The last harvest - Bill Dyson
IN THE PATCH: Bill Dyson with the final row of potatoes at their patch near Ulverstone. IMAGE: Simon Sturzaker
AT the tender age of eight, Gerald James 'Bill' Dyson made up his first bag of freshly harvested potatoes and loaded them on a local transport truck. "My older brothers had gone off to play football on the Saturday and my father was wild about that," Bill said, recalling a moment which would become etched in a young child's mind and influence the next 77 years of his life. "It was winter time and so he turned to me and said, "Come on Bill, we've got spuds to get" and so I helped him make up those bags. "It was getting close to the end of WWII and that gave me a chance to work because most of the time it was just my father and brothers. "I was so proud to be asked to do something - I felt grown up!" A necessity of the times grew into a passion for Bill, who was soon old enough to run his own potato patch. "I was in Brighton doing my national service training in 1954 and, when I came out from that, I went to work on one of my brother's farms and he gave me some land - probably a couple of acres. "He said, "There you are, grow your own potatoes" and that's where it all started." At just 17 years of age, and the youngest of four brothers and six sisters, Bill worked the small plot by himself with nothing more than a plough and "two wild horses".
A life well-lived
Born in Ulverstone in 1936, Bill has spent much of his life on the northern coast, enjoying the freedom, challenges and triumphs of being a farmer. "I learned a lot from my father who would talk to me about his experience and it made me want to be a farmer." After selling the original farm, Bill spent time building a home near Ulverstone which he and his wife Elaine still reside in today. Not content to be away from the crop he loves most, Bill leased a larger parcel of land in the mid-1960s and took on two draught horses to help ease his workload. "A tractor was out of the question as it was too expensive - that came later," he said. "I had to learn everything that year and from then on. I ploughed an 11 acre (4.4 hectare) paddock in on the side of the hill with a hillside plough and the two horses I purchased and I cut the seed, fertilised and planted by hand. "It would have taken me at least 2 or 3 weeks. It was quite an achievement when I did it on my own and I was very strong and energetic." Although arduous and, at times, gruelling, Bill said he never found himself feeling a sense of isolation. "I was never lonely, I had two horses to talk to! You're talking to the horses all day and that was part of the pleasure of working on your own." "One of the things I've learned is that, if you want to get on in life and do well in what you're doing, you must do it for yourself because no one else is going to do it for you."
Bill's success in the industry grew from his belief in the quality of his harvest and his determination to sell his produce locally. "I created the market for myself in Launceston, Hobart and along the North West coast," he said, adding the early varieties he was planting gave him "a great advantage over anyone else". "We've done very well out of early potatoes." After 70-odd years of planting Bismark potatoes, Bill said they are still one of his favourites. "They were a very popular early potato to grow and they were very much sought after in the spring time. The land that I worked on - and still working on today - is good land that slopes toward the sea." Bill said the combination of variety and plot placement gave him an advantage. "A lot of people ask how you get them so early and, the simple answer is, if you stand on the hill in winter, the sun has a low trajectory and reflects back onto the land from the sea. "That creates two lots of warmth and that's where you get the early growth from." Once established in the local markets, Bill expanded into contract work and was once named as the third largest grower of early potatoes for Edgell. "It was almost an ongoing thing - by the time you finished harvesting, it was time to work up the ground and get it ready for the next crop." In recent years, Bill began growing three varieties to meet market demand. "That goes down very well with the people I supply to because they can ring me up and I can fill orders for three different varieties in one day."
Hanging up the forks
With a wealth of knowledge under his belt, Bill is happy to share what he knows with the next generation, though he warns those looking for a 'quick fix' that they may be on the wrong path. "The whole thing is a challenge but that is what the driving force is and I'm sure most farmers would agree to what I'm saying. "The challenges that are thrown at you day-by-day in growing crops is a challenge in and of itself. Just when you think you have it right, something goes wrong. "I would say to any young person - don't give it up - there will always be a job for a young farmer but the only way to do it is through hard work and honesty." One of the first three private growers in Tasmania to acquire the SQF 2000 quality assurance accreditation in November of 2000, Bill is a certified trailblazer for food producers in Tasmania. "I still have a lot of farmers question me about how I do things and, I say to them, the best way to learn is to have 70 years of experience." Harvesting his final crop last November, Bill said he is ready to take on his biggest challenge yet - retirement. "That is certainly my final crop of Bismarks." Taking a moment to reflect on a life most would only dare dream of, Bill said he never thought the day would come. "There is still so much more I could talk about."
*First published December 2021 for Tasmanian Farmer Newspaper - owned by Australian Community Media.