Freemantle Stockfeeds and mill closure signals end of an era

DEVOTED: Freemantle Stockfeeds and mill proprietor, Graeme Freemantle with his dog, Ruby. Photo: Brendan McCarthy
DEVOTED: Freemantle Stockfeeds and mill proprietor, Graeme Freemantle with his dog, Ruby. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

As hundreds of customers and suppliers throughout Victoria go into a decline over the closure of the Freemantle Stockfeeds and produce mill at Eddington, owner Graeme Freemantle cannot stop smiling.

Graeme talks to Brett Gillespie and Paul Edwards. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

Graeme talks to Brett Gillespie and Paul Edwards. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

It took Graeme six months to make the decision to walk away from the place to which he has given most of his life, but he said “it was time.”

The Freemantle produce mill at Eddington stands inactive. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

The Freemantle produce mill at Eddington stands inactive. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

“I am so much happier now. I have halved my anti-depressants … I  was going to a masseur sometimes twice a week because my back was so bad, but people are saying I look the happiest and fittest they’ve seen me since I closed the mill.

“I smile now; there are people who have never seen me smile. I feel 10 years younger,” he said.

Freemantle Stockfeeds has supplied all types of stock feed, chaff and grain and molasses to virtually all of Victoria, parts of NSW and Queensland and as far as Adelaide, Western Australia and up to Darwin. 

It has been one of the biggest suppliers of packaged molasses in Victoria and one of the main chaff mills for many years.

The mill was also one of the first to produce steam-flaked oats [steam cooked, then flaked and blended with molasses, which is used for horses and other animals], barley, lupins and soya bean meal, for many years.

The business employed 17 staff for years and saying goodbye to staff was one of the hardest things about the closure, Graeme said.

Graeme, now 57, has been working on the 809 hectare (2000 acre) property since childhood and has been running the business since 1992.

The mill and stockfeed business was established in 1955 by Graeme’s father, Reginald Freemantle who started making lucerne meal and chaff for different companies as a sideline to his grazing, pig and dairy property.

“He was the first with a lot of things. Down in Gippsland, I don’t think seen they’d seen lucerne before.

The Freemantle business made a significant contribution to the local economy and central Victoria.

“My father owned nine houses and the families he employed lived there. They’d work on the property and in the business and when the school was running short of enrolments, they’d ask Dad to employ another family with children, so they could keep the school open,” Graeme said.

People used to ask him (Reg) when he had time to milk his cows and he’d say ‘before and after work’.”

“We don’t know what hard work is. We don’t work anywhere near as hard as those guys did.”  

But, there are those who would argue with that, having seen the hours Graeme has put in over the years.

“During harvest this year, I was working seven days 8-10 weeks straight. One week I started Monday morning and finished Thursday. I had four and half hours sleep.”

“15-17 hours a day was normal during harvest and running the mill at the same time as contracting; we’d windrow and strip canola, harvest grain, cut and bale hay for people.” 

The successful business is an immense achievement for anyone, let alone someone who has struggled with learning the way Graeme has.

“I left school at 15 and I couldn’t read or write … nothing was identified back then, I just couldn’t get it. I have taught myself to read over the years – mainly by reading legal documents,” he jokes.

“There was an expectation from my father that I would just go into the business, take over the farm. I would have liked to have become a policeman,” he said, “but there was the literacy thing.”

“I didn’t need to learn how to run the farm. I’d been working after school and weekends since primary school and my twin brother, Ian, wasn’t interested in the farm.” 

“I worked on the property until 1991 and then Dad sold the mill. I’d offered to buy it but he said, ‘Well you can’t read or write, how are you going to run it?’.

“The guy who bought it went broke after 12 months so I bought it then, but all machinery was stuffed so I had to start from scratch on August 17, 1992,” he said.

“A mate, Trevor O’Shea came out to help out for three days and stayed 11 and a half years. I am very grateful to him.”

Asked why he bought the place back when he could have done something else, Graeme said he did it for his father.

“I went to a meeting in Melbourne and the banks were giving Dad a hard time … I knew how much it meant to him.” 

I want to thank all the farmers and customers who have supported us, and for the great friendships I have made.

Graeme Freemantle

Mental health is the other big challenge Graeme has had to battle.

“I reckon I have had depression for nearly 38 years and I was only diagnosed 12 years ago.

“In my case, it was the environment that caused the depression. I am not ashamed of it. it’s a chemical imbalance and it can be fixed.”

“I went to a rural health evening during the drought and they talked about prostate and all the other things men suffer from.

At the end, I said to them; “You missed the most important thing, mental health and depression. I can name about 10 people here with mental health problems … it’s the most important thing to talk about.”

“You get so good at putting on a public face.

“You put up this facade and when people take their own lives it’s hard to understand, but we have no idea how sad those people are. People with depression can be the best hiders.”

Graeme will stay and finish the harvest and will sell the produce and mill equipment. “I am selling off the hay at the moment … some has gone to one of Gina Rinehardt’s properties in northern NSW.”

“The auction will be on 21 and 22 September at Eddington and since we’ve been here for nearly 100 years, there’s an immense amount of stuff.”

“I want to thank the farmers and customers who have supported us over the years, and for the great friendships I have made in the stock feed and farming industry,” Graeme said.

“I know there are people who can’t understand. It upset a lot of people – the companies I supply, the stores, people I purchased from and even opposition mills, they don’t understand how I can just close it,” he said.

“But sometimes you just have to walk away and start a new life … sometimes people have to realise all they are doing is working for everyone else and not living their lives.”

So, what is next?

“When I have finished this harvest, I am done,” Graeme said.

“I am definitely going to go for a holiday but I am not sure where yet.” 

“I might go to the airport and just book a ticket,” he says ... and smiles.