Why retirement won’t get their goat

Merridy and Michael Ingrouille have a retirement plan that involves raising goats. James Burgess reports

There’s something about finding the Ingrouille’s Farm that’s unique to rural Australia. Driving along a rocky dirt road, the dry yellow paddocks slowly give way to green as you reach the house.

It’s about 40 minutes out of Bairnsdale in East Gippsland, a beautiful Australian heritage style home surrounded by a garden that’s been tended by someone with a love for everything that grows. Merridy, 59, and 66-year-old Michael have owned the farm for more than two decades. There’s machinery, sheds and the odd lean-to spread throughout the property. But it doesn’t feel like a mess, just an informal exhibition of decades spent working the land.

Michael stopped farming sheep on the original thousand acres at the end of 2016, finishing a career in agriculture that began at the age of four milking cows on the family dairy. The couple say they are enjoying a well-earned retirement, but it’s not quite what some would envisage. Michael may not be caring for thousands of sheep anymore, but the farm still runs much as it used to. They’ve downsized the tractor and there’s less hay in the shed, but there’s still plenty happening on the Ingrouille property.

Its current state is a part of what Michael calls “the plan”. He says: “The dilemma of retirement is something that all farmers face”. Agriculture is less of a job and more a life decision; it demands odd hours, long weeks and a level of determination that keeps many away from the career path. While Michael plays down the commitment needed, he’s clearly devoted to the success of the property and it shows in both his knowledge and the passion in his voice.

Michael and Merridy raised two boys here, William and Richard, but neither wanted to take over from their father. “At first I thought it might be for me,” says Richard, the youngest, “but eventually, I realised that it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself.” There’s no apparent animosity from Michael as his son says this. The life Richard wants isn’t on the farm and he’s just happy that his sons are following their own paths.

Michael admits that winding down operations was far easier for him that it would be for some. He bought the farm after selling his last and concedes that while he’ll always have a connection to the place, “it’s not a fourth or fifth generation farm like some of them are…,” “you’re not selling family history.” Parcelling-off and selling pieces of land to neighbouring farms over the years has left the couple where they are now. With 68 acres and Merridy finishing a long and successful career as a primary teacher last year, they began the current phase of their retirement plan, one that involves goats.

Approaching the paddock, you begin to hear the faint sound of bleating in the distance and it becomes apparent that this isn’t just one or two pet goats to keep the grass down. It’s the end of kidding season and each mother is trailed closely by one or two newborns. The couple raise Angoras and Boers on the property, but most of the newborns that frolic close to their mothers are a cross between the two breeds.

Why retirement won't get their goat
Michael delivers fresh bedding for the goats every morning. Photo by James Burgess

Asked how many they have, Merridy pauses to perform the mental headcount and it’s clear that there are far more than the dozen or so that surround her. Michael parks the quad-bike with the morning’s feed of lucerne hay and the two throw numbers back and forth until Michael finally settles on a total: “55 now I believe”, he says, including the two born just that morning in the final figure.

The goats have no names. Just the number written on their ear tag. As Michael climbs down from the vehicle, number 49, an Angora doe, moves up to him and accepts a pat before moving on with her two-week-old kids in tow. “You can see that most of the girls aren’t exactly shy,” says Merridy, explaining that the Angoras seem to be far more receptive than the Boers to human interaction.

There seems to be no real agreement amongst the couple on where the goat breeding will end, or with how many. The males from this season will be sold on eventually, but the females will remain to one day raise the next generation. What they do agree on is that goats have been the perfect choice for their farming retirement. “If I had my time over, I’d choose goats over sheep any day,” says Michael, “they’re much smarter and easier to handle.”

As he scoops up a brown-and-white kid and the two fawn over it, you come to understand why they’ve chosen this type of retirement. It’s the life they’ve always known but slowed down to a pace that lets them enjoy the special moments during their work.

The rest of the property is an extension of their lifestyle. There are guinea pigs running freely throughout the netted fruit orchard, a veggie garden backing onto the house and even a small lake that Michael dug some years ago both for fire safety as well as the charm it adds to the scenery. Everything has its place, and nothing is, as Merridy puts it, “anything more than part of the plan.”

They busy themselves with other hobbies as well. Michael restores old engines and works on vintage cars in his shed, while Merridy works on sewing and crochet in a small studio off the house, but they can’t seem to resist the pull back outside to the land.

As they lean against the fence and admire the dozen or so kids that prance around the paddock, they let their arms casually hung over the steel frame. The day’s work has left their hands marked with cuts, grazes and dirt. A testament to the day’s toil, a mark of dedication to their own special type of retirement.