Leaving Koramba Cotton Farm

They say all good things must come to an end.

Well, this experience at Koramba Cotton Farm has been a good thing and it’s also at an end.

The dawn is just starting to break on our last day here.

After 7 weeks the final day has sort of snuck up on us and apart from a few little tidy up jobs the task today is to strip down the annex and pack up the van in readiness for our departure early tomorrow morning.

Jacquie the cook has returned from her holiday to find her kitchen “reborn”. Martyn, our boss, got her to return a week early so we could retrain her on the new equipment and the new system of running things that we’ve put into place.

We’ve no idea what will happen in the near future but we know we are leaving a much better kitchen and a more efficient system behind and that everything is now in place to provide well for the farm’s catering needs. We believe the place is better for us being here and we know we’ve done our best at all times.

It seems strange to be awake at 3:30am and not need to go over to the kitchen to start cooking breakfast. Jacque officially takes over full time today and I’m just going over later to make sure everything’s ok and to load the new stocktake spreadsheets onto her computer.

Martyn has hired another lady to work partly in the kitchen to assist Jacquie and partly in the camp area cleaning. She’ll live on camp and she arrived yesterday so Kerrie is going over at 6:30am to show her what to do for a couple of hours.

Kerrie has been the main reason for the success we have experienced here over the last seven weeks.

She has never once whined or complained about the sometimes ordinary conditions here. She has taken all the residents to heart and treats them like they were her kids even to the point of a slap now and again when they get cheeky. She makes every person feel welcome into the dining room and never ceases her high energy output of work.

Many are the details she remembers and without needing or looking for thanks she brings all those details together even when her back is wracked with pain and every bone in her body is protesting.

Her “No Nonsense” straight shooting way has endeared her to everyone on the camp. This always happens with Kerrie. People are wary at first of her seemingly abrupt nature but after a very short time that absolute commitment to others, with her own needs shoved way into the background, endears people to her and they seem to reverse their early wariness and begin to enjoy the straight talking no BS Kerrie.

I can’t help it, I just love her more each and every day and I realise how totally hopeless I am without her. She seems to take my inadequacies
and my amateurism and mould it into something useful and usable. No man ever had a better companion, friend, lover and helpmate.

We have achieved a lot in seven weeks and it feels good to look back on it now. The residents were still making last minute attempts last night to get us to stay and it was quite heart warming to hear their comments as we presented them with the last meal we would prepare here.

What has made the experience so good for us?

The country style “no nonsense” has definitely contributed. The lack of ridiculously over the top health and safety regulations where responsibility for safety and well being still belongs to each individual is refreshing. The farm still prides itself on being a safe place to work but without the stupidity associated with safety prevalent at other places.

They have no time for slackers out here. That’s also refreshing. Don’t do the work properly out here; don’t have a job – simple. Idiots, useless employees and those that can’t produce a meaningful result are not tolerated and are sent packing, unlike the penchant for large organisations to keep useless employees forever because they’re too scared to tell them the truth and cut them loose.

Productivity is everything. The farm doesn’t produce cotton it goes broke.

Innovation and compromise is everywhere. Much of it is gained from the experience of working with heavy machinery and needing to produce something far away from readily available spare parts or material.

The “bigness” of everything is fascinating. The distances, the size of the property, the sheds, the machines, the water reservoirs; everything’s big. We love it.

The fast moving people we love. Nobody drags their feet. The managers and supervisors in particular can do a number of things at once and while almost without exception they love a chat but seem to achieve so much with their time. Few complain about long hours of work, it’s just an accepted part of farm life. Nothing will ever get done around here without someone doing some hard work.

The stars at night are also an unforgettable part of Koramba. The crisp dark nights are always ablaze with stars and also the night’s absolute silence we will miss.

But, most of all we will miss the people!

The whole bunch we’ve had the privilege of working with out here have been wonderful.

A few of Koramba's wonderful people

A few of Koramba’s wonderful people

Apart from the residents living on camp, who are mostly younger people, we have also developed a liking and a respect for the farm’s managers. Daryl is quietly spoken with an obvious passion for the farm and a lifetime of experience. He was the one who told us we were welcome to go anywhere we liked on the property and he’s been supportive of all we’ve tried to do.

Dave is a 61 year that easily outworks the young men under his control. We see him as the “Make stuff happen” kind of bloke. He’s the one they call when something needs doing. He looks like a wild man and I’m sure he is to an extent but there’s also a strange softer side to him that you can see coming out at times.

But of all the interactions we’ve had here with the people, I guess the most satisfying has been the pleasure we’ve had in working for Martyn Morrissey.

A young business man who is in total control of his business, he is the kind of go getter that I love to associate with. With no BS in him and intolerance for ineptitude he is perhaps the most refreshing and satisfying employer we’ve had in a long time, possibly even ever.

He has been absolutely behind us with all the suggestions we’ve made and he has put a damn lot of trust in two people that he hardly knows. He’s put us in charge of spending about $15,000  of his own money with almost no control, setting up supplier accounts in his name and many other things. I hope he realises the fondness and respect we hold for him and we dearly want him to succeed in the catering out here.

So here we are just about to pack up the Aussie Wide once again and head to Brisbane very early in the morning with a stop off at Martyn’s place in Goondiwindi on the way to finalise all finances and then it’s on to Alice Springs and the Sandrifter Tours.

What an amazing, wonderful, rewarding life we are blessed with.

The Harvest

Martyn Morrissey, the owner of Shear Power Contracting who we work for, arrived on site the other day to check up on his workers.

His company finds people to work out here on the farms and at the moment, with the cotton harvest in full swing, he is very busy but that didn’t stop him bundling us into his car to take us with him as he done the rounds of Koramba Farm and the neighbouring farm over the road, Batavia.

He has 14 backpackers staying in the old shearer’s quarters on the Koramba property but they work at Batavia.

The kitchen has swallows nesting, bird droppings everywhere. It has been cleaned but not up to my standard.

The kitchen has swallows nesting, bird droppings everywhere. It has been cleaned but not up to my standard.

Toby, the General Manager of Koramba is happy to let Phil, the owner of Batavia, house his workers there but Phil has to provide everything they need to live.

The old shearer’s quarters are very basic indeed; Kerrie won’t even step inside them, but it seems the backpackers are willing to live there for a while in order to get the work on offer.

While out doing the rounds Martyn decided to take us to where the Cotton Pickers were working. This was an event we had looked forward to for weeks but hadn’t been able to experience as yet.

With the start of harvesting the whole farm went into a sort of overdrive.

In fact the whole area is alive. It’s completely transformed from a peaceful, sleepy farming area to a frenetic hive of activity as crop dusting planes work furiously on all the neighbouring farms and truck after truck rolls by the camp night and day with their massive loads of cotton bound for Koramba’s gin.

The workers have been doing long hours and the shift times are starting and finishing all over the clock. We have some working night shift, some from midday till midnight, and others midnight to midday. Some start at 6:00am so need to be feed by 5:30 while others start at 7:00am.

Throw into the equation the complete re organisation of the kitchen, new suppliers and ordering systems and our efforts to rebuild the Catering Programme for Martyn and get it on the cloud before we leave (we were unsuccessful at this) and we just haven’t had the opportunity before now to see the harvest in action.

So off we went with Martyn and the first thing that impacted us was the dramatic change in the appearance of the farm. We’ve seen it transform from a sea of green fields as far as the eye can see to a sea of white as the cotton bols released the precious load of cotton within.

We have watched the whole process from green bushes to harvest paddocks.

We have watched the whole process from green bushes to harvest paddocks.

Now, after nurturing the healthy bushes for a year the opposite was happening. They are effectively killing the plants.

Day after day and well into the night the crop dusting planes droned overhead, landing and taking off at the farm’s own airstrip, with their countless loads of chemical that is spread over the cotton as the planes fly literally a few feet above the tops of the plants. The object is to make the cotton bushes shed their leaves and to do it in a precisely timed way so that each paddock contains a crop of bushes with no leaves and exposed cotton one after the other. Not too soon as the cotton will drop off the plants onto the ground before the pickers can get to it thus rendering it useless. Not too late so the million dollar pickers and the labour force will not be held up waiting.

They fly literally inches from the crop.

They fly literally inches from the crop.

Most of the paddocks nearest the camp had already been harvested and what was left was just neatly furrowed rows of soil where a couple of weeks earlier large thick plants had grown.

The cotton had been plucked from the dying plant, devoid of leaves, the root cutters and side busters had ripped up and cut the remaining plant material until all evidence of the cotton plants was buried into the soil to rot down into nitrogen that will assist in the next crop, soon to be planted.

The fields were a hive of activity with tractors working everywhere and the farm utes scurrying here and there as the supervisors and mechanic rushed to keep things going while the bright yellow crop duster planes sped at breakneck sped inches above the ground over the fields that were still green.

Everywhere around these barren paddocks were row upon row of huge cotton bales, tightly wrapped in yellow plastic, all placed in precise
positions awaiting the farm trucks or Chain Beds, to come along, load them 5 at a time and cart them to the gin for storage whilst awaiting processing. There are thousands of them. By the time harvesting is complete they will have harvested and carted 45,000 of these huge bales to the gin.

Occasionally we would come upon a pile of cotton that had been dumped as a plastic wrap had split and the workers would be picking it up with front end loaders and packing it into the old module makers to salvage it.

Loading the cotton into the old module for packing after the bale was torn.

Loading spilled cotton into the old module for packing after a bale was torn open.

Eventually we came to the field that the cotton pickers were working in.

Here they were, four of them working the one field, enormous green machines full of technology and innovation that can only be described as the work of genius.

We watched in fascination as the four machines moved along the rows of white cotton, stripping it with a simple but ingenious system of augers that grabbed the soft white balls and separated them from the plant. What was left behind the machines was a plant stripped almost bare with just a few straggly bits and pieces of cotton still clinging stubbornly to the plant.

4 Pickers removing the cotton row after row.

4 Pickers removing the cotton row after row.

Inside the huge bodies of each of the pickers the unseen technology was compressing the stripped cotton into the huge round bales and wrapping them tightly in the yellow plastic that was now a central visual theme across the farm.

With their computer programmed artificial intelligence, each machine would sense when it had arrived at the end of a row and would automatically open its rear door and gently drop out a completed compressed and wrapped bale. It did not stop to do this; it just slowed itself down a bit but still stripped cotton and carried right on making the bales while holding the completed one till just the right position in the paddock.

The machines would hold a bale until the end of the row while creating another one inside then drop them off at the end of the rows.

The machines would hold a bale until the end of the row while creating another one inside then drop them off at the end of the rows.

It took only 10 minutes to cut a swathe through the white cotton up and back down the paddock and with 4 machines to a paddock it would be easy to imagine the machines passing over a couple of hundred acres a day. They have over 10,000 acres to harvest.

As the pickers picked, two tractors worked speeding down the paddock to pick up the completed bales one at a time. They would reverse up to a bale and with a magnificently simple apparatus that consisted of a hydraulic arm and a wheel, they would gently roll the bales onto a platform behind the tractor and while the arm and the wheel held the bale firmly in place they would speed to the end of the paddock and place the bale in a row that had to be perfectly straight in readiness for the truck and chain bed to come and load them. The big Kenworth semi and the chain bed works 24 hours a day non stop and there is an older Mack truck in readiness as a spare if the Kenworth breaks down.

Each bale is over 2.5 ton and is higher than a man. These two tractors race trying to keep up with the pickers.

Each bale is over 2.5 ton and is higher than a man. These two tractors race trying to keep up with the pickers.

Dave the supervisor saw us near the paddock and promptly dropped what he was doing to come over. He called up Soong, who stays in the camp and operates one of the pickers and told him to stop at the end of the paddock to pick up a passenger. Kerrie jumped up on the enormous machine and took of across the sea of white cotton with Soong giving her a running commentary on exactly what was happening.

Like everything else "size is hugh". See Soong standing beside the yellow bale. He was out to change a plastic roll over.

Everything at Koramba Farm is big. Soong is standing beside the cotton bale. He was out to change a plastic roll over.

 

Chris going for his ride with Mark on one of the pickers.

Chris going for his ride with Mark on one of the pickers.

Dave also called Mark on one of the other machines and I was able to climb aboard with this great bloke who gave me a crystal clear commentary on exactly what was happening as he drove the leviathan over the paddock. Sitting in a comfortable seat in cool air conditioning we were positioned right over the huge prongs that gather the plants together as the cotton is stripped off.

The sensors would even know where the rows where and align correctly.

Sensors know where the rows are and and align the pickers correctly.

Mark explained how the on board computers told him exactly what was happening to every part of the operation as the cotton was stripped at a remarkable rate and blown via large air tubes up into the body of the machine. Videos allowed us to see the tons of cotton rapidly filling the bin and then being compressed and wrapped.

As the machine passed over the field sensors at the bottom of each prong ensured that the prongs remained at just the right distance above the ground. The video showed the door opening to the rear of the machine and the huge bale being nudged gently out as if in a birthing action. Automatically the door closed and without missing a beat the huge machine continued.

Computers telling the driver whats happening in the back as well as video monitors incase there is a fire.

Computers tell the driver whats happening in the back and video monitors scan a fire breakout.

How wonderful it was to experience this. How special to be in a place where everywhere we went, no matter how busy a person was we were met with smiles and waves. The willingness to go out of their way to give us this first hand experience of the cotton harvest was quite overwhelming.

For days after, both of us were still silently pondering the experience of those wonderful machines and the people in them and all who were
associated with every phase of the operation.

Martyn was going to take us over to Batavia where his fourteen backers were working. They are using the older harvesters there that make the big square cotton modules and require 3 or 4 times as many workers. He wanted to show us the massive difference in the two forms of harvesting. Unfortunately time had crept up on us and we needed to get back to get dinner going. We never did see the old harvesting process in action. Martyn did takeus over to Batavia later in the week but they were not harvesting that day.

We’ve been so blessed to have been out here at this time and to have seen the farm go through so many stages.

A New Kitchen:

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been very busy. We thought by now we would have the place all cleaned up and been in a routine.

No… we’re still doing long hours.

Chris, as usual, convinced Martyn (our boss) that they needed new equipment out here if the place was to work efficiently.

They had an oven that was beyond cleaning and would periodically blow the gas out. The temperature was never right and took forever to cook anything. There was only cheap Crazy Clark type kitchen frypans for cooking steaks, egg etc., no grill. The fryer was a saucepan on the stove. This was covered in oil on the outside and you could never get the oil temperature right.

The original kitchen was clattered with useless equpment

The original kitchen was cluttered with useless equpment

They had a dishwasher that had no baskets and didn’t work and smelt putrid. We were told they would “get it looked at”.

So Martyn went to the big boss, Toby, and told him straight what was needed to produce a workable kitchen. Toby said “Whatever we need, get”, and try to convince Chris and Kerrie to stay. “Give them whatever they want”, was his instruction.

Think about that…they were spending $15,000 on new equipment on the say so of Chris, someone they didn’t know and who wasn’t staying. I’ve seen him do this before at other sites when we were with Spotless. Don’t get me wrong they needed it and it would improve the catering out here dramatically.

I suppose $15,000 is not much in the scheme of things out here but, like everywhere it all counts.

One of the guys on the new pickers lost concentration and dug the front cutters into the dirt. This part is worth $47,000 but they got a 2nd hand replacement out the next day for $15,000. But that is another story we have to write about.

So when Toby gave the ok to buy new equipment, Chris was on the phone to CFE in Brisbane with Martyn’s credit card ordering the equipment he wanted. He then traveled to Brisbane and bought the smaller equipment we needed. Tongs that are not from Crazy Clarks, proper catering spoons, pots, filters, bowls, whisks. Baine Marie dishes. There is a 6 bay baine marie on the counter but they only had 5 dishes to fit it. They put a piece of alfoil over the space that was missing to try to keep in the heat. We ended up using a dish from the van to fill the space, but now Chris has bought ½ trays, full trays, ¼ trays. We have enough not only to fill the baine marie but cook in them as well to save on other baking dishes.

Some of the stock Chris bought in Brisbane

Some of the stock Chris bought in Brisbane

He bought a mixer that Jacquie can do cakes, deserts, whip cream, knead bread rather than use her hand mixer. Another useful item was a commercial food processor. Left over’s can be chopped down to make pie’s, sausage rolls, burrito’s that are put on as a second dish. The guys love these and as most don’t eat any other veggie except potatoes they’re not aware that any left over veggie is put through the food processor and they eat them the next day as something else. So we know they are getting their veggie intake.

The new mixer is a beaut.

The new mixer is a beaut.

Chris then had the task of getting the equipment out here. The farm uses a freight service that only runs to Moree and we had to get it from there.

Now organise the plumber, get some of the guys to help pull out the old equipment and lift the new ones in between cooking breakfast and dinner and hope it all comes together.

Well the day finally arrived. The new equipment arrived in Moree and Toby (the big boss) bought it out from Moree on the trailers. Toby lives in Moree and does the 126km each way every day. He travels over 100,000km per year. He does have a house on the farm down by the river but uses it as a holiday home to go fishing. Toby is only 35 and has children, if he lived on the farm it would take 20min just to drive the kids to the front gate from his house for them to catch a bus to go to school then 126km to school.

We really like Toby. He will make a decision on the spot and stick to it. We really haven’t found anyone here on the farm we don’t like. They all seem to smoke and use colourful language that wouldn’t be used in most work places but there is no “Bulls%#t”. If there’s a job to be done, it’s done.

The equipment was lifted off the trailers by a forklift (of course they have a forklift) and placed in the dry store area awaiting installation. There was my dishwasher I had been eagerly waiting for sitting 5mt away and I still couldn’t use it. My hands are cracked and worn away from scrubbing. I tried using gloves but they still fill up with water or sweat and wreak your hands. Like every other part on this old body they’re falling apart.

Out with the old in with the new...but first clean behind everything.

Out with the old in with the new…but first clean behind everything.

Today’s the day Monday 16th April is a special day. We finally get to put all the equipment to use. The plumber has to change all the pipes over from ½ in to ¾in and add a gas regulator that is now mandatory. But otherwise everything goes in smoothly.

The new dishwasher waiting to go in.

The new dishwasher waiting to go in.

The only hic up was when the plumber wanted to test the dishwasher so he put normal detergent in. As you can see… not a good idea. We walked in and he was madly trying to get rid of the soap suds.

The plumber had to change a few things luckily the shed is not lined and this made it very easy.

The plumber had to change a few things luckily the shed is not lined and this made it very easy.

Should have seen the floor before we took photos. Poor bugger, he was so embarrassed.

Should have seen the floor before we took photos. Poor bugger, he was so embarrassed.

The new fryer, grill and oven. A shelf above the counter to hold essentials and all the utensils hanging up for ease of use.

The new fryer, grill and oven. A shelf above the counter to hold essentials and all the utensils hanging up for ease of use.

Yah!! I love the new dishwasher.

Yah!! I love the new dishwasher.

But by the end of the day the place was back to normal, clean and all working. Chris had been on his feet since 4am and we still had dinner to cook. We dragged ourselves to the Aussie Wide at the end of the day, had a shower and then collapsed into bed asking the usual question of “Why do we do this to ourselves?”

It was a fill in position for 6 weeks. Here we had changed the kitchen around, cleaned and scrubbed everything and Chris was building a program so Martyn can keep and eye on everything from his office 112km away. Another story I’ll to tell one day you is what we have done around the compound with the mowing and cleaning.

WHY DO WE DO IT? Because when we leave we know we have done the best job we are capable of. And that is all God asks of you. We’re here for a reason, don’t know what the reason was but knew we didn’t have to stay as we already had the job in Alice Springs.

Trust me, that was a nice feeling knowing we could say no to their offer of “Pay them what ever they want to stay”.  God has already planned the next step of our life and we are looking forward to the next door opening.