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As Long as We Remember...

April 21, 2004

Australian Farmer Finds Key to Happy Aging

Joe Volz

I first met Jim Cronin 50 years ago on a South Pacific ocean liner. He was heading back from vacation to his job as a "wheat humper" in South Australia.

He had about the most backbreaking life you could imagine. Jim carried 250-pound bags of wheat 10 feet from a grain elevator to a railroad car all day long.

The job has long since been automated. But Jim did it for more than 10 years, saving up enough to buy a farm.

Now, he has a 37,000-acre wheat and sheep station 450 miles northwest of Adelaide. That's larger than the City of Frederick.

If there is a path to successful aging, Jim seems to have found it in the Australian Outback, although his rural version of paradise might not be yours or mine. He never married and one reason was that few women from Adelaide, or anywhere else, aspired to living on the farm.

About every decade or so, he takes a month off from his 12-hour days and travels to Ireland, England or the United States. Recently he stopped by my place at Worman's Mill.

Cronin, 72, is a quiet, muscular man, who speaks slowly and precisely about his life in the Outback, 25 miles from the nearest town, Streaky Bay, population 1,700. And, although our farms are a bit smaller here, he was amazed at the greenery.

"We have had good years, the last two years. The rainfall increased from 10 inches to 15 inches and that makes a big difference," he said.

Wheat and wool prices are up. What more could a farmer want?

He has no intention of retiring. He and his kid brother Pat, 68, and Pat's son, run the place with the help of a couple of hired hands.

"We have spent a lifetime here. Why go any place else? This is home," he said.

Now, you city or suburban people might tell yourself that Cronin's remote, hard life is not for you. It is too lonely.

Cronin is not an evangelist. He is not urging us to head on out into the wilderness.

As for loneliness?

Cronin has friends and family and Friday nights at the pub in Streaky Bay if he isn't working. And who is to say that those of us city dwellers may not live alone among the masses, as Harvard University sociologist David Riesman said in his seminal 1950 book "The Lonely Crowd?"

Cronin would never want to replace the solitude of the Outback with the frenetic life of Washington, or New York. Even Frederick, with its one way streets and parking meters is a bit too crowded for him.

"But America is an exciting place to visit," he said. "I get a lot of new ideas about farming from the Department of Agriculture."

The point is that Cronin is doing something he loves. He is his own boss - and he is looking ahead. Happiness, say the experts, is one of the keys to healthy aging.

Cronin doesn't think of growing old. He doesn't talk about what he can't do. He doesn't talk about slowing down.

He looks ahead to future accomplishments, not back. Cronin is experimenting with new ways of fertilizing.

"We are increasing our wheat crop by 50 percent and we hope to raise it eventually by 100 percent."

I went to visit him once. It was a long journey, about 13 hours from Los Angeles. Then, two hours by plane to Adelaide. Then, an overnight bus trip, featuring an unscheduled collision with a kangaroo along the way (no damage to either bus or kangaroo) to the farm Cronin calls Deep Well.

Cronin wasn't home.

He was gold mining.

So I spent the week with his equally energetic brother, who took me over to the big city, Streaky Bay, where we bounded down a cliff onto a remote ocean beach to mingle with hundreds of seals.

Cronin has a self-reliance that eludes most Americans today. Here's an example:

He was driving from his farm to Alice Springs about 700 miles away in the Northern Territory, when his drive shaft broke. So, he just waited a few hours and flagged a car going north. He gave the driver some money to buy the part in Alice Springs and give it to the first motorist heading south. Then, Cronin camped out for three days. He got the drive shaft.

Too bad that the gerontologists who spend so much time figuring out what successful aging is all about never visit Deep Well.

Aging?" asks Cronin. "Just call what we are doing, aggressive aging."

E-mail Joe Volz at

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