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Farmer who chopped up rare ooshie to raise awareness of drought says he was 'standing up for what is right'

By Mikaela Ortolan, Tuesday August 6, 2019 - 18:17 EST
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Stephen Black and Melissa Portingale were so desperate for water, they put a rare ooshie up for sale. That's when the problems started. - ABC

Stephen Black and Melissa Portingale did not expect so much fuss over a plastic collectable toy from Woolworths.



The couple put an ad on social media to sell a rare Simba ooshie in exchange for $5,000 to buy water, and with the hope of educating the wider community about the struggles currently facing many farmers across the country.

The response they received from the public left them shocked and shaken.



Threats and messages of hate started to flood their Facebook account, sparking Mr Black's call for action against what he called online bullying.

The ad has since been taken down, but Ms Portingale said the initial ad on Facebook, asking for $5,000, prompted hateful messages including threats of suicide from people angry with the asking price.

The abuse continued online despite the couple explaining that the money was to go towards purchasing irrigation water, which they were struggling to afford.

They then decided to change tactics asking people for water instead of money in an attempt to raise awareness about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and water issues facing farmers, but the abuse continued.

That's when the couple decided to cut the ooshie up on live television to make a stance against bullying.

Mr Black said he cut the rare ooshie up on live breakfast TV because he wanted the bullying to stop.

"It was about standing up for what I believe is right and sticking up for the people close to me," he said.

Rural Aid has applauded Mr Black for his actions.



CEO Charles Alder said it was sad to see the number of people who did not understand what farmers were going through.

"Lack of water, lack of feed, increased cost of running their businesses becomes a more and more daunting challenge for farmers," he said.

"I think when you add in on top of that the pressure that was applied via social media, as Stephen mentioned for someone less capable it could well have pushed them over the edge."

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been a hot topic for farmers for quite some time.

The Katandra West farmer said the key issue for him was the imbalance between irrigation and the environmental flow back.

"They're taking too much water away from the irrigators and giving it to the environment," Mr Black said.

"There needs to be that fair balance between the two."

Rural Aid comes to the rescue

Mr Alder said increasing costs were making it difficult for farmers during these dry times.

"[Farmers] have seen the price of water go from $100 to $600 a megalitre," he said.

"We've got farmers in NSW and Queensland who have got terribly dry climates, little or no rain, very low soil moisture content levels and therefore no grass is regrowing when it does rain."

Rural Aid offers financial assistance to farmers living through natural disasters such as the drought.



They have more than 9,000 farmers registered on their database and that figure is growing by hundreds every week.

In the past 12 months, Rural Aid has distributed $30.5 million worth of assistance to rural communities, from purchasing and transferring hay to offering mental health counselling and funding community organisations.

"All farmers who register who are in a natural disaster-affected area are able to access $1,500 of immediate financial assistance and that's when the farmers supply us with their bills and we pay the bills direct for them," Mr Alder said.

"On top of that we have some pre-paid visa cards, which we also issue to farmers to get them through the emergency of the day."

After seeing Mr Black and Ms Portingale's plight, Rural Aid reached out and offered their typical support, $1,500 bill payment and a $500 gift voucher.

Mr Black said he was grateful for the donation but was reluctant to accept it.

"For me it's just a job I have to do for others that have no voice," he said.

Mr Black said while he did not feel it was appropriate to accept the assistance on national TV, he believed any help went a long way.

"These assistance things are there to help and it's not to make you feel embarrassed or say you're not doing good enough or trying hard enough," he said.

Mr Alder encouraged other farmers to speak up when they were experiencing a difficult time.

He said mental health was a big issue across Australia — especially in the farming community, but no farmer needed to go through it alone.

"Farmers are very proud people," he said.

'They don't necessarily want to be seen to be requiring or taking assistance, but I think farmers also need to acknowledge that there are millions of Australians that have given money to us to support farmers and their rural communities. People want to help."



Where's the ooshie now?

The rare ooshie has been melted down for a mould which Mr Black and Ms Portingale plan to give to Beyond Blue as a symbol of what can happen with online bullying.

They have also started a GoFundMe page where people can donate if they wish to help ease the burden of the growing costs of water.

Farmers and rural communities who may need assistance are encouraged to contact or phone them on 1300 327 624.

Anyone wanting to donate can do the same.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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