I remember Lockie Clarke on my front patio by how hard his hands were, and how soft his handshake – in comparison to soft hands that sometimes squeeze to hurt. He wasn’t trying to prove machismo with putty.
In the steep hills of Danglemah, the cattle were more than wild. Musterers came and stayed for days and could only harness a few. Valleys were too steep, the scrub too thick, the beasts beyond feral. Then entered a kid from Mooneba, near Kempsey, with an old-soul demeanour who learnt to muster when he learnt to ride, who trained his dogs to herd wild goats and tame mickey bulls who had never seen a man before.
It was in his blood, his sister Stacey says, he had an instinct of knowing what the wild things were going to go before they did.
He did the work of three men, and used the mustering to buy cattle, working his own stud.
He was in every sense, different to the Generation Z stereotype who won’t leave home – those who are happier on the dole playing video games than they would be working on a farm, those who think of physical labour as some kind of torture.
When I met him, he was a man of twice his age, rough hands, cool head, a man who wrestled horses, cattle and dogs all day, who had a farmstrong physique which couldn’t be built in a gym, who appreciated the beauty of a forested cirque, who could navigate rough country thorny with briars on horseback, barefoot, and who preferred that challenge of life.
People talk about R.M. Williams boots as a mark of the land but Lockie often mustered without shoes.
People talk about being used and abused on farms, but Lockie, who understood the way of the wild, was more educated in the world than so many students from the University of Sydney.
He was not someone who had been exploited by farm work but nourished into it, on his way to being king of his own grass castle, with just his intuition and skills he’d learnt in the gulf at just 17-years-old.
A boy who pulls more than 300kg of wild bovine testosterone doesn’t have to convince you they are tough.
He was his own man, his own business, his own future – and then he fell asleep on the drive to work in the dark.
I never knew how old he was until he died a few weeks ago, buried on the family place at Dungay Creek, aged just 21. For his mum, Donna, there is only an unfathomable sorrow of unrequited pain.
She got the cards and the casseroles but it doesn’t bring back that last piece of the family puzzle.
A nation made of Lockie’s would be a superpower. Frankly, we need more of them and that’s where Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has navigated a huge win in the new agricultural visa which will let us bring in people who want to work on Australian farms because so many won’t.
Fear stems from the unknown, and there is an element of the commentariat who make-believe farmers hark from a Brothers Grimm fairytale, crooked teeth, waiting to murder, rape or exploit their victims. Crikey even putting the fruit picking industry second to only sex work in how exploitative it allegedly is.
The new ag visa, tethered down as a result of the post-Brexit UK trade deal, which will slash 10,000 backpackers from Aussie farms, opens up our farmers to hire from South-East Asian nations for nine months of the year.
It’s a win for both the land and the Lockies in Vietnam and the Philippines.
But it was a cue for outrage from people who have never stepped onto a farm, citing nightmares of exploited backpackers on remote Australian lands.
Backbenchers such as George Christensen, who worked in overseas charities in the very countries that we will be taking workers from, are already moving to ensure that protections for farm workers, particularly those from povertystruck nations, with poorer English skills, are protected through a strict labour-hire registry with immediate lifetime bans for anyone who does the wrong thing.
We should also use this as the catalyst to improve protections for all farmworkers, so if they get injured, their super pays them out instead of leaving their family in the cold.
We cannot allow the bad apples, who have taken advantage of youthful tourists vulnerable in a foreign land, to define our farmers who overwhelmingly have not murdered, raped and exploited these kids.
Kids like Lockie.
Lockie’s mum Donna stares at a paddock of his bulls.
She doesn’t care where in the world the next musterer comes from, she doesn’t care what colour they are, or what language they speak, as long as their hands are hard and their heart is warm and the legacy of Lockie lives on.