Colin reflects on 40 years of community dedication at Henty

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Gwen and Colin Wood have been involved with the Henty Machinery Field Days since the early 1960s and reflect on the 40th anniversary of the permanent site.

Forty years down the track, former chairman Colin Wood is able to reflect on the massive undertaking it was to give the Henty Machinery Field Days a permanent home.

Colin was chairman for a record three decades, devoting himself to the field days and juggling calving, shearing and cropping activities to fit around the Henty schedule.

At the 1976 field days, the days were long and busy for the chairman.

In the office, secretary Doug Meyer did much of the legwork supported by staff Heather Barrett, June Bahr and Colin’s wife, Gwen Wood.

Colin’s connection with the field days goes back to the original one-day header school held at the Henty showgrounds in 1961.

At age 19, he was working for Henty contract silage and haymaker, Milton Taylor.

“Milton was selling farm machinery and it was my job to assemble and demonstrate the machinery,’’ he said.

“Each spring I returned to Henty from the family farm at Tara in Queensland to work for Milton until Christmas.

“In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he would travel to the Orange field days with Ernie Howard and happened to say one of these field days should be held in southern NSW.’’

Milton Taylor was the driving force behind the first header display in 1961 at the Henty showground, where Colin demonstrated hay and silage equipment for the assembled crowd of interested farmers.

Colin was invited onto the Henty Field Days committee in the mid 1960s when he returned to Henty to work full-time for Milton.

He and Gwen married in 1968 and invested in their own property at Cookardinia in 1972.

Colin was always quick to help out with preparations for each field day, pegging out exhibitor sites or preparing the car park.

The field days rotated around Culcairn and Henty farms until a rural recession in 1970 forced the cancellation of the event that year and again in 1971.

“I was on the stand-by committee in 1971 and 1972 – once two years was up I said to Milton if you want the field days to go ahead you had better think about it,’’ Colin said.

“The committee held a meeting and decided to run again in 1973.’’

Conducted under the auspices of the United Farmers and Wool Growers Association, the field days were led by chairman Milton Taylor and were officially opened by Australian Wool Board chairman Sir William Gunn.

“Our committee had a fair spread of members by then from Lockhart and Walbundrie,’’ Colin said.

Milton remained in the chair for two years but his heavy involvement in state agri-politics forced his retirement from the position.

Colin, 34, stood for chairman alongside Ryan farmer Ian Ritchie.

Under Colin’s leadership, the 1973 field days shifted south of Henty to Geoff Scheuner’s property, “Belmont’’, as farmers revelled in record commodity prices and above average rainfall.

The 12ha site at Belmont was used again in 1974, the year Henty moved to a three-day format.

The event had begun to take on a life of its own.

“The field days had now reached the size where they were too much for a farmer’s paddock every year,’’ Colin said.

“We had to have the power and water connected to each site and the cost was increasing every year.

“We felt the field days had a big future and a permanent site was needed.

“Committee members began discussing a plan to find a place to hold it permanently.

“Secretary Doug Meyer, Milton and Ernie Howard did a lot of work looking at sites and eventually decided on the stock reserve on the Cookardinia Road.

“The reserve was unused and we secured it on a 99 year lease. A neighbouring paddock was bought as a car park.’’

The Ladies Interests, under the direction of Joan Meyer, was growing rapidly, while the Farmers Innovation Award proved hugely popular with local farmers.

There was also a revolution happening in the paddocks as machinery imported from North America began to take on gigantic proportions, changing the face of seedbed preparation and stubble mulching.

“Tax concessions offered by the Fraser Government encouraged farmers to spend up big on farm machinery and all the younger farmers wanted to go cropping due to the good returns,’’ Colin said.

“Growers were able to put a big plant together and this changed the face of farming.’’

With $400 in the bank, the field days committee called on the Henty branch of the State Bank to be a major sponsor at the new site.

“We had working bees every weekend for the first 12 months – 10-12 blokes would bring along their tractors and trucks to clear the site and form the roads and drains. We employed a contractor with a dozer and grader for the bigger work.’’

In wet conditions, some areas turned into a quagmire, one road winning the name of “Bog-A-Duck’’.

Volunteers used sheets of corrugated iron topped with stone and gravel to stop vehicles sinking into the mud.

“For a few years we couldn’t drive on the roads but the gradual formation of drains helped the water get away,’’ Colin said.

“We built a runway to bring in dignitaries and some companies would fly their top brass in.’’

The dedicated site enabled exhibitors to invest in permanent infrastructure, including sheds and silos.

The committee turned to local clubs, organisations and schools to help with the mammoth task of field days catering.

“It was a great feeling to be able to get the respect of the community and sit down with them to work out a reasonable way of organising the catering, with a decent percentage of the profit being used to improve buildings and grounds,’’ Colin said.

“Our volunteer reach had expanded beyond Henty to benefit the communities of Holbrook, Yerong Creek, Walbundrie and Culcairn, and this is still maintained today.’’

Colin is pleased to see women being welcomed as members of the Co-operative.

“We never had any approaches from women, unlike today, but people, attitudes and communities change,’’ he said.

“Henty has always focused on involving young people, encouraging them to be involved in the working bees and some have gone on to serve on the board as directors.’’

Gwen Wood spent decades working alongside co-operative secretary Doug Meyer in the office.

She recalled the pre-mobile phone days when “messenger boys’’ would be run off their feet, relaying phone messages from the office to exhibitors across the field days.

The challenge of constantly coming up with a new program each year meant visits to other Australian and New Zealand field days to gather ideas.

“It was about talking to the Department of Agriculture to see what was happening in the cropping industry and the trends in agriculture, liaising with machinery firms to encourage them to bring the latest technology along,’’ Colin said.

“We aimed to showcase different crop and pasture varieties, and what needed to go into the soil.

“We endeavoured to keep things as close to the machinery theme as possible and maintained the word machinery in the field days title – we never wanted to be an expo.

“The field days have been so successful as they are run on a personal, friendly basis – we employed all our own crane drivers and on-site specialists without having bureaucrats involved.

“The fact it involved principally volunteers with the profits going back into the community was important.

“Now I can stand in one spot and see what has been achieved over the life of the field days for the members, community and district as a whole.’’

Colin believes the field days have a future, but the digital world will become more prominent.

“There will be changes in the genetics of grains and animal breeds, crops will be produced on less water, and machinery operated from the office,’’ he said.

“I have never been against change as it has always been of benefit, and hopefully we can keep producing enough food for the world to eat.’’