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Rural Aid’s Farm Army helps farmers ‘doing it tough’ in rural Australia
Words and Images by: HELEN TAYLOR

A typical paddock in Pilliga, NSW

The farmers who tend this drought-stricken, fire-beaten, flood-drenched land are at breaking point. Their paddocks are dry, their money running out, and their morale near flattened. 

In May this year, the Queensland government declared that almost two thirds of the state is in the  grip of drought, and has been for the last six years – a situation exacerbated by the severe lack of rainfall across central, southern and eastern Queensland.

And in New South Wales, where almost the entire state is drought affected, conditions are so severe that farmers in Dubbo, Cobar, Nyngan and Narromine were told in  September that they may lose their water supply completely this month if the Macquarie River runs dry.

“Anybody living in that neck of the woods is pretty worn out,” says Rural Aid CEO Charles Alder of the farmers living in drought-stricken Queensland. “It’s the monotony of doing the same thing every day for six years, without a change, and at the end of the day you don’t have time to paint your house, or repaint your bathroom, or repair this or that. You’re not only physically exhausted, but you’re mentally exhausted.”

Charles Alder and his wife Tracy are the founders of charity Rural Aid, which they launched in 2015 following the success of their Buy A Bale campaign, which they started in 2013 to provide financial assistance to farmers buying fodder.

A Farm Rescue in Girgarre, VIC

Following the success of Buy A Bale, and later Rural Aid, Tracy and Charles have since launched the Farm Army, a volunteer program which connects willing workers  to farmers in need across rural Australia. So far, the program has 15,000 volunteers enlisted, with new farm jobs being registered each week. Volunteers from around the world can offer their services, but for those travelling by RV, Charles says this is an excellent way to see the real Australia,and make a meaningful difference to rural communities.

“How many people just go from campground to campground around Australia?” he says. “With the Farm Army, they’re actually gaining life experience, creating lifelong friends, and they’ll meet other people who are equally as passionate about helping other people - you can’t put a price on that stuff.”

And it’s not just about helping others, Charles tells me. Farm Army volunteers leave the experience with heaps of new skills, new friends, and a true sense of achievement. “It works both ways,” Charles explains. “The farmers love having someone  else on the farm to talk to and work with, but they also have so much to offer, and they have so many life stories and experiences to share with these volunteers.”

Experiences like the Farm Army also have the potential to change a person’s life, Charles exclaims, whether it be the volunteer’s or the farmer’s. “Some of the volunteers we’ve got have actually had challenges in their lives, and by looking after other people in need, and supporting other people, they’ve been able to resolve their own life challenges,” he tells me.

To uncover the stories of these givers and receivers – although what we actually discover is that the two are one and the same at the Farm Army – The Wanderer spoke to Farm Army volunteers and farmers to see what it’s really like behind the scenes at farms and in communities in some of the most rural, and drought-stricken areas of Australia.

Charles and Tracy Alder at their first Mega Farm Rescue in Forbes, NSW

FARMERS: RHONDA AND TONY MILGATE

In June this year a 70-strong team of Farm Army volunteers trundled into Trundle, in the central west region of New South Wales, to lend a hand at local farms, schools, and community projects. According to farmers there, the town has been so badly ravaged by drought in recent times that they’ve had to resort to trucking-in water at great expense to feed livestock.

Farmer Rhonda Milgate, whose family has been farming in Trundle for the last 140 years, says she’s experiencing the worst drought of her lifetime. Together with her husband Tony, she’s been struggling to keep their farm’s 1500-acre head above financial water, and last year spent $350,000 on fodder for her livestock. “There’s just nothing on the ground, not a thing for them to eat,” she tells me. “We just had to go to the bank today to get a loan to feed our  stock, and we’ve never had to do that before.”

Farm Army volunteers with Tony Milgate

To pay the bills Rhonda’s taken a part-time job, but she tells me her husband Tony is at the farm all day, every day on his own making sure the stock is fed. “Sometimes it gets to the stage with the ongoing relentlessness of the drought that you lose all enthusiasm, hope and motivation,” she tells me.

With the Milgate’s morale waning, they were selected to receive a much-needed, week-long boost from Rural Aid’s Farm Army. As soon as the volunteer team arrived, they were put to work fixing an old concrete tank which the Milgates used to store water for their stock. “It was on its last legs, it was leaking, and we were really concerned that going into summer we’d be without any water for all our stock because the tank would give way,” Rhonda tells me. The team swiftly demolished the old tank and installed a new one, a chore which the Milgates wouldn’t have had the time or manpower to finish on their own.

Whilst some volunteers gave the Milgates tired house a fresh lick of paint, which Rhonda says really  made a huge difference, other volunteers set about demolishing defunct electronic fences. And one mechanically minded volunteer also managed to fix up their seed-sowing truck, which was in desperate need of TLC.

At lunchtime, the volunteers – who stayed in RVs or tents at the Trundle Showgrounds – ate lunch which was provided to them by the Trundle community, but Rhonda tells me they took a particular liking to her homemade scones with cream, and Tony’s homemade sausage rolls.

“People say they care, but they’re not showing it” exclaims Rhonda. “This was actually a way that they did show it. Those groups of people were just amazing and we made lifelong friends through it. They put their lives on hold to come and help us, which was just a heartfelt thing to do.”

“It’s just those little things” she continues. “Sometimes you just need somebody to hold something. Tony appreciated it so much. It lifted our moods like you wouldn’t believe. Tony was quite depressed, I was really worried about him, he was falling into a deep depression  and anxiety, wondering how he was going to feed the stock.”

But the experience wasn’t just of benefit to the Milgates. Rhonda says she believes the volunteers got just as much out of it as they did, marvelling at the birth of a new baby calf, having conversations around the campfire, and learning new skills. “They’ll get as much out of it as the farmers will get out of it,” she adds. “Farmers are just such wonderful people, they’re so resilient and kind.”

Defunct electronic fences were replaced

VOLUNTEERS: JEANNIE AND DOUG RAMSAY

When Jeannie Ramsay and her husband Doug first hit the road full time, they didn’t expect their future travel itineraries to revolve around volunteering at Farm Army projects. Two years later and the pair are still on the road in their RV – having sold their family home in Melbourne and retired from their jobs – and have so far completed five Farm Army rescues around Australia.

The pair first stumbled across the Farm Army on Facebook, when two years ago one of Charles’s earliest Farm Army rescues happened to be on their planned route. They  arrived full of enthusiasm at a dairy farm in Ballendella which had been badly affected by the milk crisis. “The experience gave us an understanding of how things affected farmers when we bought our litre of milk in Woolworths, we don’t really understand what a farmer does to supply that milk.”

The couple were at the property with a small group of other volunteers who were also staying in their RVs. The group stayed for a week with farming family Marshall and Suzie Jacobs, who had two boys aged eight and 18. “The two boys were sharing a bedroom, which was causing a lot of stress,” says Jeannie. “The family had built a shed in the garden near the house which they were going to convert into a bedroom, but then the milk crisis hit and they couldn’t afford it.”

The Farm Army volunteers set about converting the shed into a  livable bedroom for the older boy, Brad. In a week, Jeannie says the volunteers had installed a floor, insulated it, painted the shed, added an air conditioning unit, laid carpets, and added windows and doors. The team weren’t skilled tradesman, says Jeannie, but most of them had completed some kind of renovation work at home.

But the rescue didn’t just benefit the Jacob family. “Personally, I’ve learnt that I can do a lot more than I give myself credit for” says Jeannie. “The most important thing is learning to successfully work with other people, and learning about what all different farmers go through – about different farming practices, and having an appreciation for people who live and work in remote areas.”

Turning a dilapidated old house into a shearers’ quarters at Bourke/Brewarrina

In NSW Jeannie worked with farmers affected badly by drought. “Some of these farmers are third  or fourth generation, and they don’t want to be the generation responsible for the farm going under,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of pressure on them and mental health is a huge issue facing our farmers. It’s lovely to see the farmers blossom a bit while you’re there.”

Since their first farm rescue in 2017, Jeannie and Doug have volunteered at a dairy farm in Girgarre, VIC, a sheep farm in Walgett, outback NSW, and farms in Forbes, NSW and Killawarra, VIC. Volunteering at farm rescues has greatly enriched their travelling experience, Jeannie tells me.

“We see so much more than your average tourist would” she adds. “Immersing yourself in the community or on the farm, it’s a whole different experience.”

The pair now plan their year ahead of travelling by blocking in farm rescues to volunteer at.

The stark reality of drought in Pilliga, NSW

VOLUNTEERS: DAMIEN AND YVONNE HARVEY

Retired accountants Damien and Yvonne Harvey are serial volunteers at Rural Aid’s Farm Army. Ever since their first rescue in May 2018 at a sheep farm in Pilliga, NSW, they’ve been hooked on helping farmers in need.

In June 2018, the pair went straight from one farm rescue to the next – a sheep farm doing it tough in Walgett, north-west NSW. And from there they went on to volunteer at a farm in Barcaldine, central QLD. So far this year they’ve volunteered at farms in Kyabram, VIC, Mullumbimby, NSW, and Trundle, NSW.

“Not only are you contributing to the farmer or the project, but you’re also learning new skills, or improving your skill set as you go,” Damien tells me. He and his wife have a can-do attitude, and will generally have a go at anything. He reassures  me though that farmers or project coordinators will take the lead with renovation projects, helping to teach volunteers along the way.

But like Rhonda and Jeannie, Damien agrees that it isn’t just the physical help that boosts farmers. Providing social interaction and a break from the daily grind can hugely benefit farmers’ morale. “Apart from what you’re doing physically, it’s just that social contact,” he says. “It lets them know that they’re not on their own, and that there are people around the place who do actually care, and want to try and make a difference, without being the white night coming in to make everything better, so to speak.”

Taking a break from fencing in Murrurundi, NSW

The best way to approach a farm rescue, he tells me, is to ask the farmers what they’d like done. “You’ll probably find that it isn’t too long before they’re telling you their stories, and you’re telling them yours,” he adds.

As well as meeting farmers, Damien says there’s plenty of interaction with other volunteers on the project, who often hail from around Australia. “You’re camping in close proximity to each other, so in the afternoons you’re generally sitting in someone’s RV having a beer or two before dinner.”

He warns me though that the days are hard, and volunteers often work from 8am-4pm. If there’s something that needs doing the farmers will have you doing it.

But the hard work is worth it in the end, he says. “It’s very good for your own morale, and you know you’re helping other people, and giving more than taking, but it turns out that you are taking, but quite indirectly so, as you’re learning those skills and making friendships, and you do come away feeling tremendous after a project like that.”

Tags: Rural Aid BlazeAid Helping Help Volunteering Australia Travel Motorhome Campervan RV Caravan Outback Country Pilliga NSW New South Wales Animal Livestock Drought Trundle Forbes Gilgarre Farm Farming
Category: Features
Written: Fri 01 Nov 2019
Printed: November, 2019
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