Real Life

Meet our drought heroes

Australians have a history of pulling together in adversity, and in times of drought, we see that in spades. Jenny Brown meets some inspiring Australians who are digging deep to help our struggling farmers.

By Jenny Brown

An angel at the gate

Picture an 82-year-old farmer so desperate for water he climbs 30 metres down his dry well, braving deadly brown snakes to find the last precious, brackish drops at the bottom. That's how bad things are in the bush, according to Drought Angels founder Natasha "Tash" Johnston, who heard about the old man and his sick wife on their cattle and sheep property in NSW's scorched Hunter Valley from a volunteer.

"They were battling to get by but they didn't want to ask for help," says the tireless 44-year-old, who runs the unique rural charity out of Chinchilla, Queensland, with best friend Jenny Gailey, 49. "That's typical of people in the country. They're proud, so they're embarrassed to be in need. Very few contact us directly. It's usually family or friends who get in touch."

Drought Angels, founded by Nicki and Tash, helps with feed, cash, vouchers and referrals as well as 24-hour Rural Days Off respite and community events.  Image: Edwina Robertson
Drought Angels, founded by Nicki and Tash, helps with feed, cash, vouchers and referrals as well as 24-hour Rural Days Off respite and community events. Image: Edwina Robertson

Despite farmers' traditional reluctance to reach out for assistance, demand is now unprecedented, with 100 per cent of NSW, and some 57 per cent of Queensland, declared to be in drought. In just three weeks, the Angels logged over 16,000 emails – more than one a minute during working hours – plus thousands of calls.

Since Tash established the charity back in 2014 with her mate, Nicki Blackwell, it has gained a reputation for discreet, heartfelt relief tailored to individual need. Drought Angels can lend a hand with stock feed, pre-paid Visa cards worth $1500, local produce vouchers, referrals to other support networks, or simply by providing a sympathetic ear. Rural Days Off, where volunteers move in to give farmers 24 hours of leisure, and support Drought Drinks, encouraging communities to come together for some fun, are two other popular initiatives.

"When we started out with enough to help one family, we thought we'd be going for three to six months, the drought would break and that would be it. Obviously, that never happened," says Tash, revealing how her parents almost lost their property outside Toowoomba in the big dry of the early 1990s.

"Their crops failed and the banks came knocking," she recalls. "I can remember my mum breaking down in the kitchen, saying she wanted to kill herself. It was horrible and resonates with me forever. I guess that's why Drought Angels has become my passion."

To donate to Drought Angels, go to droughtangels.org.au.

Boots and all

The drought hit home for Chezzi Denyer as she watched the landscape dry from lush green to a dusty bone grey-brown. "It's depressing. It feels dead. It looks dead. It's horrible," the Mummy Time TV founder wrote on Instagram on July 23, posting a photograph of the parched paddocks that rapidly went viral.

Even the kangaroos were starving outside Bathurst in Central Western NSW where Chezzi shares a homestead with her television-star husband, Grant, 40, and their two daughters. The couple, both born into farming families, became celebrity ambassadors for Rural Aid last year but were moved to do even more after a trip to NSW's drought-stricken Upper Hunter in February.

"That was how we spent our eighth wedding anniversary," says Chezzi, 38, who organised a Black Tie and Boots Ball in Bathurst that raised more than $150,00 to provide a Rural Aid counsellor in their region. "The problem is so big and so scary, it's horrendous."

Horrified by the mounting drought crisis, in two weeks, Chezzi made 46 trips to farmers – with Scout, three, and Sailor, seven, in tow – dropping off care hampers, stock feed and groceries.

"I felt overwhelmed. We saw sad sights that will stay with me forever," she says. "A lot of farmers have contemplated suicide because of the drought, which isn't easy to talk about. Rural counsellors are vital. People are ground down by the struggle to survive, getting up every day to hand-feed stock, trying to keep animals alive. And they have to raise kids, put meals on the table. A lot of farmers can't pay their bills and are living without electricity, never mind the internet. That means some have no idea what help is on offer, which is why it's so important to visit them in person."

Chezzi was a girl when her parents left the land, forced off their farm in Duramana, NSW, by six years of drought. "There was so much death and destruction then, and it's happening again," explains the passionate rural advocate, who is busy planning at least two more Black Tie and Boots fundraising bashes.

"It's great Aussies are backing Aussies, helping through charities like Rural Aid, but there needs to be more government support."

To donate to Rural Aid or to Buy A Bale, visit ruralaid.org.au.

From little things

Sometimes proud parents Prue and Mick Berne shake their heads in disbelief and wonder exactly how their lively 10-year-old raised $655,000 for drought-stricken farmers.

"Every now and then, I'm a little bit in awe," Prue says of her freckle-faced son, who hatched the idea of A Fiver for a Farmer after learning about the country crisis at school on Sydney's northern beaches. "He came home all fired up and told me, 'Mum, we have to do more!' He's always been a doer and has a little bit of a spark that people are drawn to."

Sports-loving Jack aimed to raise $20,000 for rural relief by getting friends at Freshwater's St John the Baptist Primary School to dress up as farmers on August 13, and pay $5 for the privilege. His friends and his little sister, Ruby, who is seven, were keen to take part. But the simple scheme spread like wildfire once Prue sent her son's emotional fundraising email to a few newspapers and television programs.

Closing with the words, "If we don't do something, who will? It's all of our futures," Jack's letter struck a chord. The following morning an astonished Prue was fielding calls of support from all around Australia, as Edwina Bartholomew lined up an interview with Jack on Sunrise. Reaching his target within 48 hours, the Year Four powerhouse increased his goal to $50,000, to be divided between Rural Aid and Drought Angels, but that too was soon surpassed.

"It just skyrocketed," says Prue, regularly moved to tears by the "thank you" letters they receive. "We pulled together a website and a GoFundMe page that first night, but we were overwhelmed at the beginning. I think it touched people because he's so young." More than 510 schools, 304 pre-schools and 340 workplaces, including Bauer Media (publisher of The Weekly), signed up to participate in Fiver for a Farmer. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called Jack, even mentioning his efforts in Parliament.

"Mum told me I could use my small but mighty voice, so I did," he grins. "We sent emails to anyone who might listen, and next day it all went crazy." What's next for the young crusader? "I'm going to find another natural disaster I can help!"

To donate to A Fiver for a Farmer, visit afiverforafarmer.com.au.

A helping hand

Climbing wearily into his well-travelled four-wheel drive, Brian Egan heads off along the road from Charleville in outback Queensland on another farm mercy mission. It's four months since the rangy 75-year-old last enjoyed any time at home. This time the Aussie Helpers founder has returned only to secure another $1 million in drought relief, on top of the $1 million-plus his charity has already donated over the past six months.

Currently, Aussie Helpers is sending four hay-laden semi-trailers from Queensland to bone-dry NSW every day, at a cost of $140,000, plus two tankers of water per week. Phones and emails at the farm aid organisation are running hot with hundreds upon hundreds of requests for practical help and counselling services.

"It's nothing short of catastrophic, that's how bad this drought is. Mentally, people are very fragile," says Brian, who regularly spends at least six months on the road in the dusty Landcruiser that doubles as his office and home away from home. "I used to be six foot six (1.98m), now I'm about three foot three (0.99m)!"

Clocking up more than 500,000 kilometres annually, visiting proud, self-sufficient country families in need, the one-time Senior Australian of the Year nominee has seen parched earth, fire, disease and flood. This drought, however, is worse than anything he's experienced in the 16 years since he and wife Nerida, 72, started Aussie Helpers with just $20 in the bank.

"She told me I was crazy, and I probably was," laughs father-of-four, Brian. "From there it just grew. People loved the idea of helping farmers through tough times and kept giving us money. We've never had to organise a fundraiser yet."

The Vietnam veteran lost his own farm and struggled with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression and suicidal thoughts before being admitted to psychiatric care for 12 months in the late 1990s. Today, the former RAN serviceman reckons he was saved by a psychologist who told him, "You should find someone to help who's worse off than yourself." Aussie Helpers was the result. Run with military precision, the charity now has up to 40 volunteers, many of them also ex-military personnel.

In spite of all his hard work, Brian fears that rural life as we know it may never fully recover from this latest natural disaster. "I know of at least 15 suicides in country NSW over the past six months," he says sombrely. "I predict that we'll lose between 20 and 25 per cent of 'mum and dad' farmers in NSW as a result of this drought. People will just walk off the land because they can't afford to go on."

To donate to Aussie Helpers, visit aussiehelpers.org.au.

All dressed up

It started with a brainwave during a late-night, long-distance chat between sisters Anita Guyett and Tashoni Hardy. Touched by news many country schools were calling off their formals because drought-stricken farmers could not afford gowns and suits for their teenagers, the siblings decided to help."As a parent, that would crush your heart and spirit absolutely," says Anita, 32, a Melbourne-based mother-of-three who works in mental health. "So we thought, this is something we can help with. Why don't we get our friends to donate their old formal clothes for a good cause?"

Dresses for the Drought rapidly blossomed from a bright idea into a Facebook page. Having grown up on a cattle property outside Mackay in Queensland, the sisters knew just how important school formals can be to rural students living on scattered and isolated farms.

Anita and Tashoni originally hoped to gather 20 to 40 dresses but within a few days received thousands of "likes" followed by 5000 gowns and suits from all around Australia. It seems most of us have long-neglected formal clothes hanging at the back of our wardrobes.

"We've reached capacity and have been forced to close off donations for the moment," says flight attendant Tashoni, 29, a Brisbane-based mother-of-two. "The great thing is that most formal dresses are worn only once or twice, so they're in good condition, plus they don't really go out of style. People have dropped off gowns that still have tags attached to them and even the ones without tags are in beautiful condition."

The kind-hearted sisters have now started a GoFundMe page to help with distribution costs. They also hope to provide shopping vouchers so students can buy shoes, accessories and hair and make-up services in their area, thus helping local businesses also affected by the drought.

"I'm known for my crazy ideas, but this was one of the good ones," laughs Tashoni. "It's not just about having a formal dress or suit, it's about the celebration, the reward for kids who have worked so hard in tough times, and the memories that last a lifetime.

To contact Dresses for the Drought for help or support, go to facebook.com/dressesforthedrought.

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