#SPC Ardmona isn’t just a factory – @AmyFeldtmann memories


Orchard on New Dookie Road, on the drive to Shepparton, from Dookie (Photo: Amy Feldtmann 2012)

By    @AmyFeldtmann

2nd February 2014

Originally published at amyfeldtmann.com

I am a graduate of Dookie Primary School No. 1527, where there was a grand total of five students in my grade. All up, our school roll-call peaked at about 60 in my later years. The primary school was on a block so large that a city property developer would probably stack no less than 200 apartments on it. Other than Pine Lodge Primary School, a few kilometers down the road, which actually had real bush as part of its playground, we must have had the highest square-metre-of-playground-per-child ratio in the state. Our little town, population 260, was (is) surrounded by gentle rolling hills and lots and lots of paddocks – some with crops, some with sheep. I have no shame in comparing the scenery to Tuscany.

At school, we’d sit cross-legged in our composite classes and read the ‘City Kids/Country Kids’ book series (by Lorraine Wilson, with great titles like, ‘We Swim in the Dam’ and ‘I’m Selling Sheep Manure’), and laughed (after initial shock) when we were told by our teacher, who once taught in Melbourne, that some city kids think milk comes out of a bottle at the supermarket. But we felt a bit sad for them too – missing out on knowing the full story. We knew it came from a cow, went to the dairy, then a ‘Ducat’s’ milk carton at the supermarket.

We also knew exactly where tinned peaches, which we often ate with ice cream, came from. They came from the orchards we would see out the car window when travelling to Shepparton, 30 kilometres west, to go to the supermarket, dentist, Fairley’s, or W.B. Hunter hardware. Dookie was where wheat came from, and Shepparton was where apricots, peaches, apples and pears came from. Wheat went to the silo and became bread; fruit went to SPC and got put into tins. Simple. These lessons came early for kids in the area — and were a part of our childhood. Even the Dookie kinder’ outdoor play-equipment featured a giant wooden fruit crate branded ‘S.P.C.’.

If heading to London is a so-called ‘rite of passage’ for young Australians (I’ve done it too), an excursion to ‘the cannery’ was a ritual for all Goulburn Valley kids. It was just referred to as ‘the cannery’ but we knew it was SPC, and that that stood for ‘Shepparton Preserving Company’. I’m not exactly sure how old I was when I went on the excursion, but I’m guessing I was about grade two, and we had to wear those funny protective hats that look like tissue shower caps, walk very carefully, and not touch anything. I remember the noise, the workers sorting the fruit, the tins racing around on lines like roller coasters, and most of all, I remember the smell. Stewing fruit – tonnes of it – is not a smell little kids naturally love. It is heavy, it is strong, and it doesn’t smell like Maggie Beer’s or Stephanie Alexander’s kitchens would if they were stewing fruit. I’m sure we screwed up our nose and said ‘pewwww’ and ‘grooooosss’ quietly, but not so loud as to be rude and embarrass our teacher. Being at the SPC factory was like going to a church – you had respect for it, you behaved, and you understood that even if your family didn’t go there, it was an important place for many.

Fast-forward a few years, to when I was a teenager on the rowdy ‘Dookie bus’ that travelled half an hour each way between Shepparton and the Dookie hills, dispatching a rabble of youngin’s to the six (later, five; thanks Jeff) secondary schools. Every morning and afternoon, our bus would zip along New Dookie Road, past the same orchards we used to see out the car window when we were little. In Summer, the trees would be green and lush and we could see the fruit hanging and ripening. In Winter they would be bare like skeletons. And in Spring, they’d be covered in blossoms like they were covered in popcorn, or cotton wool — a scene that would seriously challenge Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival. These were the orchards that grew fruit for SPC.

‘We could be about to see what happens to a town when it loses its identity. Shepparton is SPC Ardmona’ – Warwick Long, ABC Rural journalist, 30 January 2014 via Twitter.

After high school, I moved to Melbourne to study at university, and it is where I live now. In those uni days, some friends from high school would head back to Shepparton for the summer and ‘do the cannery’ – work shift-work during the peak time for the factory and earn some cash for the following year. I had family members and neighbours who did the same. It was an important part of the annual wage cycle for many.

Today, my uni days further in the past than seems real, and I only buy SPC (and Ardmona) tinned fruit, tomatoes, or baked beans from my city supermarkets. And I get angry when the cans are on a lower shelf than the imported, or store brands. I always take a moment to sideways-glare at the store-brand tins (it is a moment of utter nuttiness on my part, but it would be ‘un-Goulburn Valleyian’ not to). And if there is ever an opportunity to tell a friend/colleague/poor bystander what ‘SPC initials stand for’; I do. I have done this in Australia, and with Australians overseas (I usually follow it with talk about where the saying ‘that’s a Furphy‘ comes from; but that’s another blog post).

There is more to this week’s announcement by the Federal Government that they will not to provide much needed funds to SPC Ardmona than the threatened closure of a cannery (An announcement that, like a scene from the political television satire ‘The Thick of It’, Prime Minister Abbott so obviously and wickedly orchestrated to come out of the mouth of Minister for Industry Ian McFarlane in their joint press conference).

I haven’t space here to properly write about the future for the transport companies and drivers who ship the fruit to the factories, and then the tins elsewhere; or the factory outlet that, contrary to what our Prime Minister would have the country believe this week, IS a major part of tourism for Shepparton and the region. A factory outlet that has people making detours after holidays on the Murray, or driving back from NSW, or visiting friends in the region, to pick up some good deals. Glamourous MoNA it aint but you can’t set yourself up for winter soup-making with a slab of dented tins of crushed tomatoes from a trip to Hobart, so let’s call it a draw.

I also haven’t talked about the issue of dumped products, high Australian dollar, the already high unemployment in the region, or the limited opportunities available to the hundreds that could lose employment if SPC shuts. I haven’t reiterated local Mayor Jenny Houlihan’s point that the welfare payments to the potentially 3000 unemployed will outweigh the $25 million co-investment being asked for.

I haven’t discussed the politics of Shepparton being in the federal seat of Murray – one of the safest Coalition seats in the country (but bordering with Indi – sometimes ideas can be contagious). I haven’t shared my thoughts on the not-insignificant circumstances of the local federal member, Dr Sharman Stone, being a supporter of the PM’s rival Malcolm Turnbull; and a person who chose to vote to overturn Tony Abbott’s controversial RU486 abortion bill law. I’ve not gotten on to Cadbury who, like SPC, is owned by a multinational, and got funding from the federal government, apparently on ‘tourism grounds’, but also located in an electorate held by the Independent Andrew Wilkie; a seat the government wants.  I haven’t shared my thoughts on the embarrassing comments from economist Judith Sloan that if SPC goes, the orchardists can just turn their land into dairy farms (because they all have a couple of million in their back pocket, and cows don’t really need much room, right?); or the inference from Tony Abbott that SPC workers, averaging less than $50K p.a., are overpaid, thanks to what he calls an ‘extraordinary agreement’ and work conditions.

I haven’t explored the issue that SPC is more than just fruit and the futures of orchardists — it is bean growers, and tomato farmers too. Or the cultural significance of the orchards, connected to the rich migrant history of Shepparton. I haven’t raised the ‘white elephant in the room’ that Australians have gotten better at eating fresh fruit, and don’t eat everything tinned like our grandparents did, and how that hasn’t helped SPC. And I haven’t confessed that while MP Bob Katter – BobKat – loses me with most of his policies he has always had me on side when it comes to the importance of Australia being self-sufficient with food we produce and eat.

Here, I don’t want to talk in detail about any of those issues. I just want to endorse Warwick Long’s comment that SPC Ardmona is Shepparton. This isn’t about a factory being at risk – it is a town at risk, and a community at risk. It is about pride, identity, and just one part of regional Australia feeling positive about its future.

Support an independent media voice. Support No Fibs Citizen Journalism.
Monthly Donation


  1. Encourage them to stick around until Labor gets back in at the double dissolution Tony promised us. Labor can do their add up sums. The Libs can’t read an electricity bill.

  2. I thought the dairy industry was in a more perilous position, Most seem to have disappeared.

  3. But – but -but- we need the $25M so that 333 women can receive $75,000 each to have a child.

  4. Michael Faulkner says

    Not just any women Peter F.

    In Tony Abbott’s words, such largesse will be destined only for ‘ women of calibre’ ( mostly from Sydney or the other capitals, no doubt)

    In 5 months, is there a single thing this ideologically driven Prime Minister has done that is positive for the wider Australian community?
    I can’t think of anything.

    A man of very limited political vision coupled with an extraordinary absence of diplomatic panache, Abbott seeks only to tear things down. Indeed, his most developed interpersonal skill is political sledging.

    As for that cloistered economist Professor Judith Sloan, her comments about turning orchards into diary farms are just ludicrous. The duopoly, Coles and Woolworths, are squeezing the life-blood from that industry. On present indications, we will be importing most of our food in 2030.

    Amy, a fine evocative article you have written. As someone who lived in Shepparton as a teenager some 50 years ago, your words resonated strongly with me.

  5. rangermike1 says

    Abbott and Co have no foresight, we should be the food bowl for the World. However Abbott cannot see that and would allow mining on lush grazing lands, shut down farms. He is destroying this beautiful country, and we are letting him do it. Time to take a phrase out of his hymn book and say NO.NO.NO.

  6. Nice nostalgic story,

    I think this Government is on a path to destroy every well paying unionised workplace, then allow foreign investment to come back in and reemploy. Like US companies that shut down and then cherry pick workers to return. Every large company that has been subsidised pays great wages (Alcoa, Ford, Holden, SPC)

    Not every person can do higher skilled work. Take migrants with limited education or skills, or general Australian born workers who don’t posses fantastic IQ’s, memory and the ability to manage. They need monotonous, routine work. It gives them a purpose. Instead of languishing at home, on welfare. We need a manufacturing base. Think of all those textiles and footware jobs that were lost, and the lack of work for recent migrants from Sudan. No wonder the youths get into mischief.

    We have reduced tariffs on cars. Fantastic. We can buy a cheaper and more “designer” car. We are spoiled for choice now, and due to our collective selfish whims we are destroying our future. Every time we buy an imported car our money is going to another country’s family, not our own. As a result, critical mass for the existing locally made items is disappearing. The old Ford (Going) Holden Going) Chrysler (Gone), Toyota (Hanging in), Mitsubishi (Gone), Nissan (Gone) Were good enough. We had Smaller and Larger vehicles to choose from. But no, the economic rationalists (Button Plan – Oh the Irony of Labor) said it will drive competition and exports. The Ford’s and holdens built today are miles ahead in quality, but where are the exports? It was a pipe dream to think we could export ad compete with the huge production runs of Europe, Asia or USA.

    So here is a story of an overpaid Ford worker. Arrives from Yugoslavia with a suitcase. A friend gets him a job at Ford. he works for 35 years and brings up 4 children, all going to a private school, who lead productive lives today. A well paid job with good benefits.

    Buying an Australian product for a higher price buys you a better community. And think. For every worker we employ by buying local, means that worker has money to buy our products or services we produce. Its a boomerang philosophy.

    It would be nice to be a Billionaire mine owner. Sell as much of your product for a high price and buy imported cheaper products. Save your wealth. Don’t worry that you are the only person with an income, while everybody is on welfare. I mean the taxes you pay keeps everybody fed right.

    That is what will happen in the long run. We will be a quarry. And a nation of immigrants who buy their way in to the country. That is the model. Mining and higher education student visas.

    House prices are through the roof, jobs are scarce. Who would marry and bring up children today.

    Be nice to go to work locally, say 20 minutes from home, be well paid, pay off the house early so you can spend your income on your family, buy presents at Christmas time for friends, have a few kids and be home to spend time with them. Sounds like Utopia. We had Utopia.

  7. Once mined it can’t be replaced unlike farming which renews each year and provides ongoing product. Wake up to this goose.

  8. Eva Makowiecki says

    I remember from studying politics in the 70s that common features of ‘third world’ countries were that they were primary producers – either as quarries or cash crop production – highly exposed to international price fluctuations in the relatively few items they produce, and forced to import manufactured goods as the foreign investors that controlled the markets preferred to maximise the manufacturing profits elsewhere. (The Australian stock market goes up and down depending on the price of either iron ore or coal). Another feature of third world countries is that they generally have to import food, as so much of the land is given over to cash crops – or cleared (and poisoned) for mining purposes.

    And now, we are selling off prime farming land to expand mining. That way we can meet all the requirements of third world status – we will also be importing our food.

    So where the ##$%$^^%$$ does Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Ian MacFarlane see our country going? These people have a VISION of Australia in the future?

    Here’s the rub Tony – free marketeers don’t respect ‘sovereign borders’, and don’t give two shits how Australia fares in the world. So when are you going to stand up for our economy against the predatory corporations – Oh that’s right, you’ve just approved their right to sue this country if we don’t play by international corporation rules – e.g. they can now sue us over environmental controls, community protests, etc. The Gillard Govt held firm against this.

    This is more than a little disturbing.

    • “free marketeers don’t respect ‘sovereign borders”…..that’s it in one.

      The hypocrisy of the Right.

      Full of jingoistic nationalism when it suits their policies against refugees, rah rah Gallipoli and the Empire but when it comes to our livelihoods and communities its oh, sorry, too bad about globalisation. Shit happens.

  9. We should have canneries subsidised as a national defence matter. By having a stock of food in cans we have a buffer during national emergency, or we could use it as foreign aid (Instead of cash send out food that is close to use by date)

    That way we keep the farmers in productive capacity (Instead of bulldozing good fruit trees) and keep a commitment for foreign aid.

  10. Amy, that was one hellova great story. Please write again!