No matter the distances involved, caring for one another brings us together.
For Russell Webb, the drought that is impacting New South Wales and Queensland is not just an issue that affects farmers.
“This is a community issue,” the Tamworth (NSW) local says. “Regional communities depend on farmers, so when they stop spending, rural businesses start to suffer.”
That’s why the ‘RU Aware, We Care’ initiative is getting the whole community involved. A partnership between 88.9 FM and Tamworth Regional Council has initiated a number of community forums in towns across the New England region that have brought federal and state government agencies, local businesses and community groups, and farmers and their families together.
The forums have helped raise much- needed funds, as well as a generous outpouring of food and goods donations that have gone to help struggling farmers in the region. The Salvation Army has been asked to coordinate the distribution of these donations, as well as provide other support services.
Rural chaplains including Majors Di and Rusty Lawson have been crisscrossing the region, covering thousands of kilometres as they come alongside farmers to not only deliver donations and other financial assistance, but also to offer a listening ear and remind often isolated farming families that they are not alone.
As Russell points out, the importance of ‘RU Aware, We Care’ goes well beyond fundraising. He told attendees at one forum that they would never raise enough money to meet the needs of all those across the region, but that this was an opportunity to raise awareness of the wide range of services and resources that are available.
“The campaign has allowed us to get everyone in one place and ensure that farmers know what help is available, and what pathways exist to access it,” he said. “It’s about going out to where they are and helping them navigate those pathways.”
For Russell, this is an issue that is very close to home. The Salvo volunteer is a farmer, too, so he knows firsthand the impact that the drought is having, and the struggles that farming families are facing. Seeing the pain some people are suffering inspired him to get involved.
Like any father, Russell can’t help but worry about their future as things get tougher.
“I initially contacted the Clutterbucks [the ministers at Tamworth Salvation Army Corps] last Christmas to see if I could help with the lunches they provide,” he said. “I donated a few lambs and got other farmers involved, and I could see that more help was needed.”
When the local radio station was looking at ways to help raise funds for locals in need, Russell decided that more than funds were needed. He contacted the federal and state governments and got them on board, as well as other local organisations. He saw the Salvos as being able to help with distributing donations and provide support.
“Captain Rhonda [Clutterbuck]contacted me and asked if I would be on the Red Shield Appeal committee,” he says. “I told her I was happy to but I’d be asking her to help out with the campaign. The Clutterbucks really have been fantastic, as have the Lawsons.”
Russell says that for many farming families, the drought has seen them get to the point where there is no weekly income at all, and whatever money they might have is going on feed for stock. With most of the stock being kept for breeding, and it is looking like there will be poor or non-existent harvests this year and there will be little income coming in either.
“It also has been very tough on contractors as well,” Russell explains. “There has been little work for the past six months, and now they are staring down the barrel of another six months without an income. To put it in context, imagine if you didn’t get paid for a year and the effect that would have.”
Russell’s family are grown up, but live nearby, one of them working as a stock agent. Like any father, Russell can’t help but worry about their future as things get tougher, and he’s not the only parent who is concerned about the way the drought is affecting their children.
L–R: NSW Farmers’ Tamworth branch chairman Kevin Tongue, Barnaby Joyce MP, Radio 88.9 FM’s George Frame, Captain Rhonda Clutterbuck and Tamworth regional councillor Russell Webb. Photo: Peter Hardin courtesy The Northern Daily Leader
“We already see young people having to move away to find work, and the drought is only making things worse,” he says. “Many farms have been in the family for generations, but I know many parents who are worried about what they will be able to pass on to their children. And when young people see their parents working long hours seven days a week and still struggling to make ends meet, farming doesn’t seem a very attractive lifestyle.”
As a local, Russell spends a lot of time in the local community listening to people’s stories so he understands there is a lot of pain out there.
“I’m in a position where I can help people, so I want to do whatever I can, he says. “I’m well known enough in the community that I will get people calling me and keeping me up to date.
“Rural people are very resilient and they love the country lifestyle. But it really is getting to the point where I think a lot of people are sitting around the table and saying that maybe it’s time to say enough is enough. That’s why it is so important to make sure that people know they aren’t alone and what help is available.”
Russell says that the community forums have been a huge success, with people going away with the information they need, and a new sense of hope. It’s also reminded them that others do care about what’s going on, and want to help.
“The generosity of people across the community has been amazing,” Russell says. “It’s an example of the community coming together and making a difference.”
You can find out more about the campaign at www.ruawarewecare.com.au.