Artist’s Name: Barbara Heath
Title: Land Race
Dimensions: Group of four objects; each object approx. 50mm high x 200mm wide x 150mm deep
One object consists of two layers, the lower layer perforated enamelled copper, the upper layer perforated stainless steel.
The two layers are separated by about 50mm, the upper layer floating above the lower layer and parts of the lower layer extend through the upper layer. The work appears like a lattice grid which is permeated by organic forms.
During my visit to the region 18-22/7/11 I spoke to a number of people, some connections were planned and some were random;
Native plantswoman, staff at Horsham Information centre, nurserymen at Horsham Botanic Gardens, Lindsay Smith at Horsham Historical Society, Adam Harding, Michael Shiell and Alison Eggleton Horsham Regional art Gallery, Val & Syd at James Hill Taxidermy Museum, workers at the Stick Shed at Murtoa, junior reporter at Community Information Session, arts administrator at Community Information Session, motel owner, farmer, graphic artist, women shoppers at KMart, Laura Poole ABC Rural Reporter, waitress, Dr Bob Redden Grains Innovation Park, Dr Gael Phillips.
Although drought is an ongoing concern for farmers given the twelve year duration prior to the rains, this topic was not usually mentioned first. Also rarely spoken about, one of the effects of long term drought, is that of male depression and suicide – often deaths may be reported but suicide is un-stated.
Overall the issues people listed relate to diminishing family farm holdings and subsequent lack of community in the surrounding areas, population shift to Horsham, disintegration of rural culture – football teams shrink and merge with one another, (you may end up barracking for a team that was once your opponent). Diminishing numbers of young people in the communities – fewer want to or can work on the farms. Rural youth disadvantage. Shifting demographic – since small town rural properties are so cheap – newcomers are often lowest socio economic – sometimes ‘rough’, ‘hard’, and don’t join the community – with more children than dwindling rural health facilities can support.
In many of the smaller regional communities there may be just a few ageing people left and once they die they know their house will remain empty. In one instance, hope was raised when a Melbourne developer came and purchased a number of homes, however these were trailered up and shifted to Melbourne for sale – effectively erasing a large part of the town.
Locals anticipate rural Victoria ultimately being serviced by 25 or so larger towns and all other communities will die out.
Some spoke of the overwhelming nature of introduced weeds which while manageable on your own property becomes too large when they spread onto roadsides and public land.
The picture repeatedly however is that of the farms getting larger, growing fewer crops on a massive scale and using less human labour more technology and sophisticated equipment to work the land. Agriculture today requires economies of scale that change the social landscape and limit population diversity. This results in the erasure of many small communities e.g Quantong – once a thriving fruit and vegetable growing area, which supplied the Melbourne markets via a rail line which has now been removed. Evidence of the extensive market gardens in this area is now reduced to a few sheds and self seeded fruit trees growing along the roadside.
A contrast to the negative issues is found in the work of the National Gene Bank at the Department of Primary Industries. I met with Dr Bob Redden, curator Australian Temperate Field Crops Collection, who explained his department’s work to ensure plant gene diversity by sourcing and saving seed from land race crops. ‘Land race’ is the term used to describe heritage seed varieties now being displaced by International Seed Uniformity Standards . He described the urgency of collecting seed from farmers in places such as Western China, before this gene diversity is lost in the rush to take up the new improved and higher yielding seed – “with population growth and competition for land and water world wide, climate change presents a threat to food security and diversity. We will need to conserve genetic diversity for the future.”
In so many ways the blanket displacement of crop gene diversity mirrors the disruption of small ‘whole’ rural communities. Somehow the urgency of the hunt for remaining land race varieties, in the face of all the implications of risk inherent in the seed uniformity standard, might also mirror a way to resolve the social implications of escalating rural change.
Its this theme that underpins my work for Life in Your Hands.
Viewed from the summit of Mt Arapiles the landscape of the Wimmera reveals itself as a beautiful grid of rich and fertile farms, but this grid also implies a disconnect from the human need for diverse interests. We are being called to find more imaginative paths to harness science for our future.
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