This article originally appeared on The Weekly Times
THE small town of Casterton in Victoria’s far west has proved survival and even revival is possible with the right mix of ingredients.
And the fortunes of the local agricultural show, which turns 150 this Saturday, is one canvas that rejuvenation of a remote community can be painted on.
The show almost folded a few years back but this month it will celebrate its milestone with a mammoth program of agricultural and equestrian competitions, as well 120 dogs competing in the Victorian Yard Dog Championships.
It has been a collection of long-serving volunteers working with an injection of new faces that has driven the regeneration of the show.
Show president Andrew McEachern said achieving the 150th year of the show demonstrated his community’s willingness to pitch in.
“More than anything else, to me it shows we have been volunteering in this town for 150 years,” he said.
“And 150 years of anything in post-white settlement Australia is a very long time.”
Like the show, Casterton and surrounds has had its ups and downs.
After wool price crashed in the early 1990s the next decade saw the region flooded with tax-break-driven managed investment scheme bluegum plantations.
Although this gave some retirement-age farmers an exit strategy, it also changed the fabric of the district and some farming families sold up.
Many timber schemes collapsed, and the land was resold, some of it remaining in forestry.
Now, the timber industry is more of a stable presence, and livestock and wool prices have again rallied.
But throughout that time, the Casterton community didn’t lie down.
In 1996 volunteers started the annual Kelpie Muster, a festival and working dog auction that helped the town of 1700 reclaim a sense of identity and put itself on the rural events map.
Casterton Farm Supplies’ Pat Gill said the town was now “in a positive mood”.
“We’re very lucky we have had good rain,” he said. “I think we’ve accepted we’re in a forestry (as well as farming) area too, although some of the land is going back into farms.
“Events like the Kelpies and the show are about making the town feel vibrant and bringing people and money to town; the Kelpies really have put us on the map.”
Despite this, in 2012, things looked bleak for the Casterton P&A Society.
A faithful band of volunteers, plus a couple of newer additions, were tiring. Too many hats were missing heads to fill them.
P&A society treasurer Sarah James, who farms with husband Ian, south of Casterton, said they held three annual general meetings before they got enough people to fill the roles. And, they were out of money.
“It was looking a bit grim,” she said. “Troy Robbins (former local publican) was very important at that time; and put in some of his own money to get the P&A going again.”
From this “almost rock bottom”, momentum began to build, she said, thanks to the input of people like Troy, and Kris Povey, coupled with the “invaluable” knowledge of long term volunteers like former president Ross Davidson and wife Dawn and horse co-ordinator Ruth McCrae.
Another energetic young farming couple — Andrew McEachern and wife Priscilla — joined the committee. Now president, Andrew said one of the decisions made then was to bring in more things for kids to do, a dedicated kids club area packed with day-long activities.
“We wanted to make a great day for families, but still affordable,” he said.
Evidence of the revival of the show’s popularity was in the strong entries across sections, such as poultry and equestrian.
Poultry convener Jeff Black said his section had risen from “about 30 to more than 100 birds”.
“People are getting into showing again as it is something that the whole family can do together, get outside and it doesn’t cost a lot,” he said.
The Stockmans Challenge — an event for horse and rider to display their connection and versatility — has been another growth area, up from 20 to 85 horses in recent years.
With new energy coming in, Andrew and Sarah say it was vital that people who had volunteered for many years were recognised. A central pavilion at Casterton’s recreational Island Park was named in honour of these life members which each name listed. “A permanent public display of our appreciation, to show we have embraced the life members who have put so much in,” Andrew said.
But Casterton’s revival was also being seen outside the show ring.
Elders real estate agent Ashlee Macdonald said since November 2016 the town’s median house price had lifted from $125,000, to $161,500 this May.
“These prices and increases may be minuscule in comparison to city prices, but I believe it is a fantastic sign for the future of our small town,” she said.
Being involved in the show committee had given her a better grasp on the time and effort community volunteers put in “year in, year out”, Ashlee said.
Yet, as Andrew puts it, volunteering has rewards but it is not without cost.
“If we’re honest, you’d have to admit that volunteering does come at a cost to your business and it does take time away from your family, but it also what helps to build a community where you want your kids to grow up,” he said.