Anthony Caleo has put 2014 behind him and is getting on with the job of being a farmer Photo: John Andersen
Anthony Caleo has put 2014 behind him and is getting on with the job of being a farmer Photo: John Andersen

Farmer’s incredible tale of surviving hellfire

YOU'RE out on the farm one day burning timber when things go haywire and you are engulfed in flames.

There you are standing on top of the scorched soil you nurture day in, day out, looking around bewildered, wondering what just happened.

You know something happened and that it was bad. But what was it? At first there was nothing. There was a roaring sound that had a colour. It was orange.

Your world went psychedelic. There was just you, the soil, the melons and other crops and a clear sky. Everything was moving in and out of focus. And then the pain.

Oh, the pain that fired red hot bolts of lightning into every pore of your body. And then there was the silence.

Charters Towers district farmer Anthony Caleo was 28 when an accident on the family's Macrossan district farm left him with third degree burns to nearly 50 per cent of his body, face and head. Fire shows no mercy. There was the time in the burns unit and then the endless trips back to Brisbane for further treatments.

It must take a lot to keep going, not to curl up in a ball, but with family around him and a work ethic that came from growing up with the smells of diesel and dirt, Anthony Caleo never looked back.

In 2015 the Macrossan farm was quarantined after cucumber green mottle mosaic virus was found in the melons. People wondered how much more this family could take. Anthony and his father Jon, working side by side, eventually got the farm cleared of the disease, but at a devastating financial cost. Challenge overcome. Tick.

The days and months pass. The years roll on.

You get the feeling that for the Caleos, life is all about challenges. They meet one challenge, beat it, dust themselves off and then start looking around for another one. Sometimes they don't have to look around.

Sometimes the challenge comes to them. It can come from nowhere and rear up in front of them without any warning. Then, they have to beat it as well. Every time they beat a challenge their farming enterprise grows and becomes stronger. And they become more determined.

I called in to see Anthony last Saturday morning. He was up at one of the sheds moving gear, his dog Dixie following him like a shadow. A pantech truck was parked outside the shed, its engine running. Over the way, two backpackers working on the farm sat at a table outside their donga, drinking coffee.

Under new government regulations the backpackers can only work a 40-hour week. Everything over has to be paid time-and-a-half.

The backpackers would sooner be working, earning their flat rate, but that is not allowed. Instead they hang around their quarters, talking and drinking coffee, waiting for the next 40-hour week to roll around.

The farm itself is a wondrous thing. The visitor, knowing the battles the Caleo family has fought over the past five years, can only marvel at its scale and what has been achieved.

Anthony looks after the Macrossan farm and another block north of Charters Towers. Jon tends the farm at Black River north of Townsville where he grows melons.

Recently he started a seedling business which sees him providing seed stock to farmers from Mackay in the south, north to the Tablelands. They are growing broccoli, broccolini and asparagus at Macrossan.

These are crops you don't hear about being grown in North Queensland, not even on the Atherton Tableland. Challenge met and overcome. Tick.

Farming's carbon footprint can be huge when transportation is taken into account. Crops grown in the far north and North of the state are trucked to southern capitals, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. The Caleos supply most of their produce to supermarket distribution centres in Townsville.

It is from these centres that the produce they grow is transported to stores from Mackay to Cairns and west to Mt Isa. Their carbon footprint is tiny. Environmental challenge met? Tick.

The regular trips to Brisbane for Anthony to have treatment have slowed. He hasn't been down there "for months" now which is fine with him. "No more waiting around in hospitals," he said.

Now, out on the farm, it's like that day in February 2014 never happened. The now 33-year-old who survived hellfire stands in among the fern-like leaves of the asparagus plants and explains the intricacies involved with producing the edible spears.

"These should be ready to pick by the end of May," Anthony says.

Asparagus. Who would have thought? Challenge. Tick.

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