Wagga is often referred to as a ‘country town’, but it is a city, despite the fact that we can hear sheep from our house, drive past goats on the way to the uni, and see kangaroos on campus. If you want to see the real rural Australia (not the outback, but the farming community), you need to go for a drive…and that is what we did.
In Canada, usually in September, there are events in small (and not so small) towns called Fall Fairs, where farmers and farm people do their thing, showing cattle and crops, entering baking contests, and so on. Last fall, when visiting Dan’s parents in Pike Bay, we read the local paper in earnest, to see whose pickles would win ‘best in show’. In rural Australia, this type of event is called a Show, and they happen in late winter and spring. It is, therefore, now show season in the Riverina. We went to the Ganmain Show in Ganmain, in a town of about 650 people, about an hour’s drive from Wagga. It was a fun introduction to real small town farm culture in Australia.
Unfortunately, the Ganmain Show website let us down; we actually missed a few big events, such as the equestrian jumping. And we didn’t see much of the NSW Yard Dog Championships, but what we did see was pretty cool! Australian sheep dogs are kelpies; they are quite small, very fast, and from watching them herd sheep at their masters’ commands, it seems they are very smart. And, their best trait is that they are nimble enough to walk on top of the sheep; seriously! In the competition, a bunch of sheep would be let into a pen and the kelpie would round them up into a small area; the dog would then climb on the sheep’s’ backs and herd them through a gate (just like they were being prepped for shipping); then they would do it again into another gate area. The dog owner would give commands, some using words, others strange noises, or even just whistling. The whole thing was timed and the winner was the one who could do it fastest. Very interesting to watch!
As you may have guessed, the Riverina is sheep country; so the other major attraction at the show was sheep shearing. In the Quick Shear competition (Intermediate for younger shearers and Open for the seasoned pros), competitors shear one sheep in the first heat, and the fastest ones compete in the finals. The process went like this: they would go to a pen at the back of the stage, grab the sheep with their number on it (written on its head, by hand, with a sharpie!), drag it out and wrangle it into position; the clock started the moment they turned on the clippers. The clock stopped when the clippers stopped, and the sheep was pushed out a second gate (the ‘money hole’). It is, apparently, just like they would do at work. And it seems that sheep shearing is a pretty lucrative business. This is piece work, paid by the sheep, not the hour. In competition, the times were ranging from about 40 seconds to 1 minute 15 seconds for one sheep. This is probably faster than on the farm, but still – that is a lot of sheep in one day! The emcee kept talking about how important it was for younger people to get into shearing, and one young man (in his early 20s probably) in the Intermediate division said he makes about $450 a day shearing sheep. Wowsers!
Sheep shearing, on the face of it, looks pretty cruel. The sheep are wrestled into position and held in place with their limbs at awkward angles; they are also spun around on the floor as the clippers go for every bit of fleece. Sadly, they do get nicked now and then. But during the competition, the emcee actually talked about keeping the sheep comfortable, and competitors are given a ‘red light’ for drawing blood. One of the organizers (who also competed in the Open category and is pretty quick) was coaching the younger shearers as they competed, telling them how to hold the sheep, to keep focused, etc. And at the end of the competition, he spoke about a “duty of care, to both the farmer and the sheep.” In the end, the sheep were remarkably calm, clearly quite used to the process; the big winner of the day went home with $500 and bragging rights for the next year.
In Canada, there are many highlights to your typical country fair. Bossy bingo (where you hope that the cow in the pen will shit in your chosen area of the bingo card painted on the field); the contests for best pie, jam, or quilt; and, of course, the pie-eating contest. We didn’t see any cow-shit bingo at this show, but the other events were quite familiar. Jams, jellies, and cakes galore, along with some unusual categories – like prettiest coat-hanger, decorated arrowroot cookie, and edible necklace. There was even a photo competition, where everyone in the community submitted pics of their kids, their dogs, or their big vacations (like, the time they went to Sydney!). Application forms were posted on the show’s website in the weeks leading up to the event (yes, we’ve been waiting for the Ganmain Show for some time now!); we just may enter ourselves in a few categories for 2012.
And, of course, the pie-eating contest! You may have seen such things on the news in Canada, even watching reports from the US now and again. Competitors across North America engage in pie-eating rites of passage of all types – cherry pies, lemon meringue, apple… you name it. Often, these are very messy competitions (no forks allowed!), too. We’ve seen ‘Ganmain Pies’ advertised around Wagga in the weeks that we’ve lived here and always wondered what they were. Well, now we know! In another example of the UK influence, pie in Australia often refers to meat pie – and Ganmain is no exception. High noon marked the start of the Ganmain Pie-eating contest and Dan decided that he was up to the challenge. If nothing else, it would be a cheap lunch; the entry fee was $5 for 3 Ganmain Pies. Luckily, the pie is hand-sized, about 4 inches across; it’s filled with a mince (lamb perhaps?) and gravy combination and the crust is super-flaky. Lisa’s task was to take lots of pictures and try not to fall off her seat laughing!
Dan took to the stage and grabbed a seat beside one of the locals (who was wearing a red and white – Canada Day?? – t-shirt that read “I’d tell you to go to hell but I work there and I don’t want to see you everyday”). Dan was competing in Heat 1 (of 2) against 4 other guys; this followed the kids’ competition, where the winner was the only girl who was brave enough to compete (good going, Molly Jones!). Dan sized up the competition and stared down his plateful of pies. ‘No way!’ he said, when offered a bottle of tomato sauce (i.e., ketchup!); the announcer remarked ‘Well, we know he loves the taste of those pies – he’s saying no to the sauce today!’ Little did he know that Dan hadn’t yet tasted one of these local treats.
In the end, Dan gave it a good go… but was bested by the locals on this one. His time: 3 minutes, 1 second to eat 3 pies, getting him 7th place out of 10 entrants. The winning time was 1:30! Two contestants didn’t finish all 3 pies. It’s 12 months until the 2012 competition, so he’s got some time to practice his technique. Or, will this be the first of a series of show pie-eating competitions in the coming weeks? Watch this space…