by Sgt. Peter Schroder (1968-69)
*Agricultural Officer for chooks, poultry, chickens
I started my National Service in January 1968 after completing an Agricultural Science degree at the University of Adelaide. I did my recruit training at Puckapunyal. At the end of this I was offered a place in the Catering Corp which is what I had asked for.
Just before the members of the intake went their various ways, about 50 (including me) were called out and offered a position in the Education Corp based at various places in PNG. 49 were trained teachers, and there was me. Of course I accepted the offer. I was the first of the 5 Didimen at Moem Barracks. I was reasonably familiar with Mediterranean agriculture (cold wet winters and hot dry summers) but knew very little about tropical agriculture (hot wet summers, hot dry winters) and no teacher training. Talk about a challenge!
As I recall it, the idea was to provide some agricultural training to soldiers who were likely to go back to their villages in the near future. Some in the group, or groups, I had could not read or write. I took a formal approach with too much writing and not enough doing. Thankfully the students were patient. It was straight rows and patches of monoculture, like we would do here but this was not the best way for there.
I remember trying to grow tomatoes in the way we would in southern Australia. It was so hot. The tomatoes got scorched. I’m not sure who put me right but we had to build shelters over them out of coconut palm fronds. I discovered that the villagers planted a mixture of crops with one being a help to its neighbour. I could see tomatoes growing in the shade of coffee plants etc – plant ecology working at its best.
The most memorable activity in my time was the Karkaruk project. I got approval for any married soldier to keep up to 6 chooks. We raised them from day-olds; their chook houses had to be approved and were mainly built out of palm fronds and bush timber; and a management program had to be followed. I expect the chooks were not allowed to scavenge anywhere, like they would in a village.
I had had some experience rearing small lots of day-old chickens up to a month old. It’s not that hard: keep them warm in a draft-proof place with a heat globe, and feed them properly. I got 200 day-old chickens flown up from Brisbane. I suppose they were genetically superior to village chooks but I’m not sure how tough and robust they were.
We built a snake- proof, well- ventilated shelter with roll down sides if it rained; iron roof and netting sides. Even though it was hot, some artificial heating was required in the first week. No power so we built a triangle with 50 mm wide timber, each side being about 1m long. I covered the top with old hessian bagging. The frame was suspended about 150 mm above the ground and had 50mm wide strips of hessian hanging down around the 3 sides.
The idea was the chickens would go under the shelter at night and keep each other warm. It worked well. For about a week, to add some extra heat, I put a kerosene lamp under the shelter at night. On at least one occasion the top was burnt out of the shelter. Most of the chickens survived and at the age of 4-6 weeks were distributed to their new homes. The soldiers and their families looked after them well. This was a good project that continued to prosper.
We were warned about snakes and as a result had to get chicken wire to put around the bottom metre of the shed. It took a while for it to arrive. Above that was normal wire netting. Jenny and I married in September 1968 and I went to PNG 3 weeks later. Once I found accommodation in Wewak Jenny came up, about January 1969. One night, motor biking back to Wewak where we had accommodation, after a Moem function, we called in on the chickens. We discovered that our snake proofing had not been adequate and in the roof was a large python with at least 4 bumps in it. Back to the Sergeants Mess to get some help to develop a strategy. Most of the European Sergeants were Queenslanders who thrived on dealing with pythons. The enemy was soon dealt with and we improved our snake proofing.
I consider I was very fortunate to go to 2PIR for 14 months. Within no time of arriving, I went for 4 days with a work group to Aitape, building a bridge. I learnt a lot of Pidgin from the soldiers. Wewak was the only place where the Didiman Program happened during National Service.
My two years were up in January 1970. I completed a one year postgraduate course at the University of Melbourne them moved to Warwick in Queensland for 20 months and then moved to Hamilton in western Victoria, where we still live.