When farmers weep

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When farmers weep
Friday 7 July 2000

A few days after she started work as a rural financial counsellor, Sharon Guerra took a call from the Office of Rural Affairs in Horsham. Something bad was going on at a large wheat property just outside the town of Birchip, about 35 kilometres north of her office, in the Mallee town of Donald.

Driving up the gravel driveway of the property, Guerra could see why the person on the other end of the phone had said the situation was serious.

About 80 sheriffs, some from Melbourne, had surrounded the lonely farmhouse. They were ordering a farmer and his family to come out. The police were also about, just in case things got out of hand. And for a while it looked as though they could.

More than 100 farming people were also on the property, howling at the sheriffs and cheering the defiance of their friend and neighbor.

The farmer had run into financial difficulties and his farm had become unviable. The sheriffs were called in to evict him and his family and reclaim the property on behalf of a couple of banks that wanted their money back.

As soon as Guerra got out of her car, a sheriff walked over and asked her to go inside and "talk sense" to the farmer. Even though Guerra's skills were purely in dealing with financial matters, she went into a potentially dangerous situation and instantly became a grief counsellor on top of her normal role.

In the 11 years since that day, the scene of a farmer and his family trudging off their property for the final time is something Guerra has seen time and again. The past decade has not been kind to many on the land and Guerra has seen hundreds of farmers lose it all - their house, land, cars, livestock, sometimes their families, and always their pride.

This week's introduction of the GST will pose another challenge for Victoria's longest-serving rural financial counsellor, but Guerra's heart has not hardened.

"It's not like a business going broke in Melbourne. Here, they not only lose their business, they lose their homes, they lose their place in the community and their history," says Guerra, 52.

The rural financial counselling service was set up in 1986 by the Hawke Government and is funded by federal and state governments and communities. Victoria has 19 rural finance counsellors.

Seeking a change in life, Guerra left Melbourne and a career in stockbroking and corporate affairs to take up the job with the Mallee Rural Counselling Service. The bulk of Guerra's work involves helping farmers or rural business people work out ways to solve or at least manage their financial problems.

Instead, Guerra often finds herself becoming emotionally involved. When the most resilient of men break down and weep in your company it is hard not to. Just being handy with crunching figures doesn't cut it if you are placed in those situations too often.

"You need to be a really good listener," she says.

During those times of despair, Guerra has been privy to the inner-most thoughts and fears of her clients, men not known for their emotional outbursts. They have expressed to her things not even a wife would hear. On several occasions, suicide has been mentioned without a hint of melodrama.

"It's the loss of power that really hurts the men," she says.

"They worry about how their family will see them, how those in the community will view them now that their farm or business has gone down the drain."

Unlike finance or grief counsellors in the city, there is no desk or couch to separate Guerra and her clients. There are no reception staff to act as a barrier. She works in their homes, places that could soon be taken by banks and other creditors.

And once a meeting is over, the client doesn't disappear into distant suburbs; rather, their struggle is the talk of the community, a community in which Guerra also lives.

It is these kind of financial struggles that tear apart country towns. It is often said in country areas that when the farmer has a bad year, the nearby town has a bad year. When enough farmers are forced to leave the land, nearby country towns die. This has been happening all over Victoria, particularly in the Wimmera-Mallee region, the far south-west and parts of Gippsland.

So what has made the past decade so tough for farmers and rural people? Guerra says it is a combination of the usual suspects: drought, low commodity prices, deregulation of industries and the economic rationalist policies of ALP and Coalition governments. Unfortunately for thousands of Australian farming families, Guerra sees more despair and farm closures on the horizon because of the recently introduced GST.

"There's certainly a group of people out there prepared for it, but there is a significant proportion of farmers out there who are unable and unwilling to do that. It's too hard," she says.

"We are going to see a lot of grief, particularly the older, smaller farmer who mightn't have the financial skills required to cope with the GST."

There are strong whispers on the rural grapevine that in the coming months, real estate agents will be inundated with calls from farmers wanting to sell up and move on, unable to cope with the GST and the further deregulation of agricultural industries.

Guerra's views are backed up by Edenhope accountant John Jenkins, who recently told The Age that complying with the GST would cause some of his farming clients "a lot of pain". He says farmers who only receive their income once or twice a year have a strong chance of running into severe cash flow problems.

Victorian Farmers Federation treasurer Geoff Crick concedes that the older farmer will have trouble living with the new tax, but is confident most of the federation's 18,000 members will survive the transition.

He says farmers who are slow and imprecise with bookkeeping will suffer most under the GST and urges VFF members to keep tidy books.

But is it all gloom and doom in the country? No. There are farmers who have come to grips with what is required to survive in the new economy. They are computer-literate, aware of the workings of world financial markets and have prepared long-term contingency plans to survive the onslaught of the GST.

Despite extensive emotional pain during her years as a rural financial counsellor, Guerra believes she has also had her fair share of successes. Her financial nous has helped many farmers save their properties.

Saving a farm is hard work, she says. It can take four or five years of carefully negotiated bank loans, late nights looking over figures and, of course, some decent weather. Even when a farm can't be saved, it does not always end in tears. On several occasions, Guerra has stood by proudly as a farming family she has helped makes a smooth transition from living on the land to living in town.

When a farm does begin to flounder financially, an enormous strain is placed on a marriage, Guerra says. It is the farming men who find it almost impossible to recognise their farm is in strife. They simply don't want to.

"It is nearly always women who approach me or other rural finance councillors for help," she says.

"This can be partly explained to an extent by the fact that on many farms women do the bookwork. But even when confronted by their wives with the cold, hard figures that point to failure, most farming men will attempt, at least for a while, to deny reality.

"The farming man will think, `If I just work harder the problem will go away', and that makes things even worse."

A senior lecturer at Melbourne University's department of rural health, Dr Katrina Alford, attributes this kind of behavior to a culture of "rural stoicism" among country men. She used the phrase while writing a report on the health of country Victorians earlier this year.

Examples of male rural stoicism are not hard to find in country areas. They can be found at football clubs, where men play hard and drink harder, or on farms, where to show emotion, sleep in or admit an illness can be perceived as weakness.

Alford believes this culture of rural stoicism is hurting country men and those who love them. Her research has shown rural men are less inclined than their city counterparts to visit doctors regularly, seek treatment for wounds and act on early warning signs for conditions such as heart disease or prostate cancer.

"Rural men are also at greater risk of dying from an accident or suicide than urban men," Alford says.

The culture of rural stoicism not only applies to health and financial matters, but to the relationships between country men and women. For years, even though the balance books may have indicated the farm needed some extra income to keep afloat, farming men discouraged their wives from finding employment off the farm.

To have a wife working in town was something a farmer felt ashamed of. It made a man believe he could no longer adequately provide for his family. Today, the off-farm income generated by women keeps farms alive and is begrudgingly accepted by many male farmers.

"Patriarchy is alive and well in the bush," says Alford, who lives in Shepparton.

"Even though women have been engaging in economic activities in the bush since time immemorial, men still feel affronted if they are seen as not succeeding by providing a bed and putting food on the table."

After 11 years in what is a hectic and stressful line of work, Guerra shows no signs of retiring. The GST is coming and farming people need her help. She can't and won't leave now.

Her only concession to her workload is to limit herself to about 1500 kilometres of driving each week, down 1000 kilometres from her old weekly average. Even so, the day often begins in the car at dawn and ends after dusk, with the wheat crops shimmering in the twilight as she heads back to her Donald home.

Guerra sometimes asks herself why she keeps going, but the answer is always the same. The people.

"There's no doubt that for the most part it is very stressful work but the people you meet make it so rewarding. Country people are wonderful and resilient people."


This is a long post. The reality is even longer. I know a journalist who spends every spare moment as an unpaid councillor to rural OZ. The story is very long and a bitter harvest is the more so when these people are known to you personally. Meanwhile the government seems incapable of grasping the shift in the powerbase. There's another harvest soon - that of hopelessly inept politicians.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), July 06, 2000


Pieter, some cannot connect the dots. Thank you, for continuing.

-- Dots (orus@here.com), July 06, 2000.

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