Claire Mactaggart 2017-12-22 14:15:11
DRY RUN A drought in Australia is more than parched earth and dwindling rivers: it exacts a heavy human toll on farmers. But Lions are bringing relief-just one way among many Australian clubs relieve life’s ills in the Outback and in cities and towns. EVERY DAY cattleman Michael Knuth sets off down to the paddock with a load of hay or lick to feed his Brahman cows. It’s hard to watch their health decline through the ongoing drought-he’s raised them since they were calves. Knuth and his wife, Jodie, say their 65,000-acre property should run at around 6,000 cattle, but since they bought the farm three years ago, a series of dry seasons has forced them to sell off about half their herd. Only 3,000 head remain here at Victoria Downs, near Charters Towers in northern Queensland. The Knuths are far from alone in their struggle. Last year, a devastating new record was set: 80 per cent of Queensland was officially recognized as being in drought. “The past few years have been tough,” Michael Knuth explains. The average rainfall is about 24 inches, but for the past three years, it’s been between 6 and 10 inches. “During a drought you don’t go anywhere. You’re constantly feeding; basically you work for the cattle, and whatever they need you provide,” he says. “Hopefully it pays off later on.” And while times are undoubtedly tough right now, if there’s any silver lining for drought-devastated families like the Knuths, it must be the way small communities-and even strangers-can pull together to make a difference. “It’s good when somebody recognizes what you are up against,” Knuth says. ‘WE JUST HAD TO HELP’ Townsville is a 90-minute drive from Charters Towers, but it may as well be on another planet. With a population 20 times larger, Townsville looks like a big country town by comparison. But its residents haven’t forgotten the struggles of their farming neighbors or their own reliance on the state’s agriculture. For Brian McAtee, the 2016-17 president of the Townsville-Castle Hill Lions Club, helping drought-affected farmers is a cause close to his heart. McAtee spent his childhood on a cattle property in central Queensland and still has family raising cattle there, so he knows firsthand how demanding and unpredictable farming life can be. Three years ago, worried that not enough was being done for Queensland farmers, McAtee proposed to his club that Lions pledge $1 million (US$790,000) to help those affected by drought. “It was a helluva drought,” he says. “The politicians didn’t want anything to do with the farmers. Nobody understood the severity of it. We just had to help.” He spent weeks talking to cattlemen, local politicians, agents and suppliers to see how they could assist. And a funny thing happened: the more he asked around, the more he heard about another Brian and his charity, Aussie Helpers. “The politicians didn’t want anything to do with the farmers. Nobody understood the severity of it. We just had to help.” A former farmer himself, Brian Egan and his wife, Nerida, founded Aussie Helpers in 2002, starting with just $20. Since then, with the aid of about 40 volunteers, they have distributed a staggering $12 million (US$9.5 million) in assistance to farmers right across Australia. Last year alone, Egan and his volunteers visited more than 1,000 properties in Queensland and nearby. “The only way we can find out what these people need is to drive to their property, sit down and have a cuppa,” he says. “It’s not so much what you give; it’s more that someone cares. It humanizes the drought.” After McAtee learned about Egan’s work, he had a light-bulb moment. “We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. People were so grateful for the work that Aussie Helpers was doing that I realized the best thing we could do was to assist them.” And so the Lions Drought Relief Project was born. In partnership with Aussie Helpers, the project has supported a dozen Hay Days in country towns affected by drought. For farmers struggling financially, buying expensive hay stretches them even further. But to keep breeding cows alive, you need hay: it’s a Catch 22. “Hay Days are about giving out feed, but they’ve become so much more than that,” McAtee says. “I wanted to get the farmers and their families off the land for a day, to stop looking at that same brown patch outside.” The first Hay Day was a simple affair, a chance to have a cup of coffee or a sausage sandwich and chat with locals. Now, vouchers for fuel, local pharmacies and supermarkets are handed out. Graziers and their families can line up for free haircuts and massages. Baskets of fresh produce are donated. “On Hay Days, you don’t hear anyone talk about the drought,” says McAtee. To date, the project has donated more than $800,000 (US$631,000) to Aussie Helpers, with Lions clubs all over Australia pitching in to raise funds for the effort. Egan couldn’t be happier. “It’s grown beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be able to help our farmers.” Despite these successes, there’s still so much work to be done. Since Boxing Day 2015, the Knuths have received 4 inches of rain at Victoria Downs. While the drought has by no means broken, there is short green grass on the river flats and timbered ridges. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s rained, the drought has broken,’ and it’s not even close-all those consecutive years have a flow-on effect,” says Knuth. “But this is life in the bush; you have to grin and bear it, and change what you can.” A VALIANT FAMILY “I’ve always loved the bush. I grew up on Cameron Station on the Burdekin River,” says Michael Knuth. “I’ve been through a couple of droughts, and they’re all tough. Each one is different. Some are grass droughts; some are water droughts. But this one has been both. “There’s no room for error. It’s seven days a week, and it dictates what you do. It’s a drain to go months and months without a break, but you have to keep going and take care of the property. It’s all you have. “I’m not always strong. Some days you feel rickety and wound-up. You can see what’s going wrong, but you feel powerless to do anything. It wears you down. You hear about people committing suicide, and you can see how they get to that point. It’s mentally exhausting; you’re always wondering, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ “One day I came home from feeding the cattle to find a card from Aussie Helpers tucked in the screen door. They came back a week later and had a cuppa with us. Brian gave us cattle feed and some groceries. Every bit does help, that’s for sure. “Sometimes you feel like you’re butting your head against a brick wall, and you just can’t break through. But I love the bush and I love going out to work every day. There’s nothing like seeing a good line of cattle. That’s something you’ve built yourself, from scratch.” Jodie Knuth says, “The past two years have been really hard. Not long ago I found two cows bogged in a dam. I pulled one out, but I couldn’t get her to stand up. That was it. I just sat down and cried. It didn’t solve anything, but every so often it’s okay to cry. “I was in town the day Aussie Helpers called round. They came back the following week to visit us. The first year they gave us hay. The next were hampers from local businesses, and this time around there was food, clothes, toys, videos and cattle supplement. It really touched us that people cared so much. Their ad says it best: ‘Without Aussie farmers there’s no Aussie food.’ Sometimes we feel forgotten, so it’s good to see that people do still care and will do what they can to try and help. At the end of the day it’s not going to save us-only rain can do that. But it’s something.” Watch a funny Australian Lions’ promotional video.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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