Episode 10 - Surviving the drought

An emotional interview about surviving the drought in Queensland.

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Show notes

Australian farmers are feeling wanted. An emotional interview with a grazier from Charleville, RACQ Foundation volunteers and the Drought Angels about surviving the drought in Queensland.



Anthony Frangi: Hello, and welcome to this episode of RACQ Living. I'm Anthony Frangi. In 2018, more than 50% of Queensland has been drought declared by the state government, and the situation doesn't appear to be getting any better. And as resilient as Queenslanders are after a natural disaster, locals often need a helping hand, and that's where the RACQ Foundation comes in. It was established in 2011 following Cyclone Yasi and the floods affecting South East Queensland. And since then, the RACQ Foundation has distributed millions of dollars to those in need. Today, the foundation has turned its attention to helping drought affected families with a number of exciting projects about to get underway. Joining our panel today is RACQ Foundation volunteer Terry Peters, Co-founder of the Drought Angels, Natasha Johnston, former child of Charleville grazier Cate Stuart and RACQ team Manager of Assistance Simon McClelland.

Anthony Frangi: Welcome, everyone.

Cate: Thank you for having us.

Anthony Frangi: Cate can I start with you? You are from Charleville just how tough is it out there at the moment for farmers?

Cate: It's very, very tough. The water, obviously, is making the news where rain has been falling. But at the moment, there's still a lot of pockets that have not received any. And the rains that we've had are not drought breaking rains, so we're seeing a lot of stocks still are going to get bogged because they weak out in the paddock when we won't able to get out to them in the four wheel drives and things like that. So we need the motorbikes going, which, of course, is another issue. You've got to get your bikes going, and you can't afford mechanically to get them all going and buying fuel.

Anthony Frangi: So, the rain or the recent rainfall has been a hindrance in some way.

Cate: Most Australians know after every really good drought, we have to have a jolly good flood. And so while we welcome the rains in the interim, you do you have your green drought, which is short feed so for sheep, for example, that is tetanus, grass tetany, you have to be careful of and the kangaroos of course they're all staving and they're in the millions, so they will come in and demolish that overnight. And once again, the cattle and the sheep are suffering.

Anthony Frangi: And you've been a farmer for most of your life? Have you come from a farming family?

Cate: I'm sixth generation. So my parents originally from New South Wales. Originally when they sold the family farm back in 2003-4, 145 years they held it and then my husband and I went off and started on our own little dynasty. And we did that very well and our granddaughter is the eighth generation. So we've sort of covered all bases there right down to the nitty gritty.

Anthony Frangi: And Natasha, you're from Chinchilla?

Natasha: Yes.

Anthony Frangi: What's life like in Chinchilla at the moment?

Natasha: We've actually had some rain in the last couple of weeks, which has certainly taken a lot of pressure off some of the farmers in our area. At the moment it's going okay. We still got families in our area that are certainly feeling the effects from drought, though.

Anthony Frangi: What's the hardest part about being on the land during the drought?

Cate: I guess one of the hardest parts for my family specifically was not having enough money to bury our eldest daughter last year when she died. So I guess that any family anywhere can deal with. And that's not just a farming thing so the drought, cash flow, it all comes down to cash flow as we know. So yeah.

Anthony Frangi: And meeting other farmers who are in similar situations is that reassuring in some way that you're not alone in the struggle when there is drought?

Cate: Oh mate, farmers are dead set legends, you know that we have got the weirdest sense of humour. We get together, we cry, we laugh, we whinge, we kick the tin and then go oh my gosh smash the gate on the way up and they go, “why did we so do that? It hurts!” And you're allowed to do that. It's okay to vent. The amazing help that is out there and available to farmers and so humbling with the generosity that has come forward from the Australian people. That is just, wow! We’re wanted ... we didn't realise how much Australian farms were wanted and thank you to Australia for saying, "We want Australian farmers." That's amazing. We’re wanted ... we never thought we were, because we've caught such a pounding for so long.

Natasha: That's the message we're getting loud and clear from the farming families we're assisting is that ... thank you, we didn't know so many people cared about us and that we are appreciated. Yeah because they all say to us, "Well where does this money come from? You're helping us. How are you helping us?" And I'm like well most of this is come from people in the city and they're just blown away.

Anthony Frangi: So we understand.

Anthony Frangi: Terry, you've just come back from a trip throughout parts of Queensland. In fact, it's not your first trip. You do it regularly, don't you? As a volunteer and someone who used to work here at the RACQ.

Terry: That's correct. Just adding to what Cate and Natasha said, it's coming from the country a long time ago, brought up in the country. I think the thing about country people is, the climates they have is inconsistent. So like they just said, you can have drought then all of a sudden you get rain. As you said, it'd be more of a hindrance and then they got to get over there. Like living in the bush when we only had two whole roads and no bitumen. When you went on holidays, you may not have got home. So these people had to deal with that forever when it happens.
Coming back to what your question where I had just been out, I was involved in the first trip to RACQ done and I've been to four since. I've actually gone back twice on me own time to different places around Longreach and I've become very good friends with these people in the land and on their properties and just the little things that you can do make a big difference.

Anthony Frangi: Such as? Things like ...

Terry: Well I know one job we went to, this truck had been sitting there with wire, bales of wire on the back of the ... on the back of the tray and the truck didn't go, they drove it down, it stopped and what had happened to cut short is some rats had got in and eaten the fuel line. Once we worked it out what it was, we got it going. Well we had the old mechanic from RACQ with us, well the rest were just gone to have lunch and we started the truck up and they come running out of the house, jumping up and down because that truck was going and they just said, "That's what we use to do all our fencing." So to us it was probably a hours job and the other thing too was we didn't take any fuel line with us and lucky just the farmer had an old Lada Niva there so we rolled it over, we took the fuel line off the Lada Niva and put it on the truck. So it went pretty well, it was good.

Cate: That is absolutely so true and Terry you were reminding me of we had a problem with the truck during ... Mark put his hand, that's my husband, put his hand up there to see what wires were loose as you were saying and this jolly big brown snake came flying out. So you be careful. Couldn't fix that.

Anthony Frangi: And Simon for you, again as the Team Manager of Assistance with RACQ, you've been throughout ... you've travelled throughout Queensland, you've been part of the work helping farmers for a long time now, how do you see things at the moment?

Terry: Well Simon actually comes from the land, he actually was ... his family is a farming family.

Simon: That's right and I think that's probably one of the reasons I first got involved in it was the fact that I actually came off the land, my grandfather and my grandfather's father had all been on the land down in the Mallee, down in Victoria actually. So we'd gone through or myself as a child, I'd gone through droughts, I'd gone through mouse plagues, that sort of thing so I guess I have some understanding, it's very different, everyone has different circumstances. So you have some understanding but I think that was the best part about getting involved in the foundation’s works and going out, you have to stop for a smoke or you stop for lunch and afternoon tea and then you get together for dinner because I think from our point of view when we go out, that's part of it is we want to have that interaction because a lot of the farms that we've been to have been an hour or two hours, or I think there was one kind of three hours out of town.

Simon: They don't go to town every day, they don't catch up with people every day and they might talk on the phone or something else or you might catch up with just a neighbour and help work on things and that sort of stuff. But there's not a lot of face to face interaction or not a lot of I guess social interaction as well from that point of view where you may just stop have a beer, have a barbecue and get together and talk about why. And that I think ... one of the stations that we went to that was very, very evident in the fact that the gentlemen on the station basically broke down crying when we were leaving, he was just so appreciative of what we were doing. He was a very, very proud man.

Simon: I think when Terry and I first got to the station, we was very nervous about us working on his equipment. He basically spent a lot of time maintaining the vehicles and the equipment on the station but because of the drought, that kind of fell away. He had other things to maintain, he had to maintain the stock, so the fact that we were kind of in his space and working on his vehicles, that took a little while for him to be able to let go and we saw that transition of him being able to let go and allow us to actually help him out.

Natasha: We have seen what doing something kind and helpful for these families what it does and how much it means. It lifts their mental health and just reminds them that they're cared for and just bring happiness to them is what it's all about. And when you see their smiles and get their hugs and their thank yous that come through the mail, it just makes it all worthwhile because you know you have made a difference to that persons' life.

Cate: I guess looking at it from both sides of the fence, farmers in general are very appreciative of everything that ... as Simon and Terry have talked about and Natasha with Drought Angels and the organisation and it's really important though that and it's where we are prideful, farmers are prideful, we want a hand up not a hand out, we are willing to work hard, people demonstrate that every day. The mental health aspect of it coming in and saying, "G’day, how are you going?" Absolutely love, I'd meet you at the boundary fence and sort of say, "Hello, who are you? And what do you want? What's your ID? Where do you think you're going? And this is my private property." And you guys are laughing because I guess you've experienced that too?

Simon: Yeah.

Cate: Yeah?

Simon: Yeah definitely, I think when we first arrive at the stations, there is a little bit of I guess apprehension on what are these people going to do and are they going to intrude. And I think that's something that we've got to be very aware of is that we're not there to intrude, we're not there to take over, we are there to give them a hand.

Anthony Frangi: And how do you deal with that? When you arrive and we're all a bit suspicious when there's a stranger at the front door. I'm sure whether it's in the country and even in the city.

Cate: Everywhere.

Anthony Frangi: Everywhere. How do you break that ice?

Terry: The first thing, I go and introduce myself and say, "what do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?"

Simon: We don't want to tell them ...

Terry: You tell me what you want to do.

Simon: Yeah.

Terry: What do you want me to do? I'll do it for you and that's ... you just go from that. And the other thing too is I found it good because I had a country background, I used to say I come from the country. So they realise even though I'm living in the city a long time, I've actually ... did understand and as an apprentice in Mount Isa, you used to get sent out to stations to work on properties and sometimes you go for a week and you'd be there for a month because the roads are flooded and you couldn't get home. And you sort of got to know those people so I just sort of feel for that and the thing about it is is if they want to talk about personal things, you let them talk about it. If they don't, you don't bring them up. You've just got to be sensitive to that area.

Terry: The other thing is we say to people, if you go to these properties, you don't take photos. Unless you ask first, you say, "Do you mind if we take a photo of you?" And talk about like that and you usually find that there's ... it's just something sensitive they don't want to ... they'll tell you but otherwise it's put the arm around the shoulder like Prince Harry and away you go.

Simon: I think it is very much a case of we let them lead. We do have a list of I guess from our side of ... well Terry and myself of the mechanical work that we're going out to do. But a lot of the times they'll give us maybe 50% of what they need to get done and we'll go out there and we'll say, "What's your priority?". We don't know what your priority is and for us what we see as a priority may not be. So we try and get them to actually lead us. I think as Cate said, the quad bikes, they're a very important part of being able to get out and about on the stations so I guess from our point of view or a lot of people from the city, they see quad bikes as something fun. Out there, they are necessities, they are very much used quite often on the farms and we've worked on quite a few of the quad bikes out there and just straight motorbikes as well.

Simon: All the motorbikes that we've been working on, they generally have two way radios fitted to them as well so just the fact that they've got those two way radios, they're an integral part of them being able to operate on the stations. So sometimes they won't tell us stuff and we'll kind of as Terry said, we'll have to bring it up and slowly kind of prod them to get some answers or to find out exactly what they want to get done. And just kind of I guess follow their lead more than anything else, we can't go out there and tell them what we want to do, they've got to tell us what they'd like us to do.

Natasha: We at Drought Angels, when we go out to the families we tell them that this is not charity because at Drought Angels we don't give charity, we give thank yous. This is thank you for all you do to put the food on our table.

Anthony Frangi: And Natasha, why did you get involved in Drought Angels?

Natasha: I was hearing stories of the drought out at the café that I worked at in Chinchilla and some of the stories were pretty sad and broke my heart and they drove close to home for me because my parents almost lost everything when the interest rates were at 20% in early 90s. So I’ve seen what depressions of farming and banking can do to families and I just thought if I could do something to help one family from going through what my family went through then I've set out what I was hoping to achieve.

Anthony Frangi: And what sort of reaction do you get when you approach people and they see the difference that you and the other Angels make?

Natasha: Utter relief, just that there is someone there for them to turn to and to get some assistance from. A lot of them just don't know where to go or who to turn to and relief would be a big, and appreciation that people care about them.

Terry: I know in Longreach, I was talking to a guy there and he said that the bakeries and the coffee shops and the places in the town were doing well but the guys that sell cars they're not doing well because the farmers haven't got the money to buy vehicles. So you find that little country towns where you go through that use to have nice shops and I always think when I go out the west, I used to go into a country bakery and they're just dying. They don't have them like they used to, there's a good one in Mitchell but, I’ll give it a plug but anyway it’s …

Cate: And Charleville, thank you. Hello Heinemanns!

Terry: We actually have breakfast in that one. But anyway it's affecting the towns as well as the people... because the farmers, they do spend money when they got it and unfortunately if they haven't got it. And there's people like I was talking to a guy in Cunnamulla and he's got a grocery shop there, I know him personally and he was saying that he used to go out to ... when the shearers come he had something like 50 shearing sheds he used to have to go to and now he only had about nine. So that was ... he used to supply groceries to so that was affecting that town as well in that way.

Anthony Frangi: Is it hard for you Terry and also for you Simon when you go into a town and you help families, to then know that you don't live there so you return to your own place whether it be the city or some other town?

Terry: What I've found that I've actually ... I ring these people at least once a month I ring them and have a chat like I spoke to somebody the other day, "Did you get any rain?" "No." And we had gotten flooded out in Brisbane, I said, "Well I wish I could send you some of ours." But just contacting them and I guess three or four that I talk to whether it's on Facebook or it's on Messenger or I ring them up so I ... so to me ...

Simon: It's important to stay in touch with them.

Terry: It is and they're genuine people and they just love a chat. I find that soothes me a bit, I've come back and I've seen dead stock everywhere and I think, oh this is awful. And the grounds like just table, it's bare and when we went away on our last trip in August, we went for two months. And we went up through ... we actually went through Longreach up to the Gulf. We only saw rain at Miriam Vale on the way back and that was in a two month period. In north Queensland's it's flooded normally but there was no rain when we were there so it's right across Queensland that's sort of struggling as well.

Simon: I guess it's hard to keep your own perspective, you go out there and you see what they're going through and then you do come back and you've got all the ... I guess luxuries that you just take for granted when you're back in the city. Where out in the smaller communities, it's not as readily available, it's a lot harder to access stuff or it's more expensive to access stuff. The fact that yes, we talk about the price of fuel here and how much it is and all ... I guess if you like, all we're doing is driving to and from work or there're other alternatives, we could catch the bus or catch a train. Where if you're two or three hours out of town and you need to go into town and actually buy food but you haven't got money to actually buy the fuel to get into town, it's a very different concept. And keeping all of that in perspective it can be a little bit difficult at times and I think that's where the communities as well are affected and you hear a lot about the farmers, it's not just the farmers, it is the farming community.

Simon: And that's what we've noticed I guess when we out there is that it's not just the station owners as individuals, it's the station owners as a whole and then it's the whole community as well. When we've been out we generally have I guess a bit of a get together at the end of the week and all the station owners come in and then there's people from the town and the mayor and everyone kind of gets together and has a bit of a catch up at the end of the week. And I think that's probably the best part about going away almost is you actually get everyone in together and they get to socialise and get to catch up. So it's ... yeah it's very good.

Anthony Frangi: Let's talk about some upcoming projects. Terry and Simon, where are you off to in November?

Simon: At this stage we're looking at going to Morven for a week, going up there and I guess it will be with the Angels as well so in conjunction with them and going up and again assisting them. We're going to have probably two or three mechanical teams go up so we generally have a vehicle and two mechanics will go up and go out to a station and work on the vehicles. So there's probably two or three of those and then we're also looking at taking up some non-mechanical people so they'll go out, they might paint, they might fence, it's whatever I guess the station owner's actually want us to do while we're out there. It can be as simple as just pulling some weeds up. Again, it comes back to what they actually want us to do, we don't want to go out there and say, "That fence looks really bad, how about we just ... " Or not even ask and just go and start pulling it all down or doing something, we've got to have that interaction with the station owners and I think that's probably very important.

Simon: And that's where we do work with the councillors that are actually on site that know what's going on. And they kind of pick and choose and they understand which stations we should be going to and who we should be helping. We can't help everyone, and I think that's probably one of the hardest things, there's always the stories of someone else that's actually going through a hard time and I'm kind of glad that I guess myself and Terry, we don't necessarily have to pick and choose who we actually go to. I think that's probably the hardest job of going away all the time.

Anthony Frangi: It would be.

Natasha: It is very difficult, unfortunately we are unable to assist everybody. I wish we could, that would be an ideal world. So it is very difficult but those that we can help, we do our best to make a big difference to.

Cate: I mean these guys here, amazing. Hats off to you, you're doing a great job but don't come and pull the fence down that I don't want pulled down. But you wouldn't. And you wouldn't and that's terrific.

Simon: That is the point, yeah.

Cate: Yeah and they're just amazing, it's a breath of fresh air that enters your life. That is fantastic. Now the thing Drought Angels, I mean they are amazing, they certainly do a fantastic job, they really do.

Anthony Frangi: Final comments before we wrap up. Natasha, anything from you.

Natasha: Just that we were talking about the effects on the communities and absolutely drought has terrible effects on communities and that's why at Drought Angels we give our families pre-paid Visas because then they can go into their local businesses and use them at whatever business they want. It's not a voucher for a business, so they're restricted by a certain business that they can go to. They can use it at any business and every dollar that they spend, that dollar goes around the community seven times so it's crucial that we out this money back into the rural communities.

Anthony Frangi: Cate, a final comment from you.

Cate: Drought Angels, heavenly.

Anthony Frangi: Terry.

Terry: That's a good point you made there Natasha, when we actually go away, we actually make sure that if we want to buy anything we actually buy in the town. And when I as travelling away we did the same thing, when my wife and I travel, we'll go to a town we make sure we do spend it. You may pay a little bit extra but so be it, that's one of the things you pay and it is helpful. And especially when you see these country towns.

Simon: If you're going to provide support to anyone, then it's providing support to the entire community. It's not just one individual or one part of it, it needs to be the entire are and the entire community. So I think as Terry's doing, travelling out there and actually spending the money out there, spending time out there, is probably I guess one way to help people out that you're going a benefit from it, but not necessarily straight away. It's never ending by doing it that way.

Anthony Frangi: Well Natasha, congratulations on the work that you and the other Angels are doing around the state.

Natasha: Thank you.

Anthony Frangi: Cate, thanks so much for your time and keep up the wonderful work being a champion for farmers, not only here but around the country.

Cate: Thank you.

Anthony Frangi: Terry, congratulations on the work that you do as an RACQ volunteer with the foundation and Simon thank you for your time as well and keep up the good work too.

Cate: Thanks Anthony.

Anthony Frangi: If you would like more information on any of the stories raised today, email us at roadahead@racq.com.au. I'm Anthony Frangi, join me next time for more RACQ Living.