Far South Coast farmers have gathered for a feed and a laugh, but with the underlying aim of checking in and looking out for each other as drought continues to play its part in the lives of locals on the land.
One-hundred-and-forty Bega Valley farmers gathered at the Bega Civic Centre at the invitation of the Far South Coast Dairy Development Group and the Far South Coast Farmers Network.
“Male farmers and farmworkers are way over-represented in suicide statistics and part of the reason for that is the isolation, so what we want to get out there is that you don’t have to suffer by yourself,” says Neville Brady, a ‘farm boy’ from Swan Hill and ex-AFL player for Richmond who was the night’s guest speaker.
“Many farmers are dealing with both scarcity and complexity,” Neville explains “scarcity of water, money, land, and equipment and the complexity of what it requires to be successful as a farmer today.”
Fourth generation dairy farmer Todd Whyman attended the event and says that while it’s one of the first social farming events he has gone to, he can see there’s a need for more.
“This is an industry that demands so much of our time,” Todd says “you’ve not only got the welfare of your animals to worry about but you’re at the mercy of the weather and milk prices. There’s so much out of your control.”
All this adds up to some stressed-out farmers who, according to Neville, are often wrestling with male pride on top of all the challenges of farming.
Neville’s goal is to disarm his audience with a bit of humor and then “whack them” with some hard facts about men.
“Men have dramatically higher incidences of suicide, cancer, accidents, heart disease, and drug use than women in the same age categories and it comes down to a reluctance to admit a problem and seek medical care,” Neville explains.
The factor which ties all these health conditions together is stress – something farmers have plenty of.
Farmers who built up assets before milk prices were deregulated in the ’90s have a small advantage, says Todd but a large part of the success or failure of a farm is down to luck, with the amount of rainfall sometimes varying dramatically on farms just 20 km apart.
Todd, who runs 1200 cows on irrigated land in Brogo and has two sons in their twenties as well as staff, acknowledges that while he is in a pretty stable situation, some local dryland farmers are doing it tough.
“Poor buggers on dryland have another tough year ahead of them,” he says, adding that part of the drive to hold a few meetings about milk prices has been just to get together.
“It’s quite heartening – I’ve had guys come up to me at the meetings and say – ‘you don’t know how much it means to me to know I’m not the only one who feels like this.’ We’re realising how important it is to touch base on a personal level.”
Being a dairy farmer, or any kind of farmer, runs in your blood, Todd says.
“Being a farmer feels kind of innate. When you’re in it, you can’t imagine doing anything else, that’s all you want to do. That’s why it’s so important that we support the guys who are just getting into it. We need primary producers for food security and they want to do it – but they need a bit of help.”
According to Todd, the future of the dairy industry depends mostly on retailers.
“It all depends on what they do on the shelf. That price determines whether guys just getting started can get ahead, update their machinery and that sort of thing. If it’s not enough to maintain your farm, let alone get ahead, how do you stay in the game?”
The worry is that farmers see a failing farm as reflecting on them personally, instead of a combination of the unknown factors, many out of their control, weather and prices for starters, all going wrong at once.
In late 2018, with the Bega Valley in full drought, Todd was getting to the end of his stash of fodder, which he had been saving for five years.
“We were getting pretty close to having to make some big decisions, thankfully the rain came, ” he says.
Neville reminds us that for some farmers, green pastures don’t necessarily mean good times.
“There is such a thing as a green drought,” he says “it can look green but it doesn’t mean the mood is green. It all depends on how depleted that farm was during the drought.”
“A good rule of thumb is that it takes at least double the length of the drought period for a farm to come back to where they were pre-drought. So 12 months of drought takes two years to recover from.”
Neville’s message to the crowd in Bega was pretty simple in the end.
“Life is a contact sport, we all get bruised,” he concludes “what you do in stressful situations is where it counts.”
For the farmer’s diary…
The 2019 Dairy Research Foundation Symposium is coming to Bega, July 10 and 11.
This year the focus is on ‘Feed Base and Home-Grown Feed’ as the basis of profitable dairy systems in any type of production system.
The annual Symposium is the Dairy Research Foundation’s signature event, and is the largest Dairy event in NSW, widely recognised throughout the Australian dairy industry as a showcase of science into practice.
Check the event’s Facebook page for more details.