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Helping struggling farmers

Kaitlyn Fasso-Opie  |  08 May 2019

A CatholicCare Wilcannia-Forbes project is providing a fount of support for drought-affected communities.

Farming is the ultimate act of faith — as the severe and ongoing drought in country New South Wales shows.

That’s according to CatholicCare Wilcannia-Forbes deputy chief executive Kate Gibson. The CatholicCare service covers 52 per cent of western NSW, including rural and regional communities severely affected by drought.


Last year, the service was the recipient of a $20,000 ‘In a Good Place’ grant to improve mental health support in four remote farming communities: White Cliffs, Pooncarie, Tibooburra and Wanaaring.

CCI Giving funded the grant through the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) to provide a family relationship counsellor.

‘The intention of the program was targeting isolated communities rather than some of the regional centres that have services’, Kate says.

Many of the people living in these communities live on remote ‘outback’ stations, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest rural centre. Some children living on these stations complete their education via School of the Air, and later go away to boarding school.

‘There’s not necessarily a town in some of these locations’, Kate says. ‘There might be a cricket pitch, or a hotel, or a town hall. In White Cliffs, there is a hotel, and tennis courts and a school — but it’s not big.’


In other words, it’s not easy to ‘pop to the shops’ and have a chat to someone in the supermarket aisle, as many of us take for granted.

Notably, Pooncarie has a racecourse, where the Pooncarie Cup takes place on the South Australian/New South Wales Labor Day long weekend each October. The event attracts a crowd of more than 1500 people each year. But usually, the community has a population of less than 200 people.

‘We’ve found that many of these people we are supporting, when things were going well, were out and about and active in their communities’, Kate says.

‘But when things are tough, pride is fragmented and it’s challenging. People who are already isolated geographically, don’t go into town, and then become even more isolated.’


The services CatholicCare Wilcannia-Forbes provides aren’t about ‘fixing everything’ but rather, are about starting a conversation to improve the management of mental health, and knowing where to go to access support.

‘Our counsellor finds that people are not seeing anyone face-to-face outside of their property… we provide support using technology while giving people confidentially. People can get the help they need quite privately.’

Kate says CatholicCare Wilcannia-Forbes’ counsellor – or family relationship services project manager – Louise Heffernan has been with the organisation ‘forever,’ having recently clocked up 10 years of service.

‘Louise is extremely passionate about supporting rural families’, she says. ‘Sadly, as the years go on, with drought and flooding rains, you can imagine the cost to provide this service to go out to the communities.


‘It is needed and, while there’s drought at the moment, heaven forbid, in five years’ time, there could be floods. We cannot discount the climatic impact on country people who are usually fairly resilient.’

It’s something that people across the nation, and internationally, are starting to realise, inspired by Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, whose climate protests have inspired strikes in schools across the globe.

But what is also becoming clear to city cousins, is that climatic conditions negatively affecting farmers and their families flows on to negatively affect the wellbeing of individuals involved in businesses which support those farms, the broader local economy, and the wider community.


‘Back-to-back years of drought are starting to take their toll’, Kate says. ‘Many people who would usually be able to cope find that they need support. But we just watch government funding come and go... and those people who are struggling aren’t right in a year’s time. If the drought ends tomorrow, which it won’t, the effects of the drought will still be felt. It could be another three to five years, with some people even recouping beyond that five years.’

She says it’s the sheer length of time that is really crippling economically, as well as to individual mental and emotional health.

‘A lot of people, whether they be farming crops or stock, will hang on as long as they can… putting in a crop ahead of the next season. In many instances, it’s a gamble in terms of what the year is going to bring.’

At that point, people try and sell off as much of their stock as they can, trying to keep to keep their breeding lines that they’ve worked hard to build over many years.

‘But if things get good, they need to sow a crop or buy new stock, and it’s like starting a brand new business from scratch’, Kate says.


‘Despite the drought, expenses still continue to come in, families still have children at school, they’ve still got bills to pay. It’s hard because it’s all dependent on the weather.’

Although there are many community organisations there to help, including organisations that collect and donate fodder to farmers to feed their stock, there is still a stigma in accepting it.

‘For many farmers, it’s hard to say “actually, I will take that support” –

it’s a matter of pride to say, “actually, I do need help”’, Kate says.

Which is why the mental health services CatholicCare provides to those battling the drought are increasingly important.

For more information on the services that CatholicCare Wilcannia-Forbes provides, or to donate, schools, individuals and community groups can call the Forbes office on 02 6850 1777 or visit

For more information about the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal or CGI Giving, people can visit or

Image: The Ambroses work on their property outside Coonabarabran. Brook Mitchell/Getty Images.


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