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Priest's aid rounds through drought-hit central west NSW highlights the parish's struggle

By Donal Sheil, Saturday February 29, 2020 - 15:10 EDT
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Reverend Brian's Trundle Parish encompasses Bogan Gate, Trundle, Fifield, Tullamore, and Albert. - ABC

Reverend Brian Schmalkuche slams the door of his dusty Holden Commodore after packing his boot full of food hampers.

He is delivering each of the boxes to families in desperate need of aid in the drought-ravaged community of Fifield, one of Rev Brian's five parishes in central west New South Wales.

His car has clocked up 375,000 kilometres in only six years, a by-product of zigzagging between tiny towns and remote properties offering pastoral care and assistance accessing drought relief.



A chunky wooden cross hangs from his neck as he turns down a long dirt driveway, recalling his work as a farmer in a past life.

"I suppose that's why I have such a great empathy for these people doing it so tough in a drought," he says.

"I have a friend I went through school with who said I'm the only person he knows that's had five massive changes of career in my life.

"And he says he doesn't understand this last one."

Fifield's population sits at around 100 people, who have had their water carted to them from the nearby town of Condobolin for 18 months now.

Parked outside a small rundown cottage on the fringes of town, Rev Brian says most of the townsfolk were shearers before the drought's grip tightened.

"We've got probably 10 per cent of stock left on farm, in some places less than that," he says.



"So there's no sheep for these guys to shear and there's no other employment much. So they're doing it really, really tough."

As the morning sun creeps overhead, Rev Brian steps out of the car to find no-one's home.

"I'll leave them a note and a food parcel and I'll see them the next time I'm here," he says.

Without his occasional drop-offs of non-perishable food, Rev Brian says there's zero support for struggling families in Fifield, and simply knowing who's in need of help can be half the battle.

"They're very resilient and they don't put their hand out for help as much as I'd like them to," he says.

"To know exactly where the help's needed, you've actually got to go out and seek the people that are in trouble."

'The light at the end of the tunnel'

Rev Brian's next stop is at the home of Phyllis Stevenson, who greets him as he opens the gate with eight-month-old grandson Arlo in her arms.



Within minutes they're sitting around Phyllis' dining room table with coffees and biscuits as Rev Brian gets filled in on how the community is coping.

Phyllis' husband is a shearing contractor who's currently on the road roaming for work as far south as the Victorian border, 400 kilometres away.

For two years the couple have been on one income after Phyllis' pig farm was forced to destock in early 2018.

"Hopefully there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm sure there is," she says.

"But it's just digging your way through that tunnel, in that darkness, and to find that light and to get back on."

Rev Brian and Phyllis discuss the endless wave of dust storms sweeping the region, having visibly left a thin layer of dirt on the home's wooden television cabinet.



Phyllis says despite the potential for dust storms to create cabin fever, her marriage is weathering the storm.

"My husband and I, luckily we have a very good relationship," she says.

"We're both not backward in coming forward in speaking our mind. We have learned to agree to disagree."



Phyllis says Rev Brian's deliveries of food and support are heart warming and remind her there are people thinking of her and her family during their struggles.

"It takes a lot to ask for help, and when you get these little parcels it's just like 'ooh yes, it's Christmas'," she says.

"You get so overjoyed about it, and then you open it up and think 'I need that, that's empty in the cupboard'.

"That makes you thankful you're in Australia."

The pub that won't sell

The only business in town is the local pub, The Fifield Hotel.



Publican Sharon Crowe has had the venue on the market for over a year, with no potential buyers on the horizon.

She says running a pub without reliable water is an uphill climb.

"There's been days we've run out. We can't use the water that comes to town for drinking purposes, especially here in the bar or kitchen, so we have to have tank water," she says.

"We've been running out of that every two months, which is costly, but you've got to have it so you've got to keep it up."



Sharon says the business primarily services passing truck drivers transporting whatever feed and stock remain in the area.

She says her and her husband's retirement is already planned and is just waiting for the business to change hands.

"Retirement is we're going to buy a caravan and tour Australia. I haven't seen much of Australia so I'd like to see a bit more before I pass away," she says.



Sharon says she'll miss Fifield when she goes, but a reunion is already on the cards.

"I've made a lot of friends here, everyone's been great, the farming community," she says.

"I will miss it, we'll come back every so often and say 'g'day' and have a couple of beers in the pub and camp out the back."

The massive mine that could change everything

Down a sprawling unsealed road, Lachlan Shire Mayor John Medcalf quietens down his ageing basset hounds who howl wildly when strangers approach.



He says carting water to Fifield has cost council around $100,000 in the past 12 months alone and insisted the NSW Government would intervene if Fifield's water supply was threatened.

"If they see that a town is going to run out of water altogether I think you'll find that they'll have to come to the party," he says.

"One of the basic things of life is water, what makes all towns go round."



John says the community is anticipating news about an enormous nickel and cobalt mine approved for construction.

He says council is currently in negotiations with mine owner Clean Teq about building a pipeline from a bore 90 kilometres away to ensure water supply for the site.

Once operational, Clean Teq claims the mine would harvest enough nickel and cobalt to build half a million electric vehicle batteries each year and pay $1.9 billion in wages in its first 25 years.

But as Fifield residents like Phyllis Stevenson pray for a light at the end of the tunnel, it's unclear when the mine's tunnels may also see the light of day.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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