Despite the ongoing drought and my connection to the land and agriculture whilst many others have used the net to shine a light on this issue, I have remained somewhat silent, until now. It is not because I don’t care or don’t understand. In fact, I care too much and believe for someone of my age I understand it all too well. I care too much to throw my hat into the ring on a significant issue that is already flooding mainstream and social media without having something really worthwhile to say.
I grew up on a family property, “Fernleigh” at Come-by-Chance in north west NSW and attended a local primary school in Walgett before heading to boarding school in Sydney. My parents sent my siblings and I to school in Sydney as they wanted to provide us with what they felt, was the best education possible, whilst also facilitating a once in a lifetime experience, with people that would become friends for life. They were certain that these rural kids of theirs would not otherwise experience all the opportunities the big smoke had to offer and that they would make a life in the bush once school was done.
My earliest memories of drought were whilst I was away at school. The early 2000s were tough for those in the community that I called home. I have very vivid memories of desolate paddocks and feeding sheep with Dad when I was home from school; even the day of my Nin’s funeral in June 2002. Unlike some of my friends who would return from leave weekends with bags of new designer clothing I never liked to ask for money above my weekly allowance.
When I finished school, I returned home. Mum and Dad were right, although very grateful for the opportunity, my time in Sydney was done. I took a job at Elders in Walgett as a ‘gap year’ which confirmed my commitment to and interest in agriculture. Sales were slow that year, it was 2007 and it was dry again; the agronomist spent more time in the office than out. There was more sheep cleaning up weeds in paddocks, than chemical. Although, I was sad to leave home (again) particularly the vibrant social scene and how would the Walgett Rams (rugby team) possibly cope without such an avid supporter, off to the University of England I went to study a Bachelor of Agribusiness majoring in Rural Science.
During university holidays as with school holidays I would gladly return home and help on the family property. I would break in and train horses, muster livestock, work in the shearing shed and during harvest would drive a chaser bin or work at the local silos. My commitment to agriculture was strong and that’s where I wanted to be. So strong is my commitment that I’ve co-authored a kids book with my Mum. The aim of ‘Yum Yum…Where Does It Come From?’ is to educate children on where their food and fibre comes from and the significance of farmers. I want to be a ‘doer’ in ag, I want to contribute and make a difference. Too often I see people ‘talking the talk’ at events and on social media about what we could or should do particularly when it comes to educating kids about agriculture but do nothing to ‘walk the walk’.
Following university, I worked for NSW Farmers and more recently worked in agri banking. After two years in the bank, I moved into management in March 2016; the north west was particularly dry and one of my clients commented that I must have been mad to step into a role at such a time. But drought was not foreign to me and it was continuing to bite at home; my parents hadn’t had a crop since 2012.
After four and half years in banking I made the decision that it was time for a change albeit I wasn’t sure what it was. I took the ‘unthinkable plunge’ from security to trusting that there was something better out there for me and deciding I would go and pursuit it. However, eight months later, I am still trying to find it.
My partner, Ryan and I live at Boggabri, on a rural property where he has worked for the last two years. He grew up on a property at Dorrigo and also has a long involvement with agriculture. I love living at Boggabri. Despite living in various locations across the central north over the last five years, this is the first place that’s felt like home. The best place I’ve lived, aside from home at Come-by-Chance (it will always have the number one spot). I love the community in town and the community that I feel part of on the property where Ryan works, a large operation which employs a number of blokes who have become our mates. Who continually drop my Jack Russell, Maggie home when she regularly goes to visit them at the shed. I love the landscape and outlook, the wide open spaces, even though there’s a few hills to disrupt the perfect view. For a girl who grew up on the flat country of Western NSW I have even come to love those beautiful hills. I love waking up every morning with the most wonderful view out our bedroom window of a farming paddock, whether sown or not, sunny or frosty and foggy but especially when it’s raining. I love the amazing sunsets, no two ever the same but always magic. As I look west, it’s impossible not to ponder home at “Fernleigh” and it makes me smile.
Despite all of these wonderful aspects, it became apparent to us that we needed to make some tough decisions; there were a lack of apparent career opportunities for me and given the ongoing drought Ryan’s hours of work were impacted, which as a casual employee has a flow on impact to his income. There was a relatively small harvest here last year, albeit better than most. Mum and Dad had a crop in 2016 but have not had one since. One crop from 2012 to now. When mainstream media started to heavily flood our papers and television screens with images and coverage of drought in July 2017 it was already a widespread issue across much of NSW and Queensland. What was not covered however is that whilst areas like Boggabri had been struggling for six to twelve months, areas like Come-by-Chance had been struggling for five years, albeit with a short-lived reprieve in the spring of 2016.
Ryan and I made the decision that what we were currently doing was not going to get us to where we want to go and so it was time for us to move on. This is a hard decision to make and there has been many tears shed as a result (just me, not him).
Only a couple of months ago I sat in a job interview in Tamworth and said that I was career driven and that one of the things that drew me to the job was the ability to progress my career whilst remaining in a rural area and I meant it. But after being unsuccessful, it was obviously not to be and so this bush girl who was never going to return to the big smoke, is doing just that.
I feel like a statistic…one that they talk about in the media. People that leave rural areas when things get dry and tough. Whilst I’m disappointed for myself, I’m sad for the community I live in also. There will be two less people at tennis on a Tuesday night. There will be two less people who support the local butcher, IGA, newsagency and chemist. There will be two less people buying smoko and lunch from the local bakery at dawn on the way to work, when the snooze button was pressed too many times. There will be two less people at buffet Chinese at the RSL once a month (or maybe twice) and there will be two less people supporting the local pub. The pub where the publicans have become our mates, who we create syndicates with and put quaddies on the race horses on a Saturday while we have a few (sometimes too many) beers, where we would average a meal at least once a week. There will be two less people at the local Campdraft supporting the canteen which is run by parents of the local school to directly profit the kids that attend by keeping an extra teacher in the community. There will be two less people on the race committee leaving an already dwindling number of volunteers to carry the extra load during a time when everyone already has more than enough on their plate.
It seems ironic that a girl from the bush who is fully committed to agriculture and regional communities, who has experience from within the farm gate right through to corporate agriculture managing millions of dollars, whose found a bloke with the same commitment, and whose love for her horses, dog and garden is as strong as that for ‘said bloke’, would have to give it all up and relocate to the states capital city to find a meaningful and purposeful career. This is what drought does to people, does to communities, and absolutely no amount of government policy or financial assistance will change it. We just need (inches and inches of) rain.
Emily Colless – June 2019
Ryan relocated to Sydney in June and I followed in July. I commenced a new role earlier this month. Despite my best efforts to remain in agriculture, I am working in a different sector however am grateful for the opportunity and am enjoying the change.