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FARMING FAMILIES RALLY FOR MENTAL HEALTH

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Mark Laity, Wiseleigh dairy farmer

The generosity and kindness of ordinary Australians is unbelievable! 

Dairy farmer Mark Laity from Wiseleigh (near Bruthen) has had his farm burnt out. But Mark is brave and resilient – he’d need to be, having been battling the green drought for the past 3+ years.

Despite the public influx of donations of food and other goods, Mark hasn’t seen anyone or anything to-date (but he’s not complaining – most farmers never do!). He said he’s lucky his son knows how to cook sausages, as that’s what they’ve been living on.

Mark fought the fire with his brother and his eldest son for hours all throughout the night – and after they put out the last of the fires, he then had to milk his cows and try to feed them to keep them alive before then starting the rebuild of his fences on that very same day.

A late-night conversation with Mark confirmed that he’s breathing an enormous sigh of relief simply that his family are all back together and that they are alive.

The fire has destroyed his fences and robbed him of every blade of grass, but he remains positive and upbeat, with genuine concern for his fellow farmers.

The great news for Mark is that there’s a convoy of trucks loaded with hay coming down from Yarram, and it’s heading straight for Mark’s farm (among others). And it’s all thanks to a bunch of farmers who this time last year didn’t even know of each other.

Last year, 13 dairy farmers were profiled in the 2020/2021 Hand That Feeds You Green Drought Calendar, which was an initiative in collaboration with the Outer Gippsland Drought and Fire Mental Health and Wellbeing Partnership, funded by the department of Health and Human Services.

This free calendar was launched a week before Christmas in Lakes Entrance and involved storytelling by famers who are featured in this and the previous year’s calendar. The launch also included a fully catered lunch and complimentary provision of Christmas cakes for farming families affected by drought. 

In response to the recent battling of fires faced by this now tightknit group of farmers, dairy farming brothers, Clancy and Darcy McAlpine from Woodside initiated and organised 17 truckloads of hay from the Yarram community, which will congregate at Craig Calvert’s farm in Mossiface, who is also a farmer included in the Green Drought Calendar.

“We never expected that this group of farmers – who didn’t previously know each other – would form such a strong circle of support for one another,’” said Sue Medson OAM, Chief Executive Officer of Gippsland Lakes Complete Health, which was a lead partner in the production of the 2019/20 calendar.

“The supportive phone calls and texts to each other is just incredible; truly awe-inspiring,” adds Sallie Jones co-founder of Gippsland Jersey Milk and the facilitator of the calendar. “Blokes are often uncomfortable talking about how they’re ‘really going’… men are good with the ‘mate’ stuff, but not always great at asking ‘how are ya really going?’ in a way that gets a true answer.”

“It’s become really clear, really quickly, that despite being located from all over Gippsland, the men from both the 2019 calendar and this year’s calendar genuinely care for each other’s health and wellbeing. Often, a male’s response in a crisis is to offer practical help, and in this case, it’s feed for cows,” explains Ms Jones.

“The plan is to park all 17 trucks near the Bruthen Pub and for the truck drivers and farmers to walk to Craig’s nearby farm for some man hugs, before the trucks depart to offload at various farm locations.”

An invitation to calendar farmers to then regroup at the Bruthen pub for a fully-funded dinner has been extended.

“I believe the mental ill-health and fatigue of people is starting to kick in, and as a community it’s the responsibility of all of us to check-in over the farm gate – not just now but during the coming years,” says Ms Jones, who is no stranger to the devastating effects that natural catastrophes can have on the mental health of farmers.

“The first calendar was created in memory of my dad, Michael Bowen (the ice cream king of Gippsland), whose life was tragically taken by suicide on 22 March 2016. So, the sheer fact that 20 virtual strangers are getting around Craig Calvert and Mark Laity from Bruthen (plus several other local East Gippsland farmers) by donating and coordinating this hay delivery, is the epitome of what the calendar sought to do!” 

“The feeling from within the wider Australian farming community including those who are not directly impacted by fire, is that they all just want to help – a response that is most likely as much about them as it is about the fire victims,” concludes Ms Jones.