Farmer's Viral Drought Poem Asks PM 'Where's The Aussie Aid?'
When Joanna Collett wrote a poem to Malcolm Turnbull, she had no idea her words would become a rallying cry for her community.
Five years ago, Joanna and her husband bought 2000 acres just out of Wee Waa, NSW, a tiny town about 215km north west of Tamworth. After growing up in the country, the couple finally realised their dream of owning a little bit of country themselves. Together, they breed ewes and lambs, cows and calves and farm about 1000 acres of crops.
But in Wee Waa, as in many rural communities across the country, drought is devastating the land and the people who work it.
Even though Joanna and her husband are lucky enough to have off-farm income, and their farm is "better off than most," in the last year she has seen prime grazing land shrivel to dust, livestock wither down to skin and bone, and despite thorough planning for drought, resilient farmers struggle to cope with one crippling loss after another.
And she saw the Australian Government sitting on the sidelines, watching it happen, while spending money elsewhere.
"It made me a bit angry really," she said.
"It just seemed to me that country Australia was being ignored. Why are we giving so much money overseas, and why can't we get some help here?"
So she put pen to paper, authoring a 40-line poem addressed to the prime minister.
Here's how the poem starts:
G'day Mr Turnbull, I trust that you are fine,
Sorry to be bothering you, but there's something on my mind.
I listened to a bloke last week; he had a bit to say.
You lot may have heard of him? He delivers all that hay?
He spoke of countless hours and the distances they drive,
Feeding starving stock, to keep bush hopes alive.
They do not get assistance from your tax funded hat,
They do it on their own, all off their own bat.
And you can read it in full here.
In late July, Joanna posted the completed work to Malcolm Turnbull's Facbook page. She also personally mailed him a letter, along with a copy of the poem.
"I haven't had any response from anybody in Canberra," she said.
But the response online was overwhelming. Joanna's poem struck a chord with people right across the country, who shared it more than 12,000 times, and flooded her inbox with comments of thanks, praise, support and solidarity.
"Everyone has just said, 'Yep, exactly right,'" she said. "I've just said what everyone's been thinking."
She said she never expected such a huge and heartfelt reaction.
"It’s just actually blown me away. I never ever thought in my lifetime it would have this response. Out of all the comments and all the shares, there was only one negative comment out of thousands. It's absolutely incredible."
On Sunday, two weeks after Joanna wrote her poem, the Turnbull Government announced a $190 million emergency relief package for farmers in the grips of drought. (The NSW Government announced $500 million in additional funding in late June.) The package will allow farmers to access two additional cash payments of $6000 through the Farm Household Allowance (FHA) scheme, as well as provide additional support for mental health and rural financial counselling services.
"We're not ungrateful, it's a start," Joanna said. But she said whether the aid goes far enough is difficult to say.
"Every situation is different. I know that money will help some people, but it's a drop in the ocean to others."
She questioned the red tape surrounding the application process, whether farmers with off-farm income and assets will be eligible, and how far down the track the money will become available.
"It might get you a load of hay or a load of grain, which depending on how big your enterprise is, it might last a month, it might last five months. But it really is a drop in the ocean if you're going to try and pay for things like fodder with it," she said.
"The first [payment] is available next month in September... well it's only the start of August. And then the second lot isn't available until March next year, which is a long, long time away."
If weather conditions don't ease in the next six months, Joanna and her husband will be forced to sell off all of their livestock.
"We don't have a crop this year, along with the majority of the people, so we probably wouldn't have a farm income until December 2019 or January 2020," she said.
"It's basically about keeping what stock you have alive, because if you have to sell it, and to get back into it when the season does break, it's going to be nearly impossible, and it might break you."
She said what farmers in her community really want to see is aid in the form of interest subsidies, and subsidies to keep farm employees on the farm.
"Most people on the land have massive debt, so any kind of subsidy that would go towards an interest repayment is going to be welcome," Joanna said.
"There's a lot of people who don't own a farm but live there and work there and that is their home -- possibly for many, many years. If they're without a job, they're also without a home. So subsidies to keep them not only on the farm, but in the community as well -- their kids go to school in our town, they come into our town and spend money -- and if we lose families like that, it's a big hit, not just to the farm that employs them, but to the community."
She said waiving shire rates would also bring welcome relief.
"The state government is paying the local land services rates for 2019, but the local council shire rates [are still being paid by farmers]," she said.
The poem, she said, wasn't about her personally, but about Australian farmers' collective hardships, and about being seemingly invisible to policy makers hundreds of kilometres away in Canberra. As a group, she said, farmers won't ask for handouts, and life on the land breeds a culture of resilience.
"You just get on with it," Joanna said. "That's all you do, that's all you can do. We had four mils [of rain] here the other day, which was nice -- it barely settled the dust -- but it just lifts spirits. You just do it. You sell what you can, you feed what you can, you do what you can."
"I think most people, even people who have just learned about it, are very understanding," Joanna said.
"They understand where their food comes from, and I think most people want to help. Everyone's just been so kind."
She invited people across the country to see what's going on first-hand.
"If [people] don't understand [what's happening], get in the car, come for a drive and have a look," she said.
"Anybody would be happy to show you what they're doing. Just come have a look."
If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels, Aussie Helpers or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.
For 24/7 crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp.
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