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No pain, no grain
Caroline Robinson (left) and friend Kylee Jones outside the Grain Discovery Centre. Sculpture by Jordan Sprigg. Picture: Patrick Cornish

I have eaten buns and muffins at hundreds of pit stops along Australian roads. It is time to learn a little about how this food reaches our hands, to be buttered and jammed.

Well, I have just done that while visiting a Grain Discovery Centre, part of a new roadhouse in Narembeen in the eastern Wheatbelt. You can buy the usual coffees and sandwiches, car stickers and fridge magnets but, a few metres away, there's also education on a plate, so to speak.

The centre, which opened in April, presents an informative and colourful parade of how WA's first wheat and sheep farmers lived and worked. A humpy (primitive hut) stands near a kitchen with wood stove and no fridge. Piles of hessian bags remind us how the grain was stored for transport, first to railway sidings and then to Fremantle and other ports.

There's no attempt to idealise rural life of a century ago. "Though Western Australia was promoted as a settlers' dream . . . when they arrived from England they found flies, a very hot climate and animals like snakes, lizards and kangaroos," an information placard states.

Local pioneer Frank Blain wrote home that the new country was a mixture of sweet and slog. Campfire conversations were fun but there was often "no rain for our crops and a 12-mile walk to collect the post".

The centre offers 21st-century technology to put virtually all the 20th on show. Touch screens will delight younger visitors in particular. Local students did their bit to pull it together. Rogen Lumayag created "Bringing farm machinery to the world of animation". Jordan Sprigg recycled metal to sculpt the bush-hatted figure pushing a plough near the roadhouse entrance. This was a hands-on community project. The Go Narembeen organisation led the way for a core team of half a dozen to drive forward.

I am fortunate to have as my guide one of the six, Caroline Robinson, 30, a teacher who married a local farmer. She is the sort of city-bred "settler" country towns dream of. For the 18 months leading up to the centre's opening she donated her time, working with people such as Brian Cusack, president of Go Narembeen, which manages the centre.

Caroline is an expert smiling enforcer. It was one thing to entice the district's own residents to pitch in but she reached further, mustering her family and Perth mates too. "On your way here," she often asked her friend Kylee Jones, "please buy some cables . . . and plugs". Kylee made many four-hour trips from home in Mandurah, loaded up with all manner of IT equipment and other essentials.

As I arrive at the centre, Albany visitors Norm and Edith White are just leaving. "It's a most impressive museum," she says. "The education available is probably the most important thing. How times have changed . . . with machinery and transport, for example." She should know. In the 1960s the couple started farming in the Tambellup area. "We took our grain to Toolbrunup rail siding. Later it went by truck. Norm and I did a lot of manual work but today's farmers can often press a few buttons for the same result. We think it's good for young people to learn how it used to be."

As a tangible contribution to 2012 being the Year of the Farmer, the discovery centre would be hard to beat.

Caroline says volunteers give booked tours and do all jobs such as cleaning. "We've had lots of visitors from interstate and overseas, including grey nomads from the Eastern States on self-drive wildflower trails. Oh, and a train driver from the US."

I could have learnt more about the production of food but had committed to two occasions where I would be compelled to consume it. Narembeen was in especially busy hospitality mode: a morning tea followed by lunch with a legion of ladies.

Cakes and biscuits rounded off a ceremony opening a men's shed in the main street. An old bus garage has become a place where guys can show their creative side with tools. It's another example of community effort. Many hands and minds have combined to give a second life to the building.

Heroically declining a third scone, I tear myself away to another shed next to a wheat paddock. I am the only male - invited as a journalist, you realise - amid long tables seating 110 women for whom finery and work boots are dress code. It's the third annual lunch that promotes female empowerment and honours the role farmers play in food production and the wider economy. "Is there a book in this . . . perhaps Fifty Sheds of Grey," I ask the woman next to me, one of the guest speakers.

Her answer was drowned by the loudspeakers hitting us with the Weather Girls' song It's Raining Men. I'm not sure that was part of the forecast but Narembeen sure is a place that makes things happen.

I'd suggest this month is a great time to visit Narembeen, 297km east of Perth. I drove via York and Quairading, past paddocks that are currently a carpet of lush green and yellow canola. For variety I drove back to Perth via Corrigin and Brookton.

=FACT FILE==
• The new Grain Discovery Centre is open in Narembeen. Located adjacent to the Narembeen Roadhouse it is open every day from 9am to 5pm. For tours, group bookings or school bookings phone the Narembeen Community Resource Centre 9064 7055 or email narembeen@crc.net.au .