‘We could be about to see what happens to a town when it loses its identity. Shepparton is SPC Ardmona’ – Warwick Long, ABC Rural journalist, 30 January 2014 via Twitter.
I am a graduate of Dookie Primary School No. 1527, where there was a grand total of five students in my grade. All up, our school roll-call peaked at about 60 in my later years. The primary school was on a block so large that a city property developer would probably stack no less than 200 apartments on it. Other than Pine Lodge Primary School, a few kilometers down the road, which actually had real bush as part of its playground, we must have had the highest square-metre-of-playground-per-child ratio in the state. Our little town, population 260, was (is) surrounded by gentle rolling hills and lots and lots of paddocks – some with crops, some with sheep. I have no shame in comparing the scenery to Tuscany.
At school, we’d sit cross-legged in our composite classes and read the ‘City Kids/Country Kids’ book series (by Lorraine Wilson, with great titles like, ‘We Swim in the Dam’ and ‘I’m Selling Sheep Manure’), and laughed (after initial shock) when we were told by our teacher, who once taught in Melbourne, that some city kids think milk comes from a bottle at the supermarket. But we felt a bit sad for them too – missing out on knowing the full story. We knew it came from a cow, went to the dairy, then a ‘Ducat’s’ milk carton at the supermarket.
We also knew exactly where tinned peaches, which we often ate with ice cream, came from. They came from the orchards we would see out the car window when travelling to Shepparton, 30 kilometres west, to go to the supermarket, dentist, Fairley’s, or W.B. Hunter hardware. Dookie was where wheat came from, and Shepparton was where apricots, peaches, apples and pears came from. Wheat went to the silo and became bread; fruit went to SPC and got put into tins. Simple. These lessons came early for kids in the area — and were a part of our childhood. Even the Dookie kinder’ outdoor play-equipment featured a giant wooden fruit crate branded ‘S.P.C.’.
If heading to London is a so-called ‘rite of passage’ or ritual for many young Australians, an excursion to ‘the cannery’ was a ritual for all Goulburn Valley kids. It was just referred to as ‘the cannery’ but we knew it was SPC, the factory, and that that stood for ‘Shepparton Preserving Company’. I’m not exactly sure how old I was when I went on the excursion, but I’m guessing I was about grade two, and we had to wear those funny hats that look like tissue shower caps, walk very carefully, and not touch anything. I remember the noise, the workers sorting the fruit, the tins racing around on lines like roller coasters, and most of all, I remember the smell. Stewing fruit – tonnes of it – is not a smell little kids naturally love. It is heavy, it is strong, and it doesn’t smell like Maggie Beer’s or Stephanie Alexander’s kitchens would if they were stewing fruit. I’m sure we screwed up our nose and said ‘pewwww’ and ‘grooooosss’ quietly, but not so loud as to be rude and embarrass our teacher. Being at the SPC factory was like going to a church – you had respect for it, you behaved, and you understood that even if your family didn’t go there, it was an important place for many.
Fast-forward a few years, to when I was a teenager on the rowdy ‘Dookie bus’ that travelled half an hour each way between Shepparton and the Dookie hills, dispatching a rabble of youngin’s to the six (later, five; thanks Jeff) secondary schools. Every morning and afternoon, our bus would zip along New Dookie Road, past the same orchards we used to see out the car window when we were little. In Summer, the trees would be green and lush and we could see the fruit hanging and ripening. In Winter they would be bare like skeletons. And in Spring, they’d be covered in blossoms like they were coated in popcorn, or cotton wool — a scene that would seriously challenge Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival. These were the orchards that grew fruit for SPC.
After high school, I moved to Melbourne to study at university, and it is where I am living now. In those uni days, some friends from high school would head back to Shepparton for the summer and ‘do the cannery’ – work shift-work during the peak time for the factory and earn some cash for the following year. I had family and neighbours who did the same. It was an important part of the annual wage cycle for many.
Today, my uni days further in the past than seems real, I only buy SPC (and Ardmona) tinned fruit, tomatoes, or baked beans from my city supermarkets. And I get angry when the cans are on a lower shelf than the imported, or store brands. I always take a moment to sideways-glare at the store-brand tins (it is a moment of utter nuttiness on my part, but it would be ‘un-Goulburn Valleyian’ not to). And if there is ever an opportunity to tell a friend/colleague/poor bystander what ‘SPC initials stand for’; I do. I have done this in Australia, and with Australians overseas (I usually follow it with talk about where the saying ‘that’s a Furphy‘ comes from; but that’s another blog post).
There is more to this week’s announcement by the Federal Government that they will not to provide much needed funds to SPC Ardmona than the threatened closure of a cannery. (An announcement that, like a scene from the political television satire ‘The Thick of It’, Prime Minister Abbott so obviously and wickedly orchestrated to come out of the mouth of Minister for Industry Ian McFarlane in their joint press conference).
I haven’t space here to properly write about the future for the transport companies and drivers who ship the fruit to the factories, and then the tins elsewhere; or the factory outlet that, contrary to what our Prime Minister would have the country believe this week, IS a major part of tourism for Shepparton and the region. A factory outlet that has people making detours after holidays on the Murray, or driving back from NSW, or visiting friends in the region, to pick up some good deals. Glamourous MoNA it aint but you can’t set yourself up for winter soup-making with a slab of dented tins of crushed tomatoes from a trip to Hobart; so let’s call it a draw.
I also haven’t talked about the issue of dumped products, high Australian dollar, the already high unemployment in the region, or the limited opportunities available to the hundreds that could lose employment if SPC shuts. I haven’t reiterated local Mayor Jenny Houlihan’s point that the welfare payments to the potentially 3000 unemployed will outweigh the $25 million co-investment being asked for.
I haven’t discussed the politics of Shepparton being in the federal seat of Murray – one of the safest Coalition seats in the country (but bordering with Indi – sometimes ideas can be contagious). I haven’t shared my thoughts on the not-insignificant circumstances of the local federal member, Dr Sharman Stone, being a supporter of the PM’s rival Malcolm Turnbull; and a person who chose to vote to overturn Tony Abbott’s controversial RU486 abortion bill law. I’ve not gotten on to Cadbury who, like SPC, is owned by a multinational, and got funding from the federal government, apparently on ‘tourism grounds’, but also located in an electorate held by the Independent Andrew Wilkie; a seat the government wants. I haven’t shared my thoughts on the embarrassing comments from economist Judith Sloan that if SPC goes, the orchardists can just turn their land into dairy farms (because they all have a couple of million in their back pocket, and cows don’t really need much room, right?); or the inference from Tony Abbott that SPC workers, averaging less than $50K p.a., are overpaid, thanks to what he calls an ‘extraordinary agreement’ and work conditions.
I haven’t explored the issue that SPC is more than just fruit and the futures of orchardists — it is bean growers, and tomato farmers too. Or the cultural significance of the orchards, connected to the rich migrant history of Shepparton. I haven’t raised the ‘white elephant in the room’ that Australians have gotten better at eating fresh fruit, and don’t eat everything tinned like our grandparents did, and how that hasn’t helped SPC. And I haven’t confessed that while MP Bob Katter – BobKat – loses me with most of his policies he has always had me on side when it comes to the importance of Australia being self-sufficient with food we produce and eat.
Here, I don’t want to talk in detail about any of those issues. I just want to endorse Warwick Long’s comment that SPC Ardmona is Shepparton. This isn’t about a factory being at risk – it is a town at risk, and a community at risk. It is about pride, identity, and just one part of regional Australia feeling positive about its future.