Frontier Services patrol minister Rowena Harris could never have anticipated that a modest request for frozen meals would rapidly expand into an ecumenical effort to support struggling farmers as drought grips Victoria.
“It’s been an amazing week,” Rowena said.
“I started out thinking I was going to pick up some frozen meals from a generous school and ended up with an exciting project, powered by the Holy Spirit.”
Rowena is based in the remote East Gippsland town of Swifts Creek. She was at a leadership meeting for an ecumenical Bible study in regional centre Bairnsdale when the group began planning their regular donation of frozen meals to the Salvation Army foodbank.
Rowena asked if she could take 10 frozen meals to distribute to farmers and others she knew were doing it tough in her wide-ranging area of ministry.
“Oh, we can do better than that,” replied Michelle Grimsted, who is sacramental worker for the Catholic parish of St Mary’s in Bairnsdale.
Rowena was invited to talk to St Mary’s primary school where students were cooking meals for people in need as part of their faith formation process.
Rowena told the kids that farmers were sometimes having to choose between buying groceries medicine or feed for the animals.
She explained that Swifts Creek Uniting Church was distributing meals and placing money into accounts at a local grocery store and chemist to be drawn on by those who were drought-affected.
However, with a congregation of 10, there was only so much they could do.
Another speaker on the day was Gay Holmes, a local real estate agent.
Gay approached Rowena and said the mothers’ group would like to join with the students and cook meals, biscuits and other treats for the farmers.
She was also planning fundraising activities for drought relief, such as “Farmers in Pyjamas” in September where, for a $2 donation, participants can wear their PJs for the day.
She has approached local politicians, schools and some big corporations such as Kmart and Nissan about taking part.
Gay said her group had been unsure who to give the money to, but after hearing Rowena they wanted to give it to her to distribute in the local area.
“I was sitting there thinking ‘this is incredible’,” Rowena said.
“It’s a different church in a different town and they are all focusing on me!
“I still can’t believe that these people who live in Bairnsdale, who hadn’t even really heard about Frontier Services – although everybody knows there’s a Uniting Church up in the mountains – that these women were so excited by what they and the school could organise was just amazing.”
Word of the collaboration has spread fast on social media and there are also plans to involve the Nagle Catholic College.
“It’s not really what my church is doing for the drought, it’s a network of communities. It’s amazing,” Rowena said.
Rowena has begun meeting with Michelle in Bairnsdale to load her car up with frozen meals and deliver them as she heads back up mountains.
“It is such a privilege and blessing to be part of this awe-inspiring cause,” Michelle said.
“It is a powerful reminder of the invisible God becoming visible through the actions of students and teachers. The body of Christ becoming one through the love and support of all who were involved.”
“The Church, in all its forms, can be a fabulous family” she said.
“We received another gift, a wonderful cheque, this week from the Drouin-Bunyip Parish UCA.
“I already am divvying it up. I know folk who need fuel for medical appointments, to begin with.”
Rowena said much more help would be needed in what she is now calling the Mountains Project.
“That it’s an ongoing project is most satisfactory,” she said.
“I hear the stories, I see the people and the stress on their faces. I pass the trucks, on my narrow roads, stuffed full of bales.
“It’s tough, and can only get worse.”
A one-in-20 year shortfall of rain and three dry spring seasons in a row have seen much of Gippsland declared to be in drought.
Many are calling it a green drought as the landscape does not look classically parched in the way that larges swathes of NSW and Queensland are.
“It looks green but it’s only surface green,” Rowena said.
“We’re only a few steps behind NSW and Queensland.
“We all know the stories now of people spending $2000 or $3000 a week on feed and water.”
At a meeting of emergency services, which Rowena attended as a fire chaplain, she learnt just how deceptive appearances can be.
“Generally at this stage, the soil has lost 2 percent of moisture in the ground so we go into spring with 98 percent moisture in the ground,” she said.
“This spring we are going in with a loss of 95 percent moisture. That’s basically incompatible with farming.”
The meeting was told the bushfire season has officially been brought forward from summer to spring. In a first for Gippsland, fire restrictions will be introduced in September.
Already a major fire has broken out at Cape Conran and there have been a number of smaller ones throughout the district.
That a green sheen masks a devastating dryness is not news to Swifts Creek UCA members Evan and Dot Teague. The Teagues run a 1000ha sheep and cattle farm at Ensay in the Tambar Valley, approximately 80km northeast from Bairnsdale.
“East Gippsland is bloody awful. And don’t get any ideas it is half bad, it’s very, very bad,” Evan said.
“We had a very difficult year last year. There was an unusual summer break with good rain last year, then we didn’t have an autumn and it’s been very dry in the winter.
“Last month we had 21mm, while normally we get two inches (50mm). It’s been very ordinary.”
“What’s made it worse is that during June we had an unusual number of frosts. July and August have been nothing but strong winds.”
Evan said that while South Gippsland was getting some rain, it was largely passing by his area.
“We live in a rain shadow,” he said. “With all those fronts that come from the west, they hit the hills and go over South Gippsland out to sea. It’s worse in Omeo. It’s really bad up there.
“If we were to get 50mm it would make a hell of a difference, straight away.”
The lack of good growth has forced Evan to feed his cattle.
“Every beast we own is being fed every second day,” he said.
“Their condition is deteriorating. It’s no good.”
While Evan has maintained the size of his cattle herd, he has sold 80 percent of his sheep.
“We sold sheep once we got the wool off them because I could see we were heading for a disaster,” he said.
“That went against the grain, because I value my sheep pretty highly. But I couldn’t sell any cattle then because they were in the middle of calving.”
Asked what his plans are if the lack of rain continues, Evan has an emphatic reply.
“I wish to Christ I knew,” he said.
“We’re towards the end of August and we just hope we get some rain and get some relief.
“I can’t go on doing what I have been doing for the last three months. Physically it’s taking the sap out of me and financially it’s pretty severe.
“We’ve been feeding the animals cubes and hay. A truckload of 25 cubes, which is six-tonne, costs $14,000 and lasts three weeks.
“And I’ve been spending at least that much on hay every three weeks, so it’s running into bikkies. At this stage I haven’t had to ask the bank to borrow money for fodder. That would be next step.
“Do I see any light at the end of the tunnel? No.”
Despite this bleak prognosis and that, at age 76, he is finding the physical side of farming more difficult, Evan is adamant he has no plans to leave farming.
“I won’t be forced off the property,” he said.
“I live on the farm I was born in. It was my father’s WWI soldier settlement block and that’s where we live.”
He believes while people are aware of the desperate drought situation in Queensland and NSW, many don’t realise what is happening further south.
“Absolutely, people don’t know how bad it’s getting in Victoria,” Evan said.
Rosemary Fitzgerald owns a farm near Omeo. She said normally they feed cattle with hay from their own property, but are now having to buy it by the semi truckload.
“My son D’Arcy runs the farm and feeding stock is a daily job,” she said.
“The feeding started a month earlier than normal after some reduction in numbers of stock.
“We don’t usually need to feed sheep but this year we started supplementary feeding in February and March.
“Cartage is a significant part of the cost and the price of feed is increasing as it gets harder to source.
“It takes a financial and emotional toll.”
For more information on the Mountains Project, contact Rowena Harris on M: 0409 111 996 or Michelle Grimsted on M: 0409 666 051.
Respite, rally and repair
For farmers, and others who need some respite from the stress of drought, the Gippsland Presbytery has a little-known option for a seaside getaway.
The presbytery owns the Lake Tyers Camp and Caravan Park, near Lakes Entrance, and offers free or heavily subsidised accommodation to people in need of a break.
“The campsite has done this for a long time, but not many people know about it, so they don’t get many referrals for assistance,” management committee chair Ron Gowland said.
The park has 22 self-contained cabins, with one suitable for disabled use, and about 80 campsites.
Guests self-cater and must bring their own linen and blankets.
Most cabins have balconies that overlook the sea.
“It’s not a clinical campsite like a lot of them,” Ron said.
“We don’t have main roads, it’s dirt roads. That’s sort of what the attraction is I suppose.
“It’s a special place for a lot of people.”
Ron said booking a respite stay was simply a matter of phoning the campsite manager.
“Normally a third party tells us because people don’t put their hand up themselves,” Ron said.
“We have had a man who had cancer and he and his wife spent time there, we also had a family whose father had passed away and the mother and kids went there for a few days.
“Normally they are grateful for the opportunity because it’s so near Lakes Entrance that you can just look out over the waves.
“It’s a hidden jewel that not many people know about. We would encourage people to use it because that is what we are there for.”
For Lake Tyers Camp and Caravan Park respite stay inquires, call P: (03) 5156 5530. A number of Men’s Sheds are raising funds to assist farmers, businesses and communities affected by the drought in East Gippsland.
Shedders are holding barbeques, selling goods made in their Sheds and other donated items to raise money for the Gippsland Farmer’s Relief Fund.
Every dollar raised goes directly to those in need, including businesses struggling due to a drop in spending.
So far more than $5000 has been raised in Gippsland.
Men’s Sheds nationally are rallying to help all drought affected regions of Australia. A challenge has been issued by the Yass Shed in NSW for all Sheds is to raise $1000 each for Drought Relief.
You can follow what Men’s Sheds are doing to help those affected by drought at their Facebook Page www.facebook.com/australianmensshedassociation.
If you would like to support the work of Frontier Services, the manse at Swifts Creek requires work by volunteer carpenters, painters, handymen and handywomen as well as gardeners. Accommodation is available in Swifts Creek or nearby and there is also a caravan and camping ground in town.
Work on the manse will be conducted between 26 October and 2 November.
If you would like to join a work party, please contact Lindsay Oates on P: (03) 5668 1621, M: 0408 343 531 or E: firstname.lastname@example.org