Andrew Stevens’s family is a little larger than most. There’s his wife Ginny, one year-old twins Henry and Issy and the 10 thousand sheep he cares for in rural Mangoplah (about a half hour drive from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales).
The farm has been tendered by the Stevens family’s hands for decades, agriculture isn’t just in Andrew’s blood, it’s planted in his mind - “My father was here for 40 plus years and there were a lot of tough times here, like when wool went bust in the early 90s, but he managed to ride them out,” remembers Andrew.
For this farmer resilience isn’t a birthright, it’s something that he’s learned. An understanding of history helps keep perspective in the difficult passages, “You go through some tough times with dry weather but that’s farming in Australia. You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines, we’ve had some good years as well thrown in there – so it has its ups and downs as everything does.”
Right now is one of the downs. Almost all of New South Wales is categorised as being in severe drought including Andrew and his neighbours, “We are going through a tough year. This year has been well below average rainfall there just isn’t enough feed in the ground,” says the 34-year old.
To combat the challenges that are presented by a drought he says, “You’ve got to make decisions early,” and be prepared that not every choice is going to be a winner.
In those frustrating moments when a plan crumbles, reacting positively is important says the former jackaroo, who just weeks ago was cruelled by a frost, “Everything turned in a couple of days and I realised we had no feed and I had to shoot from the hip a bit.”
Being flexible might be valuable in the tough times, but so is having a back-up revenue stream. For Andrew that was the creation of Agtribe, a website to hire equipment from nearby farmers. Aware of the impact the sharing-community was having in the city, it was an opportunity to share expensive machines that were sitting in sheds with those that needed them now.
Andrew believes building out a support network is also vitally important when confronted with a challenge, “I haven’t had too many emotional conversations with my neighbours but I am aware they can happen and you have to keep an eye out for people definitely.”
Isolated rural life can make connections harder to forge and so the work of Active Farmers is removing some of the barriers caused by distance, “Ginny’s since expanded it to I think 30 local communities along the east coast of Australia,” says Andrew of the program that his wife launched in an effort to build stronger and more resilient communities, “I go down twice a week, it keeps you honest. It’s bloody good, she’s done a fantastic job and it’s a great program that every town should have.”
The Active Farmers concept targets physical and mental health, getting members of isolated communities to sweat together, “It keeps you active, you can go and sit on a tractor all day because farming now is not as physical as it used to be, unless you are in a sheep yard drenching – that’s pretty physical.”
As well as the physical benefits of being more active, there’s undoubtedly an emotional outlet in the group gathering too, and in the grip of drought Andrew takes comfort knowing he’s not alone in the struggle, “The other side of Active Farmers is it brings the community together and gets people talking, it helps us all keep an eye on each other.”
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