John Vogels owes a lot to dairy farming, Apex and being an interpreter for his father.
John was just seven when he arrived from Holland in 1953 with his family and has gone on to a long career not only as a farmer but as an industry and community representative and in local government and state politics.
Most recently he’s added an Order of Australia (AM) to his list of achievements.
The AM recognises the former State Member for Warrnambool’s “significant service to the Parliament of Victoria and the community of western Victoria”, all of which stemmed from his dairying roots and his connection with the service club, Apex.
The Vogels family migrated in 1953 because John’s father, Willem, wanted to be a dairy farmer and provide a better opportunity for his young family.
“He was on a small plot and couldn’t see a future in Holland,” John said.
“We came to Australia under the Catholic Rural Movement in which Catholic farmers from Holland went to work for Catholic farmers in Australia.”
After a few false starts on a sheep property at Pyramid Hill, an orchard in Gippsland and a struggling dairy farm at Woodend, the family became share farmers at Glenormiston, with John leaving school at 14 to work on the farm.
With John’s help, his father applied for a Heytesbury Settlement farm but was told he was too old, and when John tried under father-son rules he was told he was too young.
“I used to go with Dad to interpret. He never spoke English very well so I’d go along with him.
“We went to banks and to political meetings in Terang so I could interpret what they were saying.”
Eventually they bought a half-cleared block at Scotts Creek.
“The first year we milked 20 cows. I was 17 when we went there and the Heytesbury Settlement had just started so I reckon I was a relief milker for half the settlement.”
John realised early on that farmers needed a united voice.
“Dairy farming has always been tough,” he said.
“If you whinge on your own you get nowhere; you’ve got to be part of an organisation, so we joined the then farming lobby group, The Australian Primary Producers Union (APPU), the forerunner of the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF).
“Eventually the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV) was formed and I got very involved. I was elected branch president and delegate to central council.”
John became a confident industry advocate with help from service club, Apex.
“Apex gave me the ability to meet and talk to people and I was involved in debating in the district,” he said.
“We had 40 members in their 20s and 30s. It was a great social life and we did a lot of service work in the community and raised money for good causes.”
John was the Ash Wednesday fires co-ordinator for Timboon and district and on committees that built the Timboon hall, swimming pool and sporting complex, and board member and president at the local hospital.
“We were under a lot of pressure with funding cuts and at the same time my wife Lyn was battling cancer and I could see how important the hospital was to her and the community,” he said.
“They were talking about turning it into an aged care facility so it was suggested I join the Liberal Party to talk to the then minister who advised us we should look at becoming a multi-purpose service which was a much better model to deliver services for our community.
John bought his first farm at Scotts Creek in 1983, not far from his father.
In 1989 after his father’s death, John sold both farms and purchased one larger property to farm with his sons Andrew and Jamie.
“The original farm was 150 acres but as neighbours sold, we borrowed more money and bought more land to expand.”
Andrew and Jamie now run the farm, milking 600 to 700 cows on about 600 ha.
Lyn died from breast cancer in 1996 and John admits his world collapsed.
“My sons were working on the farm and I was probably holding them back so I thought I needed to do something else.”
He successfully stood for the newly formed Corangamite Shire and came up with a succession plan to hand over the farm to his sons over the next five years.
“I was then approached by the Liberal Party to run for the seat of Warrnambool.
“I was 53 at the time and thought I was too old, but there was an opportunity because the National Party member John McGrath was retiring and the Liberals could run a candidate.
“They said they needed some farmers in parliament, they had enough accountants and lawyers.”
John won a six-way competition for pre-selection and went on to win the seat, but after three years there was a redistribution and the electorate was combined with Portland to create South West Coast.
“Denis Napthine was the Member for Portland and he was the party leader and I was the new kid on the block so it was a short-lived career for me.”
However, in the Legislative Council, Bruce Chamberlain was retiring from Western Province and John successfully filled that vacancy.
“Then they abolished Western Province to create Western Region, which went from Melton to the South Australian border, which I represented for the next four years.”
During his time in parliament, John was shadow minister for agriculture and local government and Victorian communities.
“I think it was helpful to have a farmer in parliament. You understand the issues and know it’s tough out there.
“I was an old-style politician. When I was elected, I didn’t even have a mobile phone. If people had issues or problems, I’d go and visit them.”
After leaving politics, he was appointed chair of Wannon Water and campaigned without success to pipe water from the Otways to farmers in the Heytesbury Settlement areas to drought-proof their farms.
At 74 and living on the farm with his second wife Maryanne, who is now chair of the Timboon and District Healthcare Service Board, John still helps his sons.
“I do the boring jobs I suppose, like cutting grass, shifting silage rolls but I love it.
“Most of the school holidays or weekends I take one of my grandkids with me.”
He said farmers needed to keep up with modern technologies and learn from others.
“Everything is better now — the AI, the grass we grow, technology — but it’s always going to be tough and you need to learn from each other.
“Discussion groups are great for new farmers and we still belong to the UDV. There’s no point going to the government complaining as a single farmer, governments listen to organisations.”
John sees a bright future for Australian dairy, but says it’s still difficult for farmers.
“It’s tough and has been for a while.
“The average farmer at the moment needs 50 cents a litre, or $7 per kg/MS, to break even, but the factories are all opening at $6.40 per kg/MS.
“Farmers with no debt will be okay, but for the younger generation trying to get ahead, it’s too tough.
“I hate to see all the imports on our supermarket shelves. It’s hard to find Australian products.
“Maybe COVID-19 will make people realise we need to support our local farmers.”