Farm extension staff change tack to reach more farmers during drought

Farmers aren’t the only people to change the way they are working during this drought.

Staff from West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority (WGCMA) and Agriculture Victoria who work alongside farmers have also reviewed what they are doing and changing their practice to meet the changing environment.

“We started to look at what we were doing at the end of last summer which was also pretty dry and realised that we needed to adapt,” said WGCMA Land Program Coordinator, Anthony Goode.

“Our Irrigator Reference Group was a great resource for us during this time. They both gave us ideas and confirmed some of the things that we were already thinking.

“One of the first things we did was host two Irrigator Drought Forums with our partner organisations as the season was getting underway. This allowed us to get direct face to face contact with around 90 farmers from the Macalister Irrigation District (MID).

“This was a useful foundation for us to share information on predicted conditions and highlight what sort of services we had available to help out,” said Anthony.

There are however more than 400 farms within the MID which meant the CMA staff working alongside colleagues from AgVic had a large pool of farmers who they still needed to contact and offer advice to if needed.

A solution was found in the two decades worth of work the team and its predecessors had carried out.

“After that we basically went through 20-years’ worth of data we had from farmers who had completed a ‘whole farm plan’ and started cold calling them,” said Anthony.

A ‘whole farm plan (WFP)’ is a process of assessment of a farm’s capability to review efficiencies based on farm layout, soils, water availability and several other components.

“Initially, the call was just to ‘check -in’ and ask a few questions about how things were going and whether the farming business was looking at making any changes that might require another look at those plans?”

“The response has been pretty amazing I guess,” said Anthony.

“There are now many more whole farm plans being reviewed but more striking has been the farmers who have very openly discussed just how difficult they are finding things and, in some cases, getting pretty emotional about the current drought. We’ve definitely tapped into the issue of mental health that a number of people are dealing with right now,” added Anthony.

The team has also noted that preconceptions about what a ‘struggling farmer’ might look like have frequently been blown away by real world experience.

“My colleagues have certainly had conversations with farmers who from the outside might appear to be on top of things: well-connected socially, support from family, a seemingly thriving farm, only to find once we sit down and start chatting that the farmer is under incredible stress and struggling with the conditions. It certainly reinforces the message that no-one is immune from issues of mental health,” said Anthony.

Extension staff make sure that farmers they meet who require extra support are made aware of services that are available to them locally in the form of a GP or counsellor.

“We also make sure that we touch base with them again quite quickly and do our best to make sure that they can continue to discuss their current situation in an environment that is safe and respectful.”

Despite the issues around mental health Anthony is keen to acknowledge that the farming community in the MID is doing a remarkable job in dealing with the current drought.

“Farmers have learnt a lot about managing their water budgets in dry times and this is something that helps the entire district and something the irrigation community should be very proud of,” he said.

“Times are tough. But the farming community, with the help of extension staff or off farm consultants or simply through existing social and professional networks, is showing great creativity and resilience to get through this current drought,” concluded Anthony.

Farmers interested in finding out more about the various initiatives to help improve irrigation or on farm practice should contact the WGCMA Land Team on 1300 094 262 or AgVic Irrigation Team on 5147 0800.

Services in the Gippsland community that can be accessed for people concerned about their mental health include Lifeline 13 11 14, Latrobe Community Health Services 1800 242 696, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or your local GP.

Published Thursday December 12th 2019