Fourth generation sheep farmer tells the tale of a town in flux

By Vanessa Wiltshire

Andrew Thompson has working hands. One of Tooborac’s great wool classers and Merino sheep farmers, his hands are etched, worn and strong.But there is also softness, and those two hands tell a remarkable story.

Fifty-four years of manual labour and work. Half a century of carrying the baton, from an era when it was expected young men would grow up and carry on the family farming tradition. 

Tooborac, where Mr Thompson was born and raised, is a tiny town west of Seymour.

Thousands drive through it every day. It has a general store and school. An iconic pub and brewery. And the giant boulders, which characterise this neck of the woods, are impossible to miss.

Without ignoring the significance of its indigenous history, the town of 310 people (2016 Census) was built on the back of gold, sheep, wool and timber. There were sawmills and a train that connected Melbourne to Bendigo, carrying passengers, freight and timber.

Community groups were an integral part of life: tennis, football, netball and golf, CFA and the long-standing town hall committee. Much of this no longer exists — just the last two remain.

As a fourth-generation sheep farmer, Mr Thompson and his wife Merrilyn remember a lot, either through memory or what's been handed down.

Both grew up in the town and have raised children there. Save for a period when the duo — who met at primary school — went to boarding school, Tooborac is where they have built their lives, family and business.

Before they were married, he trained as a wool classer at RMIT and she worked in the shipping office at Myer Melbourne.

They returned to Tooborac and met again when Mr Thompson started work in Merrilyn's father’s shearing shed. They went on to marry and have two children, Mark and Lucy. 

Mrs Thompson can trace her family roots in the area back to the 1860s. Mr Thompson, four or five decades later. His family played a strong role in the development of the Tooborac Timber and Firewood company. Two of its directors went on to establish BHP.

“Even back then, a high level of entrepreneurial spirit was in the district,” Mr Thompson said.

Timber and sheep/wool were the economic drivers of the town. Today, the latter remains. But in a world where global politics impact local commodity prices and family incomes, together with population urbanisation, the future for Tooborac feels less certain for some.

Despite this Mr Thompson is optimistic.

“This year, we had the best cut we’ve had in 54 years,” he said.

“But global politics between China and US, mean that wool prices have dropped by as much as $5 a kilo.

“In real terms, that means a loss of up to $100,000 on a 20,000 kg clip. It’s just horrible. We’ve had to revise a few things."

Semi-retired, the Thompsons live on 650 ha, which was as large as 2430 ha when it belonged to Mr Thompson’s mother, aunt and a family nephew. There is a remarkable array of memorabilia kept in the shed. Even a 70-year-old pair of working dog boots are tucked away.

The old shearing shed, built in the 1930s, is still in use; Mr Thompson recently completed his 54th shear there.

When it’s in action, it’s possible to sense the energy of what has gone before; the smell of sheep is in the wood. When shearing is under way, the atmosphere is electric. There is as much pride in the workers as there is hard work.

Close your eyes and see it now: clippers in full swing. Fleeces tossed through the air. Quick manoeuvring of the classer's hands as they skirt the wool. And the hydraulic press baling hundreds, if not thousands, of fleeces bound for the city and big ships.

Though the Thompsons are semi-retired, they still manage 2000 Merino sheep.

Mr Thompson said he was a "little bit" weary, but there was still passion as he talked about his work and achievements.

“I have one fleece I’m extremely proud of. I’m donating it to Legacy so they can present it at the Bendigo Sheep and Wool Show in 2020,” he said.

“It's not easy work and you don't love it all the time. I suppose what we can be really proud of, is improving the breed.

"Fifty years ago, sheep were smaller and cut less wool. Over that time, we have increased the size and wool clip.

"When someone makes comment on that, I feel proud."

Mr Thompson, whose choice to become a farmer was "made for him", said his could be the last generation of farmers in Tooborac.

“Melbourne is coming a step closer every day. There is urban pressure on rural areas like ours.

“Once upon a time, farmers just bought out the land next door if the farmer passed away and continued with their business.

“You can’t do that now. It’s becoming harder and harder to make a decent return," he said.

"This year we had a good crew, and the wool that came across the table was some of the best.

"That is where you realise you’ve done a good job this season and you take pride in that."