Troy and Vilma Stokes operate their family farm at Stokes Crossing, Mount Walker, with the help of Troy’s parents, Rob and Wendy. The Stokes are some of the most salt-of-the-earth people you’re likely to meet. Their primary crops are onions and lucerne. Most of the onions are sold through the Brisbane markets and to independent buyers, and their kids sell the seconds from their roadside stall out the front of the farm. While it has its challenges, the Stokes enjoy the farming lifestyle and believe it is a great way for the children to grow up — outside, in the fresh air.
TROY & VILMA STOKES
For how long have you both lived in the area?
TROY: I grew up here. So, I am fourth generation. Been here all my life.
VILMA: My parents — we were over at Harrisville, then we moved over in 1988 and lived just up the road. So, that’s how we moved into the area. Dad’s always had cattle and things like that — small crops.
What do you grow?
TROY: Onions, lucerne — we do lots of lucerne — corn, soya beans and sorghum. We used to do potatoes, but there’s not a lot of money in them. All the gear is still in the shed. These boys might get into them one day. So, mainly onions and a bit of everything. We don’t have all our eggs in the one basket. Lucerne is year-round, so there’s always something coming in with the lucerne.
Who inspires you?
TROY: Dad. He’ll say, ‘What about we go and plant this now.’ I might get a bit down in the dumps because the weather’s not right and he’ll say, ‘It might turn around, you know. I’ve seen it before.’ So, he sort of keeps you going, you know?
Have you experienced adversity?
VILMA: Yes, but the community is pretty good when something happens. Troy’s got Crohn’s disease and there was a time there where he was really sick. He almost died. It was amazing how everyone pitched in. We all just got into it and did it, because that’s what we had to do. Everyone helped.
TROY: I was two days off dying because my bowel perforated. So, it wasn’t too good. Once I was in hospital, all I could think about was the farm. I enjoy it. But the weather is the big part. We can do everything right and the crop can look beautiful, and it can be destroyed by the weather — a hail storm or something. This is the worrying time now, going from winter into summer.
VILMA: We always insure the wheat and things like that, but you can’t insure the onions. It is just too expensive. So, you just take your chance.
How does a typical day begin?
TROY: As soon as the sun comes up. In winter, it is a bit later — half past four. Onion pickers will be here at the crack of dawn. Last year, they picked all night. We set lights up in the field because it is too hot during the day, and they’d just sleep in the day. Once the sun comes up, we get into it. And we’ll do twenty hours a day here, once we start onions. Onions are seasonal. We’ll start picking here in another two weeks and we’ll go right through until Christmas. Lucerne is all the time and that’s the thing. We do onions all day and the lucerne might be baled at midnight.
We have to wait for the dew to fall at night. So, depending upon when the dew falls … Some nights you don’t get any dew and you actually bale just as the sun’s coming up, because most times when the sun comes up, that’s when you get the most dew. The dew holds the leaf on the lucerne. If you don’t wait, you just end up with sticks. So, you can’t plan that. You can’t say, ‘I am going to rake hay today at ten o’clock, eleven o’clock. There was no dew last night so it has all been raked today already. Where, normally, it is a foggy morning, so it can be any time. But the onion pickers still turn up. At four thirty, four o’clock, they’re here, and you’ve got to get up for them.
The whole family appear to be involved in the farm …
TROY: The whole family is in the grading shed. We do our own packing in the shed: kids on brooms, Jack and the nephew. We’ll also get contractors in. The onions are all done by hand. A machine knocks the onions around, which is okay for processing or dicing, but when you have to have a nice-looking product to sell, they have to be all hand-picked. We try to do everything ourselves.
VILMA: It is normally Troy’s mum or me on the grader. The kids will be putting the tags on the bags or the bags on the machine. It is good.
Onions require drying time, don’t they?
TROY: Yes. They’ll be in the shed over there, and that’s the worst part. We need money because they’ve been in the ground six months, or we’ve been prepping the ground for six months. That’s when we go into the overdraft because no money comes in — they have to sit in the shed and dry. A lot of people have dryers, but I’ve seen them cooking. We just let them dry naturally.
Where do you sell your onions?
VILMA: We send them all to the Brisbane markets, independent buyers, fruit shops and even the IGA. That’s how the kids pick them out: they have ‘Stokes Farm’ on the bag.
TROY: Traceability today, too. You’ve got it all labelled — where they came from in the paddock, what day it was picked and packed. We have people who come into the Brisbane markets now and ask for Stokes’ onions.
What is the best thing about the lifestyle?
VILMA: It is great for the kids. It is a good environment. They’re not in there playing zap zaps or watching TV. They’re out. It doesn’t matter if they’re mucking about with the horse or on the motorbikes, they’re out in the fresh air, and when seven thirty comes, they’re buggered. They’re pretty good.
TROY: Alexander was in the shed yesterday and I said, ‘Mate, what are you making?’ You know that boom irrigator, the long one? He’s over there trying to make one. They enjoy it. There is always something to do. He wants me to put a motor on this [the boom irrigator Alexander made] so it winds itself in overnight while we’re sleeping, because that’s what machines do — they work at night.
VILMA: Anything that happens on the farm, they’ll be doing the same thing. When they come in at five o’clock, they’ll be setting up irrigators, or they have all their toy tractors, so they’ll be ploughing. Whatever has happened on the farm, they’ll be doing it in the lounge. They love it.
TROY: They’ll go all day in that shed.
Do you both work full-time on the farm?
VILMA: Troy was a diesel mechanic. Then we decided, well, he may as well stay home. He was doing this at night and it was too much. I kept working as a dental assistant and now I just do the two to three days at work to pay the school fees.
TROY: It is a hard life. You get down in the dumps. But the positives outweigh the negatives. We have water here so you can always splash a bit around and grow the lucerne, so there’s always an income. You have to feel sorry for those fellas out there — when it turns dry, they have nothing. That’s why Dad said, ‘You go away and do your trade. Then, the farming, you can go back to it.’
What do you sell in the farm stall?
TROY: We get a lot of seconds. It is just the ones the cutters have nicked with their snips.
VILMA: So, the kids sell them out the front. We used to dump them, and it was a shame because there was nothing wrong with them. So, what we’ve done — our kids and all the grandkids, they have the little front stall. At the end of the year they split the profits between the seven grandkids.
TROY: That’s what the kids are doing in the shed — they’re putting the onions in their little bags and into the little hut out here. And we have people coming from everywhere. Someone pulled up here the other day and said, ‘Are your onions ready yet?’ We only sell seconds here — number twos. And they are all happy with that. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re beautiful.