Farm manager Darren Price was in a management meeting in Sydney, trying to ignore someone’s persistent efforts to reach him on his mobile phone. He should have answered it.
A couple of hours later, after a scramble to get on a flight to Canberra, a frantic car trip and a frustrating wait at a police road block, he arrived at his home on Carwoola Station, south east of Bungendore. He didn’t expect his house to be standing.
“It was just amazing. It was incredible what they managed to do,” he said of the efforts of two staff members and a random collection of friends and neighbours who turned up in his absence to fight the frightening grass fire that had ripped through the Carwoola district on that hot Friday afternoon in February. In a district of predominantly small rural lifestyle blocks, about 20 homes were destroyed or damaged, along with 150 kilometres of fencing.
To Darren’s amazement, all but one of Carwoola’s eight houses and many outbuildings were spared, although the flames had licked the walls of some and had entered the gardens of all the houses.
While the relatively moderate material losses surprised and relieved him, deep feelings of emotion, humility and gratitude alerted him to the potential for more significant intangible loss and damage – that to the psychological and personal wellbeing of his staff, family and himself.
“We lost one old house that was used to store furniture belonging to my wife and me,” he said.
“There was a lot of valued family stuff and it is still a real personal loss but it was the lowest priority building in our fire plan. It could have been much worse, but still, there are strong feelings of loss.”
He puts the saving of the homes, including the 1850s-built Carwoola Homestead, and all their “precious personal items” down to the “incredible” efforts of his overseer Andrew Sullivan and jackeroo, 17-year-old Bailey Burke, and the volunteers.
“Those mates just dropped tools and turned up. Without them, I don’t want to think what could have happened,” he said.
Just as miraculously, there were no stock losses among the 3500 sheep and 800 cows and calves that run on “Carwoola” and nearby “Taliesin”, despite an average of about 60 per cent of the combined 3135 hectares being decimated.
Darren cited luck, as much as management, for the sparing of livestock.
“We have a strong fire plan and keep the paddocks around the houses as short as we can so the men were able to move some stock onto these, but everything moved so quickly, most had to fend for themselves.
“We had by chance opened a gate to a fresh paddock a week before and that allowed 400 cows and calves to move to a safer area. On “Taliesin”, which is near where the fire started, we expected to see maybe 100 cows and calves destroyed or damaged, but somehow they found their way into some green gullies and low lying areas and escaped unscathed,” he said.
“It was just incredible really.”
Deeply grateful for their efforts, the company has expressed its appreciation in a number of ways but still Darren felt a nagging unease that there remained a risk to the business’s most valuable resource – its people. In his previous experiences of fires and natural disasters, he had witnessed the misunderstanding and neglect of the personal impact of such events.
“From a WHS perspective and from my own experiences and feelings after past fires, I was concerned about how the fire could play out personally and emotionally for the staff, myself and family,” he said.
“I didn’t have major concerns but from comments from staff and family members, I could see there were things going on underneath. Our workers are important people in our business, but this is also a very personal thing. Fires are very frightening and deeply personal when your family, your belongings and your safety are threatened.”
“As a manager, I had to maintain my reserve and composure. But underneath, I know I am a sensitive and fairly emotional person. It was a very humbling experience to have people drop everything and turn up to help protect my property and belongings. So it makes sense that it is just as big a deal for others,” he said.
Aware of the need to do something, but not sure where to start, Darren contacted the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) Rural Resilience Program (RRP) which exists to support farmers’ personal, business and community wellbeing, particularly in times of adversity.
NSW DPI Rural Resilience Officer at Goulburn, Ted O’Kane, linked with the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP), regional coordinator, Jennie Keioskie, and offered an informal debrief for Darren, his staff and family.
Over a drink and nibbles a few weeks after the fire, Darren, his staff and their families had a welcome moment of reflection and discussed issues and feelings that for the most part had been kept hidden under the veneer of stoic indifference and shoulder-shrugging humility.
Darren said Jennie’s ability to put people at ease and explain their feelings in the context of “normal” reactions to a disaster was invaluable for everyone. Defining these strong feelings and emotions as both normal and predictable in the context of an extraordinary event had allowed people to process and release what could become damaging preoccupations if left bottled up.
“It also opened up a line of communication at a deeper level between me and my staff that was not there before. It was an opportunity to bear our souls together,” he said.
While “feeling pretty good about it now”, Darren is aware of the need for ongoing vigilance for signs of on-going trauma. He cited Jennie’s advice that while flashbacks and preoccupation with the fire were normal responses, if these persisted for more than around three weeks or other symptoms - such as disrupted sleep or excessive alcohol use – developed, then professional medical help should be sought.
Caring for the people
The defining culture of stoicism and independence in agriculture may have underpinned 200-plus years of survival and successful development, but it may not be serving farmers and their families so well in modern times.
That is the personal and professional view of Darren Price, whose lifelong commitment to agriculture and his experiences as a station manager and a member of the Tocal Agricultural College Advisory Council, have led him to a strong – and still relatively rare – appreciation of the importance of the human aspects of successful farm business.
While all the physical, financial and management components of a farm business are fundamental, he believes that farm businesses work best when the personal capabilities, attitudes and wellbeing of the people are nurtured and safe-guarded.
This is reinforced daily in his role as general manager of Carwoola Pastoral Co, owner of Carwoola Station and “Taliesin”, near Bungendore, where he and two full-time staff members manage an 800-head cow herd and 3500 first cross ewes.
The February fire that destroyed 60pc of pasture, many kilometres of fencing and some infrastructure reinforced his belief in the value of a stronger focus on the personal resilience of farmers and their workers, and how to protect it.
Worryingly, he sees the reluctance of farmers to engage with and talk about their personal challenges as being exacerbated by the disintegration of many rural communities as time constraints, financial stresses and withdrawal of labour from farms reduces social interaction.
“The importance of community for farming is massive, but I don’t see it being addressed in our industry. That worries me from a personal and an industry point of view,” he said.
“Farming is a pretty isolated industry where farmers often work all day on their own,” he said.
“If they have a personal issue to deal with, that’s not the best environment to work through it.
“In the past, a farmer may have gone off and had a cry under a tree and moved on, but I’m not sure that is the best of dealing with these things.”
Darren cited instances in his own district where town was only 25km away, yet he saw people becoming “hermit” like in their isolation, failing to engage in sport, hobbies or community service.
“Part of my job as a manager, is to make sure people don’t fall into that sort of isolation.”
The need to talk
THE devastating effects of bushfires or other natural disasters can take its toll on people’s wellbeing.
The Land and the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP) have partnered to get more people talking about mental health
Join us on Friday, April 7, from noon, for a special Friday Forum to talk about resilience and ways to cope after adversity or natural disasters. Go to www.theland.com.au on the day and follow the links.
Our panel members will be ready to answer your questions about a number of important issues, including the signs someone isn’t coping; where to get help; when to get help, and how to talk about it.
- Visit www.theland.com.au on April 7 at noon.
- Contact Lifeline on 131 114.