Your average aspiring rapper flocks to the city lights for a big break, but Abe Gwada went in the other direction.
He’s tied to the magnificent rolling hills of Tumbarumba, where he works day-in, day-out as one of Grant Burbidge’s gun shearers.
The 23-year-old refugee fled war torn Sudan for Egypt with his family at the start of the century, securing a ticket to Australia in 2003.
At 9 years old he went from the Sudanese capital Khartoum to Sydney, spending his teenage years in Blacktown.
Growing up with the hustle and bustle of the city, he’d never seen a sheep before or set foot on a farm when he started working for Grant three years ago.
Now he’s shearing 90-115 sheep a day.
“At the time I was doing landscaping and had my cert three qualification, but it was really hard to find someone to take me on as an apprentice at the time, so I had no choice,” he said.
“It’s hard in Wagga if you don’t have a specific qualification for a certain job.
“Grant was one of the few who actually got back to me and I thought I’d give it a go.”
The hills are alive
When he’s not in the shed, Abe winds down by busting rhymes.
“It’s a hobby, for me it’s just a way to express myself, and a way to express my emotions,” he said.
“Every now and then I do something just for fun, party stuff, but most of the time that’s what I’m into, meaningful, inspirational music.”
He performed with Wagga rap crew RoofLess Natural Youth for years, touring to Sydney and playing multiple FUSION festivals.
When I’ve got free time, I just want to relax, that’s what I do, make music.
These days he tends to keep his work to himself, sharing his tunes occasionally on his Youtube channel.
Now the rest of the crew have moved on, hip hop is a passion he pursues in his downtime, but he’s not seeking a return to the big smoke any time soon.
“I don’t want to turn it into a business.
“When I’ve got free time, I just want to relax, that’s what I do, make music.”
It’s tough work wrangling and shearing Grant’s 22,000 strong flock and a shearer who stays is a rare gem in the industry, which is under pressure as many of Australia’s casual workforce get older and retire with injuries.
“I see myself hanging around for the long term, 15 years at least doing this,” he said.
“One of the big problems is the high turnover of shearers because you can’t guarantee them full time work- it’s usually seasonal,” Grant said.
“To overcome that with our two best guys Abe and Ryan we employ them in the off season doing other things, if you want to keep good labor the only way to keep them is to employ them.”
Abe and Ryan are the only two remaining from the original team, now both shearing in their third season.
Abe’s cousin Amos signed up just three months ago and is training now under the watchful eye of his own blood.
“He’s going good, getting up there, I’m really impressed," Abe said.
Innovation for the next generation
Starting from scratch with no shearing knowledge may sound like a tough slog, but it’s actually an advantage in Grant’s unconventional shed.
His team work on a standing platform system, tipping the sheep out on a table and removing the need for shearers to drag the heavy animals and bend for hours on end.
Early versions of the system were developed as long ago as the 1940s, but the uptake has been slow.
“To me it’s just a no-brainer, I’ve been hoping for 25 years someone would develop this type of system but I realised about seven years ago I’d have to do it myself,” he said.
Grant invested a quarter of a million dollars to get the technology to the point it’s at now, with little to no support from the industry research and development corporation, Australian Wool Innovation.
AWI are currently facing scrutiny for their governance and mismanagement of compulsory grower levy funds.
While conventional shearing is backbreaking work, Grant’s system takes some of the pressure off.
He can shear eight an hour, all day on the platform himself, compared to just three if shearing conventionally.
“Conventional shearers are handling a tonne of mutton every day, these guys don’t have to do that, they just pull the sheep out and it’s in place, it’s so much much easier on the body.”
Fresh blood has been the antidote for a conservative industry and existing workforce resistant to change. But training equals time, with months to years needed to master the craft.
“Everybody’s tried to use existing shearers on it and that becomes a problem, they just don’t want to change,” Grant said.
“Every year for the last two years I’ve had Abe and Ryan but I’ve got to start with other new people. It usually takes three or four people before you find the rest of the team, maybe it takes six or seven.”
According to 2016 data, the average age of a shearer in Australia is 30, but the workforce is shrinking. Department of Employment projections indicate a drop to 2,700 workers in 2020 from 2015’s 3,600.
“Every sheep in the country gets shorn every year, we obviously find enough shearers to shear them all- but it’s getting harder and harder,” Grant said.
It’s been fantastic watching these young people grow... especially when they start training other people that’s a real positive because they’ve come full circle.Grant Burbidge
Despite all the challenges, fostering a supportive, enthusiastic and youthful working environment comes with ample reward.
“It’s been fantastic watching these young people grow, become more responsible themselves, especially when they start training other people that’s a real positive because they’ve come full circle,” he said.
“It’s expensive and time consuming and frustrating at times but if you want to have workers of the future you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to invest in them.”