Australia

This NSW farmer has revealed the devastating toll the drought has had on his mental health

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Drought ravaged farmers usually come to Australia’s largest agricultural event, AgQuip, to talk about machinery, but the drought has put other issues on the table.

For 11 years, Kerry Brett has lived with his family at Rimbanda, a property 60 kilometres north-east of Tamworth in New South Wales.

But recently he’s had to destock his property and expects to reduce numbers significantly again very soon.

“We’ve basically got no feed on the ground, the paddocks we’re pulling cows out are turning to dust,” he tells SBS News. 

“A few donated bales are fantastic but it doesn’t go far.”

Kerry Brett says Australian farmers are doing it tough.
Kerry Brett says Australian farmers are doing it tough.
Aneeta Bhole / SBS News

The impact of Australia’s drought has affected his mental health.

“Most days we come home exhausted mentally and physically,” he says.

“It’s hard to cope. Farms aren’t just a business for us; we have four generations of farming behind us and our kids would be the fifth if they have the option to come back.

It’s hard to cope. Farms aren’t just a business for us.

- Kerry Brett, NSW Farmer

“It’s not just a nine to five job; we live here, we work, we play here, it’s tough seeing the property in the condition they are and even harder seeing our stock that way.”

Support network

This week, Mr Brett joined up to 100,000 people who travelled from across the country to AgQuip, Australia’s largest agricultural event, in Gunnedah, NSW.

The event showcases the latest agri-products, but with the drought rolling into its third year, many were just looking for respite away from the daily grind of working on the land, he said. 

Farmer Kerry Brett with his wife Anne.
Farmer Kerry Brett with his wife Anne.
Aneeta Bhole / SBS News

“So many of us are tied to the farm at the moment, like we’re feeding every day so we can’t get away.”

“We get up before daylight, feed our cattle and we’ll probably get back after dark to feed them again.”

He said he copes because of the support of his wife, Anne, and the good mates he has, but talking about their feelings can be difficult for farmers.

“I’m probably lucky; I have a couple of good mates I can ring up and say ‘g’day how you going?’ That’s pretty important, that helps,” he said. 

“One friend in‌ ‌particular is struggling quite a bit and doesn’t want to talk about it. I guess I’ve struggled talking about it.” 

The Bretts
The Bretts on their property, 60 kilometres north-east of Tamworth.
Aneeta Bhole / SBS News

Last year the council of Australian Governments signed a National Drought agreement which recognised the need to support farming businesses and communities to manage and prepare for climate change and variability. 

The new agreement focusses measures across all jurisdictions on bolstering risk management practices and enhancing long-term preparedness and resilience.

But Mr Brett said a solid federal drought policy was imperative for the survival of farming families living on the land and would alleviate some stresses that compound as a result of drought. 

“Australia’s a country of drought. We got through some every few years and the policy around it should have been worked out years ago,” he said.  

“There’s no use getting into the middle of the worst drought ever and then saying ‘what are we going to do?’.” 

AgQuip
Attendees at this year's AgQuip.
Twitter/AgQuip

AgQuip has been the key industry event for primary producers for more than four decades. 

It showcases innovative machinery and agricultural forums, but this year also featured exhibitions offering support. 

Patrick Harris, who is exhibiting at the event, is a ‘horse whisperer’ by trade but is now helping drought-affected graziers implement coping strategies. 

“A lot of them are really doing it tough. They’ve gone through a hard time for a long, long time,” he said. 

Patrick Harris
Patrick Harris is now helping drought-affected graziers implement coping strategies.
Aneeta Bhole / SBS News

"What we are doing is using the horses as a metaphor. One of the things that we talk about is nutrition and not being able to get hay, oats, feed that is good quality for our horses. Then we talk about what people need to have in their nutrition … how to keep their bodies full of energy so that when they need to keep working, they've got that energy to do what they've got to do.

“We also teach them kinesthetic [physical learning]: how to anchor people, how to anchor their horses, how to create and how to collapse negative emotions - and we do that with the horses."

He says the tools have already started to help people stopping by during the agricultural event.

“What we want to do is bring people together, dancing and moving and having fun.”

Tough conversations

For Sue Ferguson, the stress of drought has been difficult to cope with and she and her family were forced to leave her property near Gulargambone in rural NSW in 2010.

“There was a drought much like today. We lost our crops we lost our breeding ewes,” she said. 

“We were picking up dead ewes and having to put them on a truck and having to dispose of the bodies.”

Sue Ferguson
Sue Ferguson and her family on their farm in 2010.
Supplied

“It was a third-generation property, it meant a lot to us, and we wanted to raise our family there.”

Ms Ferguson said her family spent six months living in a shed in swags after selling the farm for much lower than the asking price.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make with a young family,” she said. 

“We’re living in Dubbo now in sheds, well it’s more like a small cabin type thing, and then we’ve had our daughter go through cancer as well.”

The Fergusons
The Fergusons had to give up their farm.
Supplied

With many farmers living in isolated properties, Ms Ferguson says it is important to make the effort to meet up with others and speak out about how they are coping.

“You’re very isolated … it gets people’s minds off having to worry about what’s going on back at the farm,” she said.  

“It gets you out so you can talk socially to other people because a lot of farmers don’t talk about stuff.”

More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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