A Story of Hope: final 2018 post
Pushing open from the bright sunshine, I cracked some space into the dingy gloom of a rough worn room. Stepping inside, I make out some figures, adults, sitting very still. A movement on the floor made me glance down to see a young child playing with something, a bone perhaps, but my mind couldn’t compute that today, in rural Victoria, a child could be playing with a bone.
Floor was dirt – not the compacted clay of the deserts in India, which is swept daily and as hard and shiny as polished concrete. No, this was loose dirt – loose enough to feel I wasn’t really inside but rather in a workshop or farm shed.
As my eyes adjust, I realised there are some upturned roughhewn drums as chairs, a table and what I recall as a charcoal fridge – something I remember having on my childhood veranda as an antique, to be laughed at and played around in our childhood stories and adventure. Do people still use these?
I’m a rural counsellor. A confidential service providing crisis financial and personal assistance to farmers in the rural Victoria. My patch is carved out of the State and divided up amongst other counsellors. We’d been operating for just a few years and I was beginning to feel this lifetime of mine as a 25-year-old just wasn’t long enough to even scrape the surface. Plough on is what I thought needed to happen.
Being a rural counsellor made me understand that my world is pretty sheltered. Large properties in western New South Wales as a child with a governess and then later to boarding school in Sydney. Drought, flood, low wool prices, seemed to register little. Time in Europe, agricultural college, a few low paying jobs in Sydney to get some skin in the game.
Somehow my little-lived experience landed me in regional Victoria in crisis work with farmers. I thought I knew a few things. Farming is a business, its cut and dry decisions about profit, not emotional languid decision making. As a woman, I was hell-bent on making my mark for women in agriculture.
Lately, I was getting some rungs on the board politically; speaking on local radio and television about the roles of women, the economic and social value that women contribute to the economy and to the fabric of society. I was even up for an award for my work and the movement I had started locally. All this success had given me confidence that I knew it all. This was a modern world, a business that was without emotion – decisions were hard but so is success.
I didn’t know that today this would all change.
The harried cough startled me. Turning, I saw a large crooked man in classic farm wear sitting in the corner.
“Hi,” I said. “I knocked but no one answered so I stepped inside.”
Cracking the thick silence brought movement and life into the dullness. The child stops playing with the bone and stood up, clutching at my leg. I felt repulsed by the feel of this rough hand on my bare leg. It was like a paw, clawing at me. It was the rough hand of an old worker, not a young child. Was it even human?
Stepping back, I fumbled to think what I was doing here. This was not my usual place. The farmers I saw were doing it tough, but this was something else. This was out of this world. How could this place still exist?
“I’m Ada, the rural counsellor – I spoke to Alec on the phone – you called me?”
“Here, I’m Alec. We were told by the bank you could help us.”
Could I, could I really help this family glued into a cycle of poverty, a dirt floor, dairy cows that were skinny than the catwalk models of the 1980s. The drought, no feed in the paddocks, and a refusal from the factory that they wouldn’t be picking up milk anymore because of the bacteria in the milk machines. I am paralysed.
A voice rose from this dullness asking the child to put the kettle on and some scraping told me a chair was being found. This movement stirred up the thick smell of humanity, of poverty; dirt, filth, unwashed, soiled clothing. The darkness was fading as my eyes adjusted.
The shapes and shadows became people, one old man, a bloke in his thirties and a child who could have been three but was on the floor, crawling towards what looked like a makeshift stove and kettle.
I had to help, I had to get out of this frozen fear and think. How did this family get here, what pathway of decisions has led to this when their neighbours were now milking 1500 cows three times a day? When the town was flourishing with that lucky country feel of high farm prices, steady access to water and land values that allowed expansion.
Bracing and gulping down the spasm of bile that had started to rise, sending it back down my throat, I sat down and smiled and accepted a curling milky tea from a chipped willow pattern mug. The familiar pattern gave me a calming feeling. How many farmers had I sat with for hours sipping tea from these mugs?
Searching for a starting point, I asked the question that would open up the story. I needed to hear about their grandparents that arrived at this plot of land in the 1920s when new settlers flurried to the region with the promise of cheap land and water.
Its this starting point, this story that would build the foundations of who these people were and what happened.
Alec’s voice creaked from the dimness.
“My grandparents arrived from Melbourne with a few pounds in their pockets and the promise of high returns now that irrigation had arrived in the region.
We had 10 acres and the lease of a further 10 from our neighbour. Borrowing from the State Bank my grandparents purchased 10 dairy heifers and settled into the community. Lots of new settlers meant the town was booming with business.
New shops, supply stores, schools. Being only a few miles from town the arrival of children meant schools were nearby.
Life went on, daughters grew up and married other farmers, sons took over. Debt was paid and more debt was gained. Jersey cows to Friesians as the market changed. More milk but also more feed required. With the next generation, we now started to see that we were small farmers. Neighbours were getting bigger, buying up land, moving further out from the town. Two sons who didn’t get along – the fighting that never ceased led to the division of the land. From the now 100 acres to lots of 50 acres each. Setting this pathway of diversion and division.
I’m one of the sons. Family deaths and succession led me to this. I married young, too young and by the time I was 17, I had two children. I didn’t really go to school. It was hard going to school from a poor family. My shoes were old, my uniform scraggy and too small. In the end, it was easier to stay away.
My father and then mother died, I was 32 with five children. By this stage it was the 1980’s and dairy industry was restructured. Prices slumped – everyone said its time to get out or get bigger. Farmers were planting orchards to diversify income. Government incentives were paid to farmers who look for new business opportunities.
I borrowed. Built a new dairy, tried some automation – although in those days we didn’t call it that. The house, well, the house is the house and no point spending money on that. Neighbours got bigger.
More cows were purchased, we couldn’t buy more land but we could increase feed production through grain.
Milking twice a day, we had a break. Prices started to claw back to something better but then so did interest rates. It’s the 1990’s and our loan was heading towards 25%. I was losing control.
Neighbours got bigger.
The girls left home for the city; they didn’t need this kind of life. Even my boys disappeared, except one. He’s still here and this is his little one on the floor. Unfortunately, his mum didn’t make it through.
It’s a tough life on the farm.
This is us. I’m in my 50’s. Son is 30 with a little one. We owe $100 000 and our best income is $15 000. Grain prices are killing us. We’re sick – we have no control and now the factory called to say they couldn’t pick up our milk anymore.
We owe the bank, we owe the grain merchant, we owe the supply store. We are behind on rates and water.
“Without an income we lose everything.”
Alec heaved, gulped back tears.
I leaned over and touched the back of his hand.
“It’s ok,” I said. “Let it go.”
The tears began rolling down Alec’ cheeks, drawing craters in the dirt smeared on his face.
It’s this cue, this crack that allows people to feel relief. Their story is told, believed.
The story provides me with time to think of the future. To start painting a picture for this family that is in the sunshine, beyond this pitiful existence amongst the opulence of this bourgeoning region; a region with an international export strategy in-place. A region that just yesterday hosted a delegation from China interested in buying land and putting in new technologies that would open markets and opportunities to the farmers here.
“What does your best future look like? If you could be yourself in a few days and your family, what would that future look like,” I asked.
Alec’s son, Lachie, speaks up.
“My future is in farming. That’s all I know. I use my hands, I work and toll the soil. My dad? Well, his time is up, he’s tired. My future is having him in town in a little house, looking after Zane (my son) so I can work on the farm. But here? On this farm? No, its bad, the soul has gone from it. It’s time to start fresh, maybe an apprenticeship with a big dairy farm to gain some new skills, a fresh look at what works and what doesn’t.
Being part of a farm that makes money, not millions but enough to get by. I don’t know what that feels like. I don’t know what it feels like to have $50 in my pocket and go to the pub for a beer. To have friends and say, mate, this shout is on me. I’m 30 and only know pockets with holes. I’m a single dad and right now I can’t see a future for Zane. Do you know what that’s like?”
I’m thinking here, I don’t. I have no experience of this hopelessness, this poverty.
But what I do feel and say is, “Wow, what an amazing hopeful family you are. Amongst your life’s journey, a life that reads as tough, you haven’t given up. You can still see and visualise what a good future looks and feels like.
I’m not a fairy godmother, I don’t have a wand or even cash in my pocket to hand out to you. What I can do is take your hope and turn that into something real. It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but it will happen.
I’m not going to tell you what to do but I’m going to give you some things to think about, it’s your life, not mine and these are your decisions.”
We talk about the future, what that pathway looks like, the steps that can be taken. We talk about education and tapping into services that are well placed to support farmers exiting farming. We talk about relationships with debtors and letting them know the action plan.
As I leave, I say thank you.
“Thank you for your story, your openness, and your trust.”
As I drive away hours and a whole world from the one I entered, I think of my arrogance, my naivety and total lack of knowing the real world.
I am a better person now than I was this morning.
Before I turn onto the road home, I pull over and make a call to my friend at the Salvos in town. I know I can trust her and that she’ll do the right thing.
And I know that within a few hours a refrigerated truck will drive up that parched driveway filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, bread, milk and butter, a portable gas stove, battery torches for light, and an esky of ice to keep everything cold.
There will also be a crisp $50 note. And it’s this note that will take the men to the pub to have a few beers with their mates.
Jessica Purbrick-Herbst 18 December 2018