ALTHOUGH the two-book series ‘The Grower’ was designed to be a coffee table book to give people something nice to look at as they wind down from a hard day’s work, it is so much more.
The spectacular work is a credit to the brains behind Al Mabin Photography Pty Ltd, Alice Mabin who set out on a 12-month long journey across the Australian outback to capture all that is this country’s agriculture industry.
Growing up on a station at Wanaka, New Zealand, and working in various roles within the industry for more than a decade, Alice already had a lot of exposure to agriculture but her journey to produce ‘The Gower’ opened her eyes to the industry more than she ever expected.
Dedicating every day of a whole year to the series, Alice has poured her heart and soul into ensuring she delivered justice to Australian agriculture through photos and words.
According to Alice, if it is grown in Australia, it’s covered in ‘The Grower’ which includes the major sectors of grain, beef, sheep, dairy, pigs, poultry, inland aquaculture, sugarcane right through to niche farms of crocodiles, deer, alpacas, turf, wine, pearl, wasabi, truffle, hemp - the list goes on.
“No country in the world that I know of has ever put something like this together that encompasses their entire agriculture industry and what that represents,” Alice said.
On a mission to set out to create a photography book that was more than just visually pleasing, Alice wanted to tell a comprehensive story of Australian agriculture and the narratives of the growers who make up the industry.
“Through it I also talk about things like innovation, School of the Air, living in isolation, what each industry represents for (Australia’s) economy, weather patterns, and I then factor (Australia) into how it sits on the global market which involves things like live export,” she said.
“It goes right down to succession planning, careers in each sector, staffing challenges, the changes that farmers have faced over the past 100 years and the changing environment; caring for it and managing it.
“There is a little snippet from each property as well, so it all intertwines.”
For Alice, looking back over the books she worked tirelessly to complete, they are a true testament of her ability to communicate with and understand people.
“People might look at the books and think ‘oh wow, she knows how to take a photo’ but to me, the books represent so much more than that,” she said.
“My ability to get people to believe in a vision for the good of the agriculture industry is probably one of my biggest achievements in the books.
“They are nice, glossy and great but to get 551 farmers to agree, when so often they can be misrepresented, was very difficult.
“And it took a lot of work – every day I had to prove myself.”
In the beginning Alice had only set out to produce one book of about 300 pages but quickly realised just how vast the industry was and her plans soon changed to just go with the flow.
“Once I got into it, I discovered how diverse the industry is in spite of my agricultural background, and realised what I’d need to do to really do the industry justice,” Alice said.
“I just had to let the numbers go.”
Having set herself a 12-month deadline, Alice ventured around the country with her Jack Russell dog Barney while editing, writing and processing her work, which became two books with a combined count of about 1000 pages.
The two-part series ‘The Grower’ is made up of ‘The Roots of Australia’ for all things grown from the ground and ‘The Heartbeat of Australia’ which is on livestock and was released in August.
“If I was going to do something, do it right and do a really comprehensive job, I may as well just let it happen,” she said.
“Every day when I turned up at someone’s place, I had to put on a face.
“It couldn’t matter what was going on in my world like damaged freight, cancelled shoots, missed opportunities, bad weather – I had to be happy.
“Sometimes I would get to a place and the farmers would be very sceptical or they would lean on me because they were worried that I didn’t understand ag and I would paint the wrong picture.
“Other times I would turn up and be on a horse, motorbike or in a helicopter, or sometimes I would be told to work it out for myself because they had work to do.”
So what made Alice want to live like a nomad for a year, going from farm to farm where in most cases she didn’t really know what she was in for?
Tracking back about five years, Alice was working for Pfizer Animal Health (now Zoetis) but reached a point where she wanted a change, something new.
So she quit her stable job with a good salary, despite having no solid plan as what to do next.
“I was walking down the street one day, unemployed, and walked past a camera shop and thought ‘oh, I might get a hobby, I’ve never had a hobby’, so I walked into the shop and bought a camera,” she said.
Prior to buying that camera for her new-found hobby, Alice had never even dabbled in photography other than a basic point and shoot camera.
All her photography and editing skills that she’s acquired since then have been self-taught.
A few months later, in June 2013 she found herself on the back of a horse joining Australia’s largest cattle drive where 18,000 head were walked from central Queensland to central New South Wales over traditional stock routes.
The journey of about 2000 kilometres was the subject of her first book ‘The Drover’ which was published in July 2014.
After being in a collision with a semi-truck and her car on the Sunshine Coast, Alice developed an interest in the transport industry and decided to spend 18 months hitchhiking around Australia learning to drive road trains, which prompted the idea for her second book.
‘The Driver’ focusses on Australia and New Zealand’s transport industry and its role in the paddock to plate process.
“So essentially with ‘The Driver’ and ‘The Grower’, I have covered the two things that dictate our lives,” Alice said.
“Without transport and agriculture, we have nothing and they go hand-in-hand.”
While putting ‘The Grower’ together, Alice said she had to be flexible with the logistical planning of getting to each property.
“It was such a juggling act because every day I would plan to go see different people but I didn’t know exactly when I would get there – I could rock up a day early or three days late,” she said.
“If I was out seeing Barry who said I should go down the road and meet Phil, I had to have enough flexibility to be able to add that.
“Even though I had done all my research on who I needed to see, I did come across even more really great people with interesting stories.
I ended up selling my car to pay to print more books and that’s how it all kicked off and got going
“I could have kept going but I had to stop sooner or later.”
For many farmers, there isn’t much special about a shearing shed, stockyards or a windmill but Alice managed to convey the uniqueness of each property by turning her creativity up a notch.
“I had to get very creative to make each shoot different so each property would have photos that were unique to them,” she said.
Making her way around Australia proved to be a very tight deadline and no easy task, nor was it cheap.
It is one thing to traverse the country to shoot and produce these books, but it was another thing for Alice to self-publish, market and distribute and sell the books herself.
Such decisions meant Alice didn’t get the support of the book industry, and she has self published all four of her books.
When she was producing ‘The Drover’, Alice couldn’t find a publisher to take on her project without having to wait at least nine months for a final decision.
For her first print run of ‘The Drover’ Alice published 1000 copies which, then more than ever, the risks associated with the project were made apparent to her.
“I took a screenshot of my bank balance because I had zero dollars and zero cents so I had to go contract mustering while I waited,” she laughed.
“Then I found out that book shops weren’t going to support me and I thought ‘how else do you sell a book?’”
Being no stranger to hard work, Alice travelled back down the stock route to the towns where all the cattle went past, trying to sell it to cafes, newsagencies, country clothing stores, butcher shops - everywhere she could.
“I couldn’t sell a single book,” she said.
“So I ended up giving them all away because I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
Then about 10 days later, the phone started ringing with people wanting more books but Alice had no books left and no money to print more.
“I ended up selling my car to pay to print more books and that’s how it all kicked off and got going,” she said.
“I think back to those days when I had to pay cash up front and it was pretty daunting.
Alice realised her book (The Drover) and her vision didn’t fit into the marketing models available so made her own alternative, by visiting businesses in rural and regional towns across the country and choosing ones to stock her book.
By not fitting into a box to promote her work, she made her own and it has made her stand out in the market and she followed this model with her other books.
Across her four books she has sold more than 70,000 copies worldwide, and all four books have reached best-seller status.
“I just had to learn to accept the costs,” she said.
“Think about farmers and their investments and their returns aren’t quick but it’s all relative.
“Often people just look at the book and think I’ve had ‘the life’.
“But it’s kind of cool, I’ve got a great photo album for my 30s of things that I have done and where I’ve been.”
As for what is to come next for this easy-going woman from rural New Zealand who is almost constantly on the move, she’s not quite sure what the future holds but her books have already opened some exciting doors, including presenting a TedX Talk about succeeding in a saturated market.