FOR the past few weeks, Keith "Bluey" Watkins has been doing something he has rarely done in his life.
He has been rising after the sun has.
"I can't sleep after two or three in the morning," the 68-year-old explains. "Never have done. It's hard. Maybe I'll get used to it."
For as long as Bluey can remember, he has been out of bed and at work well before dawn.
Bluey is the son of a dairy farmer. Among his earliest recollections are those of helping his father and uncle milk cows.
The dairy where the little boy learnt how to milk is still on the Watkins' 526 hectares of land. It is no longer used, as Bluey built a more modern dairy about 16 years ago.
But he could never let that old building become a ruin, because "I'm one of them sentimental bastards about dairying... I look after it".
Before he was a man, Bluey had become a full-time dairy farmer. Then he married a dairy farmer's daughter, Jan, and they had 10 children.
Bluey and Jan worked his family's land at Main Creek, just north of Dungog, for more than half a century. Until April 20.
For the final time, the Watkins' cows wandered out of the darkness and into the dairy. By the time the day had dawned, the rhythm of life, as Bluey had known it, was ending. He had retired as a dairy farmer.
"I don't know anything else," Bluey says. "But enough is enough."
Through the seasons and the years, he has dealt with fluctuating prices, especially after the deregulation of the dairy industry 20 years ago, and the ever changing weather.
In recent times, during the drought, it was costing him more to produce milk than what he was receiving for it. Times like those sorely tested Bluey.
"We've got the shitty end of the stick, but the least amount of money," he explains of the dairy farmer's lot.
In the end, however, it hasn't been the markets or Mother Nature that has prompted Bluey to retire, but the march of Father Time. He turns 69 on July 4.
"I'm not as fit as I used to be, and it's too much for me," he says. "There's a lot of work involved.
"Don't get me wrong, I love it."
Dairying has been the love of a lifetime for Keith "Bluey" Watkins.
When he left school at 14, Bluey worked on the family's farm, and he also took a job at Dungog's milk factory.
Back then, in the 1960s, there were about 250 milk suppliers for that factory; "now we'd be flat out to have 12" in the Dungog area.
One of those suppliers was the Watkins family. Bluey's father, Aubrey, had 40 cows. You could make a decent living from a small herd. But times changed, and so did the industry, with quotas and set prices disappearing. Farmers were encouraged to expand. So Bluey went with the times.
At one point, he and Jan had about 450 milking cows. But bigger didn't mean better, in Bluey's eyes.
"The bigger you get, the more pressure you get," he says.
For some, the pressure, the prices, the changes were all too much. The number of dairy farms in Main Creek dwindled. There used to be 14 around Bluey, with the farmers helping each other.
"There's none in Main Creek now, all gone," he says.
The story of Bluey and Jan Watkins has been played out up and down the Hunter Valley.
As Scott Wheatley, the Chair of the Hunter Dairy Development Group, says of the industry in recent years, "We've had an exodus."
Scott Wheatley estimates that in the Dungog, Maitland, Singleton and Muswellbrook areas, there are no more than 50 dairy farms.
Half a century ago, he says, there were thousands of dairy farmers in the valley. In the late 1960s, about 400 suppliers were feeding the Muswellbrook milk factory alone. That factory, like so many of the farms, has long gone.
Scott Wheatley is one of the survivors. He is the fourth generation of his family to farm the land he is on by the Hunter River at Aberdeen. He has just over 200 cows. The herd used to be larger, but during the drought, Mr Wheatley had to cut back by about 100.
"I had to sell cows to pay the bills at times," he says.
Despite the family's history attached to this land, Scott Wheatley wonders if his children would want to be dairy farmers: "Things will want to change."
In Mr Wheatley's view, there needs to be better water security. Dairy farmers along the Hunter River may pay for a licence for water, but what they are allocated can vary widely.
Then there is the issue of what farmers are paid for the milk they produce.
Scott Wheatley says most in the valley are receiving in the mid- to high-50s a litre for milk, but he points out "that was what it was prior to deregulation".
"We've got to work together with the processors, the government and farmers' groups and get a decent price," he says.
Further downstream at Luskintyre, Glenn Haines' dairy is a reflection of how the industry used to be.
He milks just 44 cows, producing about 3800 litres a week. A typical larger commercial dairy, he says, would produce about 20,000 litres a week.
But Mr Haines' old-fashioned approach is lapped up by consumers. The family sells dairy products under the brand name Udder Farm.
"We sell all our milk, and we can't keep up with demand," Mr Haines says.
Having been a dairy farmer since he was 16, Mr Haines says he has not only kept his operation small, but basic.
"I don't keep up with modern technology," he says. "I'm a hands-on person. I'm a doer."
Glenn Haines is looking at selling the farm and the business. But what he won't do is give up dairying. Even if Udder Farm does sell, he's going to stay on, milking the cows.
"It gives me something to get up for in the morning," Mr Haines says.
"A dairy cow is a wonderful thing to be about. It gives you milk, it gives you calves. I just like cows, always have."
Back up at Dungog, none of Bluey and Jan Watkins' kids wanted to take over Wakoreena Dairying. A life of milking cows wasn't for them, their father explains.
"No, because they were all made to do it when they were young," Bluey says.
He remarks that his wife probably won't miss the dairying too much.
"She's pretty happy, because she doesn't have to go out in all sorts of weather getting cows."
In the eyes of locals, Bluey and Jan Watkins milking for the final time marked the end of an era.
"It was certainly a moment in Main Creek history," says Ros Runciman, a neighbour and owner of Yeranda holiday cottages.
Ros Runciman was not about to let history slide by unnoticed.
A keen photographer and once a dairy farmer in Victoria, Mrs Runciman wanted to record the final milking sessions at the property of Jan and Bluey Watkins, who she calls "Main Creek legends".
So she took photos at the last afternoon milking session on April 19. She returned with her camera early the following morning to capture the final milking of the cows in the Watkins' dairy.
"As the last cow went through, he [Bluey] came up to the gate, and he was concentrating," recalls Mrs Runciman.
"I asked him what was going through his mind. He said, 'Everything'."
Bluey has had a lot to think about. The past. The future.
He has sold about 330 of his milking cows to a dairy farmer in Gloucester. He has a herd of younger cattle that he plans to sell. And with the dairy winding up, half a dozen employees have gone as well.
"It's a little bit like a ghost town at the moment," Bluey says. "It's sad, but life goes on."
After that last milking session, he and Jan headed to the coast to do some fishing around Hawks Nest. They both hope to have more time now for beach fishing.
But their lives will remain on the farm. He intends to run beef cattle.
Bluey can't bear the thought of actually retiring. That's why he is bemused by the sea changers who have blown into Hawks Nest.
"I hear all those city people saying, 'I don't have to get up, I don't have to mow the lawn', and I think to myself, 'What do you do?!'," he laughs.
Bluey does wonder about the future of dairy farming in the valley, and in Australia. More milk could come in from New Zealand, he predicts, "and we could have battery cows in sheds, like chickens".
He reckons for the local industry to be sustainable, what farmers are paid has to increase.
"I believe milk should be $1 a litre and tied to the index, so there's an increase every year, the same as everything else," he says.
That won't be Bluey's worry. He's out of dairying. But dairying will never be out of Keith "Bluey" Watkins. Even if he does say, but with not much conviction, "They tell me there's life after milking cows."
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