Life on the land – Barossa brothers reminisce

There’s nothing better than talking about the good ol’ days and for Dudley and Keith Koch, those days are many.

The siblings have been sharing the same “office” for more than eight decades now and still work full time, farming property the Koch family have held for generations, overlooking Lyndoch and the North Para River which meanders through.

Whilst their sons have now joined the business, it looks like the word ‘retirement’ is far from the minds of these sprightly octogenarians. “We took over the farm from Dad,” says 85 year old Dudley, sitting in the kitchen of his cream brick home where he and his wife, Barbara raised their three children.

It’s just “10 chains” away from the original Koch homestead where the brothers grew up with parents, Hulda and Walter and late sister, Beryl. Keith, together with wife Glenda, lives in a house a little further down the road, the father of four happily claiming the title of youngest sibling at 81 “and a half” years of age. He likes to include that extra half, much to the delight of his older brother sitting beside him at the table. “Can’t you tell he’s younger?” Dudley laughs heartily.

When these lads started out, a King ruled, television was years away and getting to school was quite the adventure. And with their German surname came German traditions and memories of early conversations at home reflect their family’s heritage.

“Every mealtime around the table, our parents would speak German and we’d talk German but as soon as school started, that was during the war, they didn’t like us speaking German,” Dudley explains. “We had to speak English because if you were caught up Tanunda main street talking German, they’d lock you up – I mean, that’s how bad it was.”

St. Jakobi Lutheran School at Lyndoch was where the siblings were educated and because busses wouldn’t be stopping out front of their family home any time soon, the young scholars opted for a more traditional mode of transport. “The three of us, we each had a pony and we rode to school – Smokey, Trixie and Sadie,” Dudley says with delight, the memory obviously tickling a funny bone. “Those days we talked in miles, and school was five miles away. We went down the road and through the river down there.” Keith pipes in, “I hated it because my horse used to shy. It used to go in the opposite direction when a car came along. It’d swing around and go back down the road!”

Having to pass through the river near Chateau Yaldara proved problematic for the school-goers who had to miss class if the water rose too high. “There was a foot bridge and you could walk across there,” explains Dudley. “Dad sometimes took the ponies across with a draught horse, he had the ponies on the top side and the draught horse was pretty heavy so they wouldn’t wash down.” Ponies were eventually replaced by pushbikes which, in Keith’s opinion, “was much better”.

The boys would rise early to help their Dad milk the cows and be home in time to milk them again, learning at a young age about living on the land. Back then, the Koch family farm had turkeys, ducks and chooks and cleaning out the pig sty was one of those jobs that was handed down the line.

“You would have your own milk, your eggs and meat, more or less living off the farm. It’s different now, you just go down to Foodland!” Dudley laughs.

“We’d kill a pig every year – sometimes two,” adds Keith. “We’d make mettwurst, ricewurst, ham, bacon and stuff like that in the smoke house. All the neighbours used to do that too – that was normal.”

Barossa fare was abundant in the household of the growing young men. “I can remember Mum making German cake and all of that, that was the go in those days, we had the old wood fire oven,” Dudley says. “I still do dill cucumbers… some years you get more than others. I used to eat a lot of them – well, I still do!”

The duo have seen all the highs and lows of farming life in the Barossa. They are a veritable history book when it comes to dry seasons and wet seasons, bumper years and lean years. Memories of Dudley’s first task when he officially started work on the family farm at “around 15” years of age are still firmly etched in his mind.

“My first job was stooking and pitching hay, making a big stack,” he describes. “We had a contract with a guy in Gawler, he used to buy the hay. We used to stack it in the yard and he’d come and get one or two loads a week – that used to happen all the time. “It wasn’t easy those days… no wonder the shoulders are stuffed! I’ve had one shoulder reconstruction.”

Keith, who joined “the whole show” four years after his brother, says, “The bloke who used to buy the hay, he used to smoke a big pipe when he was loading …. You wouldn’t see that nowadays!”

Dudley recalls one mishap in the early years. “I remember tipping over a load of hay down the paddock. I had two horses in the front there, with a light trolley sort of thing, and I was going along the side of the hill and all of a sudden she went over – we had to pitch it all on again!”

The siblings have fond memories of growing up in the area and whilst working on the farm was hard work, there was plenty of good times to be had. You can’t help notice a certain glint in their eyes, a tell-tale sign between brothers whose past “may” or “may not” have included a little mischief. It’s a look that beckons the question but rarely yields an answer, especially when there is a wife in the room.

“We used to have a bit of fun,” admits Keith. “We went to the dances, Mount Torrens and places like that.” “We joined the Lyndoch Youth group and we used to go out to different places, play table tennis,” says Dudley with a sensible older brother air.

“We used to have a few mates around… we went to New Year’s Eve parties a few times,” Keith spills the beans, “We nearly got locked up one night!” Laughter fills the room and Dudley takes over, “I don’t know…what was that all about?” Silent grins beam from the brothers – it seems there’s nothing more to add.

Chat returns to farming, the many changes seen in the industry and how they have grown the property of their father’s era into the farm which stands today. Ten hectares of vineyard now join the sweeping paddocks of wheat, barley and beans as far as the eye can see, and sheep graze on abundant feed that has grown as a result of this year’s good rains.

“Whenever there was a paddock or something around close handy, we used to buy it,” Dudley says. “Years ago you could afford it, but now they come around and pay big prices.” They bought land in the days when interest rates skyrocketed to 23 percent and whilst it was tough, they got by.

“If you didn’t have a good harvest, you wouldn’t be in the race and we’ve had good harvests over the years. “We do a bit of share cropping too. All up, we would have 525 hectares – that’s what we crop. But then we’ve got sheep besides.”

This year, they’ve had well over 100 percent lambing. The merino/poll dorset cross bred lambs are sold off and then they buy store lambs and let them graze on bean stubble. “We fatten them up and sell them again – anything to make a living!” says Dudley.

The recent floods caused chaos at the river this season though. “We had just finished shearing and the sheep were down around the river cliffs, trying to get a bit of shelter because it was a bit cold. Eleven of them got washed away and we found eight of them all the way down at Yaldara… It beats me how they got out, you should have seen that river! It was just a massive wave, they must have been good swimmers!”

Both long time members of the Lone Pine Tanunda Agricultural Bureau, they welcomed breakthroughs that made battling pests, diseases and weeds an easier task. Dudley says, “Years ago we had soursobs and we had to work the ground four or five times. Every time you’d work it, it would rain and they’d grow a bit more…they were a real pest. Now we haven’t got any at all.”

Technology has also changed dramatically and the Koch brothers, who describe themselves as Jacks of all trades, have worked with a comprehensive list of machinery. Being one of the first to cart bulk grain to Port Adelaide, Koch family trucks needed to be updated over the years from the original 1955 Model Ford truck and trailer they had.

“Dad’s first tractor was a 1931 Caterpillar 22, it was pretty slow. We thought it was great.” “We’ve still got it in the shed – it’ll go alright,” Keith adds enthusiastically, he’s mechanically minded and admits to “pulling everything apart” to make things run.

“The old tractors you could do that,” Dudley adds. “Now it’s all computerised and you can’t, you only need one little thing to go wrong and the whole thing stops.” But there’s no stopping Dudley and Keith and they will continue on the property even though some jobs might take a little longer and certain tasks have been hand-balled to their sons.

“There’s no time to retire,” announces Dudley. “If I give up work, I wouldn’t be around no more I reckon. “If you keep your mind on something, I mean, you don’t notice the old age.” “You gotta keep yourself occupied –  there’s plenty of jobs we can do,” says Keith.