THE May family has been farming on the Eyre Peninsula since the late 1800s, when Adelaide bootmaker Charles May moved to work for the council.
Today, the name is scattered across the west coast, with descendants also within the Haines and O'Brien families.
Fourth generation Ashley and Anna May farm at Koongawa in the region's central north, and will keep the family farming tradition alive, with son Jacob also working on-farm, while other son Hamish has plans to return.
Ash's father Paul 'Gus' May retired to Wudinna with wife Helen six years ago, but also still helps out on the farm where he grew up.
From 1897, Charles and Martha May first lived on Yandra Station near Streaky Bay, before making their home at 'Myrtle Farm', on the outskirts of Elliston.
Charles planted and tended the original Norfolk Pines out the front of the hospital and lit the kerosene street lights every night, but died while doing so in 1919.
Martha was a midwife and even delivered some of her own seven children, which included Paul's grandfather James (1884) and his brothers Josiah, John, Ernie, Percival and Peter.
Back then, James and his brothers first worked on other farms around Elliston, including a stint on nearby Flinders Island and at Mount Wedge.
Percival and Ernie served in World War I, with Percival not returning home after being shot at Lone Pine.
Ernie was the first to move to northern EP, buying a farm at Kyancutta, before James and wife Francis followed suit, buying a 1011-hectare farm at Koongawa in 1928.
James had been sharefarming with the Simpson family at Wudinna, while also working as a carrier, carting wool from the stations to the port using a wagon with six horses.
The Koongawa property was previously owned by a bachelor, who was still living in a shed provided by the government, and hadn't developed much of the property.
"There were only two natural plains, totaling about 150 acres (60ha), where they sowed oats and fed the horses," Paul said.
"The government provided a shed and rainwater tank in those early days as part of a 99-year lease, but often the property owners would turn them into housing."
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The May family moved to Koongawa on New Year's Day in 1929.
James and Francis went on to have 12 kids - four boys, eight girls - which included Paul's father Ernest, who was 13 when they arrived at Koongawa.
In the 1930s, builders Roly Hurrell and Ern Heron came up from Lock to help build the family a new homestead, using crushed rock from the farm for cement and second-hand iron "because it was during the war and you couldn't get good timber".
The original homestead comprised three bedrooms with a kitchen and lounge.
"The sons camped in a garage off the side of the house, while the girls were inside," Paul said.
The May men then got to work clearing the Mallee-type country.
James and his sons axed another 40ha of scrub and put in an oat crop that first year for sheep feed.
The clearing continued until the last of 1011ha was cleared by tractor in 1966 "as some of the timber was so large they couldn't pull it with horses", Paul said.
Paul said his grandfather was known to be "demanding" and one by one, Ernest's brothers all went to live elsewhere in the district.
"My dad managed to stick it out with him and it's how he ended up here," he said.
"His youngest brother Len - his grandson Trevor May still farms on his father's original property, and also acquired his older brother Jim's property as well.
"His other brother Ron lived on a property nearby, and worked with my father Ernest in a partnership until Ron decided to go farm elsewhere."
Ron sharefarmed at Clare in 1963, then bought a farm at Loxton, before moving to Adelaide to work for the government at Northfield Research Centre farm, until he retired in the early 1970s, while Ernest worked on the homestead property and eventually bought his brother and father out.
James retired to Port Lincoln in 1953 and died in 1973.
Ernest bought 810ha in the late 1940s and another 1011ha in 1979, mainly from people retiring off the land.
They had horses and pigs back in the day, but the property has remained a steadfastly cropping and sheep operation, even today.
Ernest married Mary Sheila McKenna in 1949 and a modest house was built on the property next to the homestead, which still stands today.
They had two sons, Paul and David, and a daughter Helen.
Paul left school in 1966 (aged 15) to come home to the farm "and I'm still here".
Paul married nurse Helen Russell from Adelaide in 1971, after meeting at Calvary Hospital where he was having a knee operation, and another house was built on-farm.
"My brother left in the 1990s and started a business in Adelaide, while my sister married an architect and lives in Melbourne," Paul said.
"My father helped both of them to get set up elsewhere, while I stayed on-farm."
Ernest 'retired' from the farm in 1995, but kept a close eye until his passing in 2006.
There were a lot of rises and falls in wool and sheep prices.- PAUL MAY
Paul said there were some tough times in the years from 1970 to 1990, particularly for the sheep industry.
"There were a lot of rises and falls in wool and sheep prices," he said.
"We were fortunate that our percentage in production from livestock was only small compared to our cropping.
"It is a reasonably reliable area here (averaging 300 millimetres annual rainfall), so the cropping was always more important.
"But we do farm near Goyder's Line so we always stuck with our sheep and rode it out, when many were forced to kill off their flocks.
"We managed to sell ours a little earlier, took a small price (20 cents/head), but got something instead of having to shoot them."
Ash also remembered the droughts of the 1980s forcing many farmers to leave the district.
"Especially in the late 1980s, when interest rates went through the roof," he said.
"I was in high school and there were a lot of farms around here back then, but my friends' parents had to sell their farms and move off the land."
Paul agreed that 1982 and 1988 were pretty bad cropping years.
However, he pondered whether some of those early years were 'forced droughts' because of conventional farming practices.
"The technology being used today has significantly changed what crops can be achieved in dry years," he said.
"When no-till came in in the late 1990s, I did not believe it could work, but I was young enough to be willing to give it a try.
"That crop turned out good so we were soon convinced.
"It wasn't a massive outlay for us, as we moved into airseeders when they first came out in the 1970s.
"We also had other people farming in the area that were very progressive, so we were able to see the benefits pretty quickly.
"It was unfortunate that costs began to erode the gains after about a decade."
They also stopped burning stubbles and pastures, seeing greater value in groundcover.
"We had to burn back in the day as the paddocks had to be bare for the old combines to get through them with the tynes so close together," Ash said.
"But then direct drilling came in (1990s) and it all changed.
"Sprays have also come into it, so you just don't get that massive growth.
"Melons and thistles are notorious weeds around here, so summer spraying has also helped to conserve moisture, despite being another cost.
"This year we had to spray weeds three times in some paddocks because of the wet summer."
Ash remembers 2006 also being a poor cropping year, while 2007-08 "weren't much better".
"The best years for me so far have been 2001 and 2010 up to 2016 were above average, but then 2017-19 were again pretty poor," he said.
Paul said wheat averaged about 1.2 tonnes/ha when they farmed conventionally, while in the past 20 years the average has increased to 2t/ha due to better varieties and moisture conservation.
Paul and Helen had four children, with son Ash the only one remaining on-farm, with wife Anna.
They have continued to grow the property, with another 526hac bought in 2001, while Ash has more recently bought 1620ha in 2018 and another 810ha in 2020.
"We'll be paying those last two off for generations, with the way prices have been," Ash said.
"But the parcels all join, which made the purchases worthwhile."
Ash's sons Jacob and Hamish will both be back working on the farm so expansion was required.
Paul 'retired' to Wudinna six years ago, but also still helps out on-farm, along with Ash's father-in-law Ted Beattie in the busy times.
The 'Mayome' property comprises 6000ha and runs 900 breeding ewes.
The ewes are joined to Calcookara and O'Brien Poll Merino rams on March 17, before being containment fed in June for four to six weeks.
"This gives the medic a chance to get going before we put the ewes on there to lamb," Ash said.
"We've run it that way the past 20 years," Paul said.
"We found that if you put sheep on medic early, it will never come to anything. But if you can get it up a bit, the sheep won't hold it back afterwards."
The ewes lamb in mid-August to fit into the cropping schedule.
The wethers are fed up on medic, then cereal stubbles, before being sold on the hooks by March, while the hogget ewes are mated as 1.5-year-olds.
Shearing is once a year, in the first week of March, but the family are considering going to twice a year.
"It's just a matter of finding the time," Ash said.
"But buyers are looking for shorter wools, plus it saves on crutching, and shearers probably prefer the shorter wool.
"We're trying to breed easy care sheep that we don't have to manage too tightly."
This year, 4210ha was sown - 3000ha wheat, 670ha barley, 300ha peas, 180ha vetch and 20ha oats.
Paul was on the boomspray, Jacob did the night shift, Ash's father-in-law did the day shift, and Ash covered in between.
There is some confidence in the season after 100mm of rain in November (not convenient during harvest however, "wrecked all our wheat"), while another 120mm fell prior to seeding.
"We normally start seeding around Anzac Day, whether it's rained or not," Ash said.
"But this year we had a lot more confidence to just put it all in. We finished seeding early on May 13."
Back in my day, the older generations didn't think of [succession] at all.- PAUL MAY
While the farm handover from Paul to Ash happened six years ago, succession continues today, with the next generation now being considered.
"Back in my day, the older generations didn't think of it at all," Paul said.
"But you have to these days, otherwise it can get really ugly.
"That's why we have been very transparent with Ash's succession.
"You never want a family bunfight after you're gone."
Jacob returned to work on Mayome three years ago, after working on farms elsewhere, while Hamish presently works on another farm locally.
Their sister Montana works as a nurse at Wudinna, while Willow, 16, is a student at Westminster.
Ash said the recent property acquisitions have meant that any new machinery was on the backburner.
"From 2001-16, we did turn over a lot more machinery as we didn't have as much debt," he said.
"But more recently, we're focused on paying off debt during some pretty bad years."
The most recent purchase was in 2019 - their first-ever CASE tractor with tracks, through Ramsey Bros.
"We delve a lot of hills, and it gets over soft sand well," Ash said.
"We have been delving for 10 years, more recently with our own equipment, which we share with our cousin Trevor [May]."
Ash and his cousin Trevor are the only two May families left farming in the Koongawa district.
- For more in-depth farming families stories, view Stock Journal's Our Stories feature here.
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