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Real Life

The heartbreaking story of how the Queensland drought turned a university into a ghost town

This farming matriarch lost the battle to save her beloved college, but she vows to keep fighting for our farmers.

By Lizzie Wilson
She's as tough as a pair of well-worn boots, and Longreach local Rosemary Champion admits she's battle-scarred but says she's more determined than ever to save the future of our farmers.
With only a matter of days to go before the gates shut for good at Queensland's last agricultural training facility, Rosemary, 78, a grazier for more than 60 years, is ready for the fight.
"The Longreach Pastoral College has been the breeding ground for thousands of young people over five decades. It was co-founded by my father, the late [Sir] James Walker in 1967."
"It's heartbreaking it's being closed down, but whatever they do with it, I'm pushing for some sort of farming education centre. There's talk it could become a minimum security jail or refugee accommodation – it just beggars belief!"
Not giving up, Rosemary Champion says "'You must have hope – and we have plenty of that out here!' (Source: Deb Scott )
Rosemary tells Woman's Day from the family's 16,000-acre property, Longway Station, is in the heart of Queensland's outback.

Lost part of history

On December 6, the college will officially close, locking away half a century of rural history that saw more than 5000 students graduate and work in the pastoral sector.
Employing 1500 staff, it's provided a valuable lifeline for families doing it tough during the drought.
"Dad was mayor of Longreach for 34 years. My darling mother [Lady] Vivienne embodied resilience, and she shared our father's passion. They believed there was a need to bring to Western Queensland a 'university of the outback' – a place where you actually breathe in the air, brush away the flies and work this sunburnt country!"
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The pioneering trailblazer is not taking this lying down – with her husband of 57 years Warwick by her side, the mum-of-four is more determined than ever.
"Our son Dougal went to the college in 1989 and met his wife Julie there. We have 11 grandkids – 10 boys and one girl – and our 16-year-old granddaughter Tayla wanted to follow in the footsteps of her farming forefathers."
Sadly, attendance had dropped due to the drought. In its heyday 120 young men and women signed up for what many describe as the best years of their lives, learning everything from fencing to mustering to horse handling.
Rosemary Champion with her two dogs. (Source: Deb Scott)
Rosemary remembers when the Queen and Prince Philip visited her parents' cattle station.
"It was their first visit, in 1970," she says.
They returned to open the Stockman's Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 2012 the Prince of Wales and Camilla visited the town.
Rosemary says the Queen (with Sir James) "drank orange juice, while the duke devoured the local tucker".
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales visit Longreach, Australia in 2012. (Source: Getty)

Life on the land

"They had 100 horses on campus, 3000 sheep and 1000 head of cattle. If you got entry, you had to be bright. Kids struggling at mainstream boarding school flourished here – they got to chase cows!" she says.
"Women were only allowed to enrol from 1979. As it turned out, those girls raised the bar to new levels! Today, the women on the land have stepped up and they're the ones managing the stations and negotiating with the banks, while the blokes work like dogs to keep the place going."
These days, Rosemary is more resolute than ever. "I drove through the campus recently – it's like a ghost town. We're in real strife if this isn't kept as a farming-related facility.
"Meantime, I'm a half-full sort of a girl and it's going to rain this year – and rain it will, very soon. You must have hope – and we have plenty of that out here!"
Not the first time Longreach has been affected, above is a farmer in 2014. (Source: Getty)
To make a donation to help drought-stricken farming families, visit cwaofnsw.org.au, or qcwa.org.au.

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