Hope and hard work on a farm in Western Australia

When the French frigate Esperance dropped anchor at a spot on the southern coast of Western Australia in 1792, her captain and crew could hardly know that the ship's name (''hope'') would be a watchword nearly two centuries later for people equally enterprising and brave.

Mary Hoggart, a matter-of-fact lass from Wiltshire in -England, and her husband, Geoffrey, now own a farm two hours' drive from Esperance, the nearest town. Here, within walking distance of the great Southern Ocean which rolls down toward Antarctica, the couple is striving to master 3,000 acres of land. For them, hope and sheer hard work are of the essence.

It was on Christmas morning 1978 that Mary flew in to Perth, the capital of Western Australia, with her two small children. Waiting for her at the airport was Geoffrey, a wiry, dark-haired Yorkshireman with gentle eyes. He had news: His search for a suitable farming property had yielded promising results.

He had driven all night from Esperance, 500 miles southeast of Perth. Now he drove the family straight back to see the property he had found. If they liked it, he was proposing to buy. All the Hoggarts' saved money would be needed for the deposit.

It was no soft option Geoffrey showed Mary when they arrived at the farm. The sprawling property, part of a narrow coastal strip of tussocky red earth in what passes in these parched lands as a rain belt, was only one-third developed, and even that patchily.

Much of the land was covered in scrub, with red sand encroaching on pasture and many rocky outcrops thrusting through a thin layer of topsoil. The Hoggarts were strangers in what, for them, was a new country. They knew nobody in the district. Their nearest acquaintance was 2,000 miles away in Tasmania, and for practical purposes that could have been on the other side of the world.

It was a brilliant summer's day. In the clear, unpolluted light, the farm bungalow revealed its warts instantly. The house was old and worn, with linoleum on the floor. An -antique kerosene-powered refrigerator sat in the hall.

But gazing out from the sitting room, Mary glimpsed the blue water of an ocean at its placid best. ''That decided me,'' she said over a frugal workday lunch. The couple agreed to buy.

Mary had met her husband in Botswana, Africa, on a teaching assignment in the early 1970s. They married, -returned to England, and took up farming.

But those were days of deepening economic difficulty in Britain. The couple owned no land, and had to work for others. They were thinking of buying a property, but hesitated. Having read about farming opportunities in Western Australia, they went there on a vacation to look around.

In England they would have been fortunate to be able to afford 40 acres of good farming land. In Western Australia, the same amount of cash was enough to pay for half of the 3,000-acre Esperance property and secure a mortgage on the rest.

The Hoggarts bought just before a boom in land prices swept Australia. The boom is still continuing, and today their farm has more than doubled in value.

Geoffrey and Mary freely admit they remain ''on a financial knife edge,'' but they believe they are winning.

Their farm, a tiny chunk of an agricultural region stretching out along the southern coast for over 700 miles, is on potentially fertile land which experts say ought to yield fruitfully, given proper management.

Sitting at a table beneath a large aerial photograph of the property showing the scarred face of the terrain, we asked whether their farming experience in England had been much use in the hinterland of Esperance. Geoffrey ruminated over a plate of grouper caught in the bay that morning: ''Perhaps we would have been better off without it.''

Later, as we toured the farm in a battered four-wheel-drive pickup truck, we could see what he meant. We raced a family of kangaroos to a creek bed; disturbed an emu father shepherding his muscular chicks through the scrub. For anyone from England's gentle pastures this was rugged land indeed.

The property is largely given over to sheep farming, but it is suitable for many crops. In the coastal strip, the growing season is eight months long and the rainfall is reliable.

Along with their 4,000 sheep, the Hoggarts grow fields of clover as another source of income, as they strive to repay the debt on their farm.

Every inch the working partner, Mary has no doubts that they will succeed, no regrets that they chose 3,000 acres of Western Australia rather than a neat, green pocket handkerchief somewhere in England.

One problem she and Geoffrey face, however, is the great mobility of labor in Australia. Fencing and sheep-dipping and shearing have to be done, and the couple cannot do it all themselves. But reliable farmhands are already spoken for, like nannies on the mothers' circuit in England.

''To get on their list isn't easy,'' Mary said, hopping on and off the back of the truck to open sagging wire gates they cannot yet afford to repair.

Geoffrey's biggest headache is marketing. With vast distances lying between the farm and the nearest seaport, trucking sheep can slice away profits.

They struck similar problems with the clover. Nobody told them that it was the custom in these parts to presell the crop. In the first year the new chums from England were forced to sell on a market just closing.

While there is a benevolent and efficient government advisory service on technical matters (for example, beware of the whipping winds that arise from nowhere and bury crops in sandbanks in minutes), in marketing it is whom you know that counts. Commercial consultants in the area don't come cheap, and they vary in the quality of their advice.

The mobility of people affects the Hoggarts' community and private lives. Surrounding farms change hands fast, especially now that land prices are rising sharply. Many would-be farmers arrive in Esperance, encounter the difficulties, and leave as abruptly as they came.

Others come merely to make a swift profit by buying and selling at a lightning pace.

On the other hand, there are examples available of what people like the Hoggarts can achieve if they stick it out and have the will to succeeed. Thirty miles up the road, a spread belonging to the American TV personality Art Linkletter has just been put up for sale.

Like many other Americans, Linkletter bought land near Esperance about 20 years ago. Today his is a finely developed property of 11,400 acres, a testimony to what careful and determined hands can do in a terrain which a few years ago was undeveloped and, in many places, forbidding.

Linkletter's Place, as it is called, is on the market for $3.2 million.

Some farmers around Esperance are cruel to their land, and happy to ravage it in pursuit of quick returns. The Hoggarts themselves offer no criticism of their neighbors, but they have a shrewd idea of who among them are farmers because they love to farm.

The family's life is not easy. There is a strong sense of isolation. A single telephone line, frequently broken by gales sweeping in from the south, is their chief link to the outside. But the Hoggarts are not without kindred spirits.

Not once did they speak of England as ''home.'' Their two young children, Alan and Carol, attend an elementary school 20 miles away where Mary pitches in with volunteer work. There is a local bus, but it stops at the edge of the three miles of red dirt track leading to the Hoggart bungalow.

When asked about their leisure activities, the Hoggarts paused, as if life was really more work than anything else. But the answer put the seal on the quality of life they value and which they traveled 9,000 miles to find.

''Thank God we have bad television reception,'' was Mary's heartfelt sigh. For leisure they go to the beach at the edge of their property, extending for miles in a beautiful unspoiled white sandy strip.

''And when we get fed up with things we ring one of our neighbors and ask if we can come over for a yarn.''

''Yarn'' was a giveaway. In England they would have gone for a ''chat.'' The Hoggarts are Australians already. They are here to stay.

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