Vanessa Drendel, a farmer (primary producer of broadacre cereals, legumes and oil seeds) in the Wimmera writes: Recently I went through an old external hard drive and stumbled over a folder I’d called ‘Totally Screwed’. It contained images of my farm life from 2004-2009, nothing out of the ordinary really, except that most of them stand as a reminder of times we have no rush to repeat. Most women in the country probably have one. A filing cabinet, or items tucked away in a drawer that remind them of the drought that they probably only just can now can have a look at.
I can be as tough as needed but all the while I can be crying on the inside. I can’t always suck it up, but I do know how to file it away. For the past decade, until the flooding rains of January 2010 heralded the hope ofbetter times, I have lived with drought, its implications to my family, my friends and my community.
It is only now I can bear to look back on how our crops looked, the expression on my husband’s face in pictures, and revisit a time where nothing felt certain and knowing there were always people worse off than me I wondered how many of us would make it to better times.
Sadly these pictures also reminds me of friends I can no longer visit because the pain of drought was too much to bear and they ended their suffering only to increase that of their family and friends. Not that the papers reported it that way. A farmer’s wife, girlfriend of mine, told me she would have preferred to read “my husband blew his brains out” if it stopped one more man doing what her husband had done.
Suicide leaves a scar on everyone, it is the ultimate reminder of how proud Australian farmers are, and the price they are willing to pay. When it’s your home, business, lifestyle, family, you put everything on the line. Theoretically if you fail, your family is homeless, because the bank doesn’t take your farm but let you keep your house. The biggest thing you can do is admit that you were in the boat because someone else would jump in and grab an oar.
For many of us women it was a time when we worried about our men folk and encouraged them to attend every men’s night known to man (or us women) to save their mental health. We learnt that once you got men together and talking, a good result often followed. I recall at times making my husband angry so he would go just to shut me up. He thanked me a while ago, told me that they were some of the best arguments we have ever had.
In the Wimmera not all of us experienced the kind of drought you might see on 60 minutes, because my kind of drought wasn’t so camera friendly. Mr and Mrs Non-Farmer may not be able to recognise that the crop that just covers your ankles, should be up to your waist when shown on TV. The media liked to portray starving stock and drifting soils on a barren landscape. We don’t run stock and because our farming practises are minimal tillage our soil didn’t drift as much as conventional methods. We did not go to the wall like so many people we know, we just leant against it and banged our head at times.
I don’t blame the media for missing us out, I applaud the constant reporting they did of the drought and the subsequent recovery period which for many will be as long as the drought itself. Farmers are mainly rich in resources, machinery and infrastructure and not cash. A good example of that is the many cattle stations now under financial hardship after just one month of the live cattle export being stopped. Imagine what it’s like for the average farmer after 10 consecutive years of drought.
I would never wish the past decade on anyone, for me it has been an experience which has at times has broken my heart but in the same breath strengthened my spirit and resolve. Our family farming partnership has survived many challenges, the greatest being the loss of my nephew in a car accident while in New Zealand. I had to tell my extended family that their son was not coming home. When you have spoken those words to a mother and father about their son, there is little you can compare with that experience and pain.
So from those words on, for me the drought faded into something insignificant. It was then I realised no matter what happened to us, we would survive. Drought took me to the end of my rope, challenged my family, but the one thing it did not do was break us down or tear us apart.
So now that folder marked “Totally screwed” just might be renamed to “Not Screwed Now”.
My only concern now is for the larger farming community, because although it looks over visually, it doesn’t mean it’s over emotionally, mentally and physically. Now it’s all green and beautiful, people think farmers just snap their fingers and recovery takes as long as the last Centrelink payment. The wider community needs to realise that mentally farmers have to recover.