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Farmsitters a godsend

12 September 2013

Farmsitters a godsend

Caption: Peter Ridley working on Phil and Barb’s windmill

Many Australians could not imagine working every day from dawn to dusk, or living at work and never leaving for an extended break. But that’s reality for many of today’s farmers.

In past generations, many larger farms would have managers, workers or several generations living onsite. But that was before commodity prices dropped and debts levels and the cost employing and insuring workers rose steeply.

Having plenty of people onsite not only spread the workload, but gave everyone the chance to occasionally leave the farm for a holiday, for medical appointments, or to visit distant family members.

But modern reality means a farmer or farming couple often live alone on the farm – and are chained to it – with stock to feed and water or monitor.

For third-generation sheep, cattle and goat farmers Phil and Barb Hodges, living alone on their 800-plus hectare farm at Barraba in northern NSW, Salvation Army rural chaplains Peter and Jean Ridley’s offer to farmsit was “a godsend”.

“Finding somebody reliable who can watch things while you go away is the big thing.  You have a responsibility for the welfare of stock,” Phil says.

He explains the changes he has seen in his lifetime and says: “When my grandfather used to own the property and then my father, it supported two families, plus they employed my older brother and they still used to employ people when they needed.

“Now it supports pretty much me (now in my sixties) and my wife (who still has to also work off-farm). Commodity prices have fallen dramatically… wool’s the lowest it’s been since 1970, so it’s tight and it’s hard to get away.”

Realising how widespread the need among farmers was, Peter and Jean began building up a register of trustworthy farmsitters/animal feeders, for a small, but growing Farmstay program. A number of other Salvation Army rural chaplains also organise farmsitting.

Peter says: “Once we got into this role a few years ago, we realised pretty quickly that farmers were in a desperate place and the drought was biting very hard. Many farmers hadn’t been off their properties for a long time, and desperately needed to get away.

“They will not go away in lambing or calving season or when the crops are ready to be harvested. But if we get them away when a window of opportunity opens, it’s always the same story. It takes them a few days to stop worrying about the farm and they come back and say, ‘we had a wonderful time, it was just awesome’.”

Peter says feedback from the farmsitters has also been overwhelmingly positive.

Phil says that after a break, “you certainly come back refreshed and in a better state of mind”.

Not only through the Farmstay program, but through their general support, he says of the Ridleys:  “They have been a godsend to us as a point of prayer and ministry and (having) someone outside our business to talk to through difficult times.

“Their help by minding our farm on occasions, for us has been the difference between having a break from the pressures of drought and finances and having to force ourselves to soldier on under very difficult circumstances and maybe eventually breaking down.

“I have also talked to quite a few farmers who they have helped, prayed with, and ministered to in times of bushfires, droughts and financial difficulties and they all say that they are sincerely grateful.”

By Naomi Singlehurst

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