Hard-working harvester treats himself to pick of crop

The shots of the Kenworth T610SAR posted on the Darby Harvesting and Haulage Facebook page are what catch our eye first.

Brilliantly photographed by neighbour Katrina Bebbington at her adjoining Mountview Homestead near Toowoomba, a proud owner John Darby cheekily announces his newest, and most striking truck, with the below post:

All concentration behind the wheel of a Western Star, once the mainstay of Darby’s busy operation.

“Darby Harvesting and Haulage would like to announce the arrival of a new baby girl to the Family, her name is T6TEN, parents are doing well.”

Darby might well joke, but this is a serious piece of gear for the 70-year-old that caps 47-years of blood, sweat, and tears in the harvesting game.

Up until now, he’s relied on mostly Internationals – S-Lines and T-Lines were two favourites – and since 2005, Western Stars have been the mainstay of the Toowoomba-based operation that punches well above its weight up and down the eastern seaboard.

“I just thought, ‘I’m 70 now, I’d like a Kenworth before I pull the pin’,” said the grandfather-of-five when we catch up during a rare break from steering a combine harvester in Meandarra, west of Dalby, to find out more.

“Everyone respects the Kenworth name.”

It’s been a long wait between ordering the rig from Angus Short at Brown and Hurley in Toowoomba in January this year and finally putting it to work for the first time in October, but well worth it, says Darby.

You couldn’t wipe the smile from his face as he drove the gleaming SAR back from the Bayswater plant in Melbourne, before handing it over to Brown and Hurley for a four-week fit-out from BigRigBullbars, ROC Hydrolics and RTE Rocklea Truck Electrical.

“I just wanted to make it look pretty,” said Darby when asked for specifics on the work done.

“All trucks I’ve had in the past have always been white, but I’ve always been a great red lover.

“I got a Dodge Ram imported from America about 10 years ago and it was a maroonish colour, so anyway, thought why not give this Venetian Red a try.

“I thought it looked pretty nice when I picked it up. I said to Justin [long-time staff driver Justin Cornell] you should be paying me to driver that truck, not me paying you – it’s too pretty.” 

Inside, Darby has also added the winning polish, installing two fridges, a freezer, microwave and the latest AC unit to keep loyal driver Cornell cool, calm and collected during one of the busiest harvest seasons on record.

Rated to 113-tonnes, but only pulling 110-tonnes to comply with the GrainCorp regulations, the T610 is running as an AB-triple, carting grain off different properties around Meandarra when Big Rigs checks in.

“It’s just a shame I have to put it on gravel, dirty roads which it’s on at the moment,” said Darby.

“With all the dust on it, it doesn’t look quite as pretty, but as soon as it’s back on bitumen I’ll give it a bit of a spruce up and it’ll be a lot cleaner.”

The icing on the cake will be the arrival of new trailers from Moore Trailers in January, complete with a 100mm stripe down the side in the same colour as the Kenworth.

John Darby, far right, is joined by partner Kerrie Crawford and loyal driver Justin Cornell to toast the new arrival. Photo: Katrina Bebbington

“Some of the boys said they like the green, but I just think we’re a bit dark there and need white with the stripe and the main tarp the colour of the State of Origin maroon.”

Meanwhile, Darby and his team of Cornell, Western Star driver Dave Gray, and a sub-contractor working three trucks and two headers, should be in the Walgett area of NSW by the time you read this.

Shortly after that they move on to a little place called Spring Ridge, just west of Quirindi, NSW, the region where it all began for Darby in 1974.

“I will have been harvesting there 47 years this year, so the lady of the land tells me,” said Darby, who drives both headers and does all the equipment maintenance. 

Darby grew up on the family farm near Quirindi, but after his father died in an accident, the family lost the property due to probate and death duty in the early 70s.

For a brief time, Darby then worked as a motor mechanic in Sydney, but the smell of gum leaves soon lured him back to the bush and he took the plunge into the business he still runs today.

Back then, Darby said he was only one of a handful of contract harvesters on the east coast – 20 at the most – but today there would be a couple of hundred, at least.

Darby has seen off more than his fair share of challenges along the way too, from rising insurance costs and overseas staff locked out by Covid, to crippling droughts.

Although now enjoying the second successive year of bumper crops, for four drought-ravaged seasons prior to that, business for Darby plummeted by 90 per cent.

Forced to shed one driver and a truck, Darby got back behind the wheel of a Western Star and made ends meet any way he could, including carting hay from Victoria into the parched farms around Glen Innes, NSW, and as far afield as Winton, Queensland.

With luck, next year he’s hoping to change down a gear, or two, and coax middle child Evan, 36, who is driving for another transport company at present, back into the business with the view to taking over the reins completely in 2024.

That’s the year Darby hits the milestone of 50 years in harvesting, and with his body starting to show signs of wear and tear, as fitting time as any he reckons to call time on one of the industry’s most enduring careers.

So, what does retirement look like for a workaholic like Darby?

All going well, hooking up the caravan to his beloved Dodge Ram and camping on the water’s edge somewhere with long-time partner Kerrie Crawford, who also helps with office administration and is a dab hand at piloting the wide-load headers when needed.

Lake Eyre in SA would do for starters – but only for part of the year, laughs Darby.

“I’ll keep working; I’m not going to go home and sit on the couch like other people retire.”

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