With A Little Help From Your Friends

Anyone who’s lived rurally knows that even the best laid plans can go to waste in the face of the relentless and unpredictable challenges of bush life.

East Gippsland farmer, Leanne Jennings, took over her family’s Bairnsdale property as her father’s health declined. With a five-year retirement plan firmly in place, she set about restoring the property with the view to making farming her full-time pursuit as soon as her financial planning allowed.

But then came drought.

As the rivers and dams ran dry, so too did Leanne’s finances and farmhand support, leaving her with no choice but to continue working off-farm to generate enough income to survive, while single-handedly managing the upkeep of the property.

Leanne’s story is not rare. Between the unprecedented series of fires, floods, and plagues in recent years, and with international and domestic travel stifled thanks to the pandemic, labour demand is outstripping supply by a staggering amount, and farmers like Leanne face insurmountable workloads in isolation, and sometimes completely alone.

It was at this critical moment Leanne registered on Rural Aid’s Farm Army platform, and a serendipitous connection aligned. Melbourne-based volunteers Garth and Amy had recently completed another job in the area when they answered Leanne’s call for help. A four-day stay turned into ten… and then some. Having fallen in love with the Bairnsdale area, Garth and Amy put their hand up again to house-sit a local property, returning weekly to continue helping Leanne manage the long list of big and small tasks still to be accomplished.

“Having arrived at Leanne’s and getting to know her and the sort of things that she would like to have done around the farm… there are so many more jobs that people living in suburbia would have no problem in meeting,” said Garth.

“This is a great opportunity for people from the city to come and experience farm life,” said Leanne.

“It’s just a good feeling to know that you’re doing something, and that it’s appreciated,” said Garth.

Together, We Are Just Enough.

“If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, it’s going to be just enough.”

So were the words of Rural Aid Community Builders Ballingup Representative, Wendy Trow, and never has a truer statement been made to sum up both the challenges of isolation and the importance of connection in the bush. From disaster response and healthcare access to financial security and employment—remoteness impacts rural Australian’s lives in every way.

At a community level, small rural pockets continuously challenged by disasters—not to mention the numerous economic and social impacts that follow—can face rapid disconnection and decline… some can even face ruin.

Community clubs and events—sporting meets, service clubs, country fairs and the like— have long been a mainstay of rural life in Australia. In fact, many of the country’s annual festivals and regional shows are a highlight in the calendar of local community members, and a common interest to and in which they all contribute and avidly participate.

Connection is and has always been key, not only in the sense of coming together to belong, but also in the pursuit of moving a community forward. Whether that means recovering from a significant hardship like a natural disaster, or simply working towards a shared goal of community advancement. Acting as individuals is too little, acting as communities is just enough.

Rural Aid recognises the importance of connection, shared knowledge and resources, and is committed to forging stronger community ties not only in times of celebration, but in times of hardship.

Rural Aid’s Our Towns program was initiated to provide support to communities impacted by drought, committing funds and resources over an extended period to help chosen townships develop and action long-term sustainability planning.

Where the Our Towns program has towns looking and planning introspectively, the Rural Aid Community Builders program seeks to turn the view outward, establishing a grassroots leadership program that supports and empowers local community champions within a defined geographical cluster. Together, these leaders can connect, share knowledge and resources, and build their region’s broader community and economy.

“The Community Builders program is about wrapping around a region, building a great, strong peer network, and strengthening up those ties between a region,” said Jen Curnow-Trotter of Rural Aid.

“Rural Aid recognised that there’s a strong connection between our farmers and the communities. So when the communities are strong, the farmers are strong, and vice versa.”

“At the completion of the program, with another 39-odd people cheering them on from their corner, they’ll walk away with a renewed sense of optimism for their communities and their town, and they’ll be able to face some issues of their region together,” said Ms Curnow-Trotter.

On A Wing And A Prayer…

A declining global honeybee population isn’t new headline fodder. A ubiquitous and credible threat has been identified in recent years in the form of the varroa mite, or varroa destructor as it is more ominously known.

Only able to reproduce within honeybee colonies, the parasite attaches to a bee’s body, feeding on its fat stores and affecting its host’s ability to fly, feed, produce honey, and ultimately, to sustain life.

Thanks to its robust biosecurity laws, Australia is the only major honey-producing nation to hold the varroa mite at bay—until now. Since the mite was detected in the port of Newcastle back in June 2022, a major outbreak has been swiftly and devastatingly unfolding and Australia’s commercial beekeeping, honey, and pollination industry (worth an estimated $264M annually*) teeters on the brink of devastation. Honeybees are not only essential to supporting this major driver of Australia’s GDP, they are vital to the pollination and growth of around 70% of Australia’s fresh produce*, and intrinsic to the continuation of human and animal life.

Since June, Australian Beekeepers have been exterminating honeybees in droves, with approximately 18 million destroyed so far.

Like many of the harsh realities of bush life, the loss of animals, crops, resources and equipment to outbreaks such as that of varroa mite – or natural disasters like bushfires and floods – can have a severe and long-lasting impact on the recovery efforts and outlook for farmers. In response to this, Rural Aid re-launched it’s HiveAid initiative – a dedicated extension of its financial assistance service – to specifically support affected primary producing beekeepers. HiveAid was created during the Black Summer bushfires in partnership with Australian Honey Bee Industry Council and Hive + Wellness, the nation’s largest honey packer.

Eligible farmers like Rob Porteous were able to access financial support in the form of a $500 prepaid Visa card. Rob lost around 100 hives earlier this year and was in urgent need of financial assistance to keep his property and business afloat.

“When we first found out [about varroa mite], it just bought the industry to a halt… my initial reaction was devastation,” Rob said.

“The financial impact on my business has cost around $30,000… Because I can’t move the bees, I can’t make an income out of them.”

Rob thanked Rural Aid for providing a little bit of hope in a confusing and upsetting time.

“It kind of feels like someone has your back and people do care. The money that Rural Aid has given me has helped me out a lot. So thank you very much,” Rob said.

In addition to providing financial assistance via Hive Aid, Rural Aid’s Mates Day on 23 November is hoping to raise more funds to support farmers and rural communities, in preparation for the next unexpected challenge.

“Our beekeepers are the cornerstone of Australia’s agricultural industry, playing a vital role in pollinating food crops for both humans and livestock, and producing world-class honey. It’s imperative we help them in this ongoing fight against the varroa mite,” said John Warlters of Rural Aid.