Guyra Lamb and Potato Festival carries on in honour of the late Frank Presnell

FAMILY TRADITION: Guyra's John Presnell supplied 52 lambs to this year's Guyra Lamb and Potato Festival. Inset: Frank Presnell who founded the festival.
FAMILY TRADITION: Guyra's John Presnell supplied 52 lambs to this year's Guyra Lamb and Potato Festival. Inset: Frank Presnell who founded the festival.

Guyra locals and producers have come together in a mammoth effort to continue the legacy of the Guyra Lamb and Potato Festival in what will be the first year without founding member Frank Presnell.

34 years ago Mr Presnell and his wife Mavis sat in their dining room with fellow local Royce Newbury and established a festival celebrating the town's local produce.

But for the first time Mr Presnell will be missing at this year's festival, which kicks off on Wednesday. He died just shy of his 100th birthday last year.

Instead, the team of volunteers that he recruited across so many years have overcome drought pressures to ensure his legacy lives on.

Among Mr Presnell's jobs was organising the lambs that are killed in Tamworth and processed at a local Guyra butchery to help create the 3000 to 4000 pies and 200 legs of lamb that will be sold over the 13-day festival.

This year, his own son and prime lamb producer, John Presnell, was charged with supplying the 52 lambs.

Mr Presnell runs a first cross ewe flock using Dorset and White Suffolk ram genetics alongside cattle on about 2000 acres (800 hectares). He decided to hold over mixed-sex lambs from last year to feed for the festival.

In previous years, lambs have been sourced from other places too, but Mr Presnell managed to supplement the lambs on barley and sheep nuts to achieve an average 23 kilogram dressed carcase.

"The first couple of years, there must have been about 20 farmers, and they would get one or two lambs off of them," he said.

"I've been supplying them for the last 30 years or so. They are the best of the best; that's why we breed them.

"It was a pretty tough year last year. I would have normally sold them at the end of June, but held on to them for the festival."

Everything from cooking to cleaning toilets and setting up the event is done by local community members who have been committed to the same shifts for years.

None have quite as big a job as Julie Gittoes, who has been the secretary and gazebo manager for 29 years.

Her job description is too long to list, but for 14 to 15 hours across the event she will lead the team of 29 different community groups - schools, football clubs, churches, CWA and nursing homes - who undertake split shifts in the catering tent.

One volunteer alone will peel 450 kilograms of potatoes for potato bake.

"My real role that plays out the most is getting close to the lamb and potato by checking all the food, doing all the ordering for the catering, doing the menus and keeping an eye on the prices, and organising the charitable groups that help me each day," Ms Gittoes said.

"Each day, I work with two voluntary organisations from within the town. One comes in at 7.30am until 2pm, and then another group comes in from 2pm to 8.30pm. So when the festival is on, I have to train all those volunteers in about five seconds on what we have to do to get out all these meals.

"This year, I've had to take on the role of also ordering all the lambs, because that was always Frank's job."

Not only is the event run by volunteers, but it uses all local goods; groceries, services, and business all come from Guyra.

A percentage of money raised at the festival is shared between the community groups - but the purpose of the festival is much bigger than financial gains: promoting the town and its produce.

"We have got a really small committee: probably about 10, with an average age of 75 plus," Ms Gittoes said.

"We just do so much to keep the festival going. This year was like: will we be able to do it or not? But the main idea in pushing forward is it gives each organisation some chance of getting money for their organisation, but more importantly getting them out of their homes for a couple of hours.

"I spoke to one gentleman, and he said that's really important; they need to get out and talk to their mates and realise everyone is in the same boat.

"Guyra is like all country towns: things aren't easy, so this is the one time where we can shine. It's been on for so long, and people just know when they come there, they will get something really fantastic to eat, they can look at the stalls."

Ms Gittoes is now the longest serving committee member, and gaining youth volunteers is another issue the festival needs to overcome in the future.

"A lot of our volunteers are getting quite elderly now, and it's rather sad because some you have worked with for a long time have since passed away during the year. That's really difficult because people create close social bonds," she said.

"I got involved because a very good lady who lived here in Guyra I was very close to ... and when I moved to Guyra we just became very good friends.

"She got very sick, so I started helping her out by helping cook the legs of lambs in the backyard BBQ in those days. And then when she had to retire from being secretary, I took over.

"I think I've missed only one day of the festival in that time. I went to a niece's birthday when she was 18; she now turns 36 this year.

"I've been there so long I recognise a lot of people year in year out. They come and say: 'We are here to pick up our pies on our way down to Tamworth'. And they call back on the way home to pick up some more pies to go back."

There is much more on offer than just food during the festival.

Live music, a show and shine car display and stall holders are among the attractions.

While Frank Presnell won't be present in 2020, his spirit will live on.

"That was the main reason why I stayed for 29 years, because of him," Ms Gittoes said.

"It was just his baby. He was a really significant person in our community; he was so selfless and just did everything.

"It will be very different without him because he gained many friendships with all the stall holders.

"It will be a sombre time," Ms Gittoes said, "but it will be a happy time too that we have still got it going for him."

This story first appeared in The Land.