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Why these people are helping drought-affected farmers

Tim Lee, Thursday September 6, 2018 - 15:00 EST
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Appeals for help for drought-affected farmers are everywhere. - ABC

What motivates us to open our hearts and wallets?

It's an especially timely question, as the widespread drought in the eastern states worsens with every rainless day, and when the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts relief may be months away.

Pictures of hungry stock, parched farmland and stressed farmers are everywhere. So too are appeals for help.



Supermarkets, schools, hotels, charities, service clubs and big-hearted volunteers are all rattling tins, raising funds and imploring us to contribute.

Not surprisingly, the most generous efforts to help drought-hit farmers are coming from the rural sector itself — from other farmers who remember the generosity of hay that arrived to feed starving stock in the blackened landscape after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Now many of them are returning the favour, sending any hay or fodder they can possibly spare into drought-parched New South Wales.

There are other farmers who have never forgotten the generosity of volunteers who came to their aid following other natural disasters such as floods, fires or cyclones.

In a word, the motivation for giving is empathy.

Kevin Butler has it in spades.

It's lambing season — a very hectic time for the sheep and wool producer from Kilmore in Victoria — but his phone never stops and nor, seemingly, does he.



He's the founder of BlazeAid — a volunteer-run charity formed after the Black Saturday bushfires to provide emergency fencing to affected landholders.

"And it was just the greatest, greatest thing," Mr Butler, struggling to contain his emotions at the memory, said.

"I'd look along these fences that these wonderful volunteers had built for me and I thought 'what a wonderful monument to love and hope and resilience'."

Since BlazeAid's beginnings in 2009, the charity has harnessed the voluntary labour and good will of thousands of everyday people — from farmers, retirees, city-folk, and even backpackers.

It has expanded to 15,000 registered helpers and since responded to dozens of natural disasters across Australia, carrying out fencing and other works worth an estimated $80 million.

BlazeAid's current focus is on providing holidays for drought-affected farmers — to give them respite from the daily psychological and physical grind of the big dry.



The charity has a register that links farmers and their families to owners of holiday houses who have provided them free of charge.

The charity is also garnering donations of farm equipment and co-ordinating offers of agistment for affected stock.

"So, it's been a long journey, but by God it has been rewarding," Mr Butler said.

'It's knowing someone else cares'

At Pakenham, an hour east of Melbourne, another army of volunteers is responding to drought.

At the helm is Graham Cockerell — now a veteran at organising emergency aid in the form of invaluable goods and fodder.



Need for Feed, an initiative of service club Lion's Club of Australia, began in late 2006 with a single load of hay donated by Mr Cockerell. Others soon joined in.

"[I] talked to some mates and they said, 'let's do a fundraiser'," Graham Cockerell recalled.

"My back-corner neighbour up here had lost his first wife and daughter in the Ash Wednesday fires and they gave us our first semi load of hay."

The hay was sent to farmers burnt out by a bushfire to the east.

Need for Feed has been busy every year since sending fodder for floods, bushfire and drought.

"It's not the quantity of what they're receiving or what we're giving," Mr Cockerell said.

"It's just mainly knowing that someone else cares."

He runs a garage and spray-painting shop, but many of his waking hours are spent coordinating the logistics of collecting and disseminating aid.

His cramped office is crammed with donations of food and toys.

This weekend, Need for Feed has its second emergency fodder convoy on the road to New South Wales.



More than 100 large fodder-laden trucks will converge in Dubbo.

Most of the hay — much of it sourced from Tasmania — has been donated. Some has been purchased.

The charity has just been granted $500,000 from the National Farmers' Federation to assist in obtaining fodder.

"We've had people come along who have never done any sort of community service before and most of them just catch the bug," Mr Cockerell said.

Mental strain of the big dry

And it was empathy too, that initially compelled Mr Cockerell to help.



Seeing the fragile psychological state of farmers, following a local bushfire in 2006, dredged up a family secret he had kept for 40 years — even from his immediate family.

"My parents had just bought their own dairy farm at Timboon," he recalled.

"I was 11 and my father was 41 and we lost him to suicide.

"Just pressures beyond his control, financial pressures that he had no control over. He wasn't a bad farmer, not by any means.

"Mental health issues weren't dealt with at all well back then.

"My mother took him to the doctors because he wasn't coping with what was going on and he was basically told to go home take an Aspro and toughen up."

Like all charities currently mobilising to send aid to drought regions, the volunteers at BlazeAid and Need for Feed are acutely aware of the mental strain of the big dry.

And they are all too aware the crisis is likely to last for many months — even after drought-breaking rains eventually come.

As pragmatic farmers and rural folk with a proven track record of generosity, they know what is needed.

Mr Cockerell put it succinctly:

"We think there's nothing better for a pick-up for your mental health than a truckload of hay driving up your driveway."

Watch Landline's story on ABC TV at 12:30pm on Sunday.


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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