Farming in the Guthrie family

In 2014, the International Year of Family Farming, the Bendigo Advertiser is running a series on local farm families. The Guthrie family farm has been passed down through the generations for 150 years.

TO SAY farming is in the blood for the Guthrie family is an understatement.

“The odds are I was always going to be a farmer,” says Chris Guthrie, the current manager of Rich Avon, about 160km north-west of Bendigo. 

“There was always an interest.”

This month the family celebrated 150 years of continuous farming at Rich Avon, near the Wimmera town of Donald.

For pictures from the day, which included a cairn unveiling, pipe band march and book launch, click here.

The 6000-arce property has been passed down through four generations of Guthries, to today’s owners Chris and his wife, Jenny, who took over officially this year.

“I’ve been running the farm for about 20 years, even though Oliver (my father) had the title of being manager,” says Chris.

The family runs about 5000 sheep on two thirds of the farm, with the rest being used for cropping.

The couple also own about 3000 acres of land on Lake Buloke, to the north of Donald.

“That’s only just happened in the last 10 years, I just kept buying a bit more to run more sheep. You’ve got to have enough ewes to make it sustainable.”

Chris’ preference when it comes to farming is “just to run a self-replacing merino flock” even though the family is synonymous with founding the Corriedales breed.

“It was only when I came home in the '80s that I got the merinos started again. 

"That’s what this family originally had here and they started on the Corriedales around the turn of the century.” 

Chris’ parents, Oliver, 86, and Pam Guthrie, 85, retired to Ballarat a few months ago after managing the farm since 1954.

Before Oliver and Pam, T.O Guthrie held the reins from 1890, and Thomas Guthrie from 1864.

It was Thomas, Chris’ great-grandfather, who bought “Rich Avon East” on December 1, 1864.

Originally part of the bigger Rich Avon station, the 40,000-acre “Rich Avon East” was sold for 33,550 pounds, with only 640 acres in the Guthrie name (pre-emptive right). 

Twelve years later Thomas and his wife, Mary, reunited the land with the other half of the property, “Rich Avon West”, which had been split in 1858.

There is no doubt the property would have seen a lot of changes since then, but Chris says water access would be at the top of the list.

“That’s the biggest change – is the reliability of stock and domestic water,” he says.

“About 1940 they put in the channel system so they had more reliable water… and 10 years ago they started the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline.

“Today we’ve got a more reliable system because they’ve got more efficient use of the water.”

One of the oldest buildings on the Guthries’ property is the woolshed built in 1860. It is still operating and sees about 5000 sheep through its doors each year.

“In the old days it was 24 stands of blade shearers,” says Chris. 

“It was exactly the same design as used in the Tom Roberts painting which is called Shearing the Rams.

“It’s almost identical – I don’t know if it was the same builder because no one’s got any record of that.”

There is also a blacksmiths shop, which was built before 1860, some old huts and parts of a milk shed and stables on the property. 

Time has taken its toll on most of the buildings and the family has been busy saving all the materials for a planned relocation.

“We’re going to save all the timber and hopefully move the old buildings that are left over to the woolshed so that we’ve got a historical precinct," says Chris. “That’s the vision.”

Time isn't the only challenge on the land with Chris saying the biggest for farmers today is climate change, followed by resistant rye grass for cropping.

“The eight years leading into the 2010 flood was the most challenging period that I’ve had to deal with.”

And the effects of the drought are still being felt now with families leaving the area, Chris says.

“It’s really only since that flood that we’ve seen three good harvests and that’s been the only time that we’ve seen decent cash flows in the last dozen years.

“So when you’ve got the next generation coming on, they’ve got to make a decision. They’ve seen how hard it’s been for their parents and they’ve decided in a lot of cases – not all – to take other vocations.”

Despite all this, Chris says, “the family farm is still the most viable enterprise because the corporate structures don’t have the same attention to details”.

And there’s still a lot to love about the land. “You’ve got to be an optimist to be farming,” Chris says. “And the second part is you have to be 100 per cent committed.

"And the third one is you’ve got to have a partner who has a similar character to you.

“And I think if you’ve got those three elements you can succeed.”

For more from the Guthries' 150th celebrations, click here.

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