In the 1920s and 30s, the Better Farming Train traveled across the Australian state of Victoria, educating isolated rural communities on farming and household management practices. Jean Finnegan and Robert Pettergree met on the train; she was a specialist in sewing and household management, and he was a soil scientist. The train’s close quarters stoked their passion, and soon Jean and Robert decided to marry, leave the train and start their own farmstead.
Robert adopted a highly scientific approach to wheat farming, and enlisted Jean’s help to conduct experiments in bread production following each year’s harvest. He is idealistic and convinced his way is the correct one; she trusts him and provides moral support. She also keeps detailed records for each year’s crop, as if writing a laboratory report for a high school science experiment:
The sample has a low bushel weight (61 lbs). In accordance with standard sampling procedure a portion of FAQ (fair-average quality) wheat was critically examined and subjected to analysis and a milling test in the experimental flour mill.
The sample is very bright and plump, and has a generally pleasing appearance. The moisture content and the protein content are normal. (p. 78)
Jean’s report continues with a description of the “experiment’s” purpose, quality test results, and the measurable characteristics of 10 loaves of bread baked with flour from the year’s harvest. This is repeated each year, allowing the careful reader to see for themselves the effectiveness of Robert’s scientific farming methods.
When the government launches a wheat-growing scheme to stimulate the economy, Robert uses facts and figures to convince other farmers to increase wheat production by adopting his techniques. What follows is a classic example of the effects of messing with an ecosystem. As farming becomes increasingly difficult, Jean and Robert also suffer — individually, as a couple, and as members of their community.
Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is written in spare prose, laced with both understatement and irony. The character development is subtle; both Jean and Robert are fully formed, and yet there’s so much more I wanted to know. But the style perfectly conveyed the stark landscape and the harsh life of a farm family.