A dynamic duo? The positives and negatives of Covid-19 on communities in Rural Australia. (extract followed by the full article)

By Matilda Flanery: Currently in my third year of a four-year degree. I study Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (Media and Communications), majoring in Agricultural Resources and Economics at the University of Sydney.

Having lived and grown up in a rural town, this article explores the effects the triple whammy of drought, fire and Coronavirus has had on a typical farming family enterprise, as well as local community Harden-Murrumburrah. The following experiences and those of the local town are a microcosm of rural-life more broadly. 

Of course regional areas are not just populated by farmers, but by all those who support farming and the associated industries. Harden-Murrumburrah, is a small regional town located in South West NSW. Like all small rural, regional towns, Harden has been severely impacted by rural-urban migration over the last 30 years. As the saying goes, bad things come in three’s. The triple whammy of drought, fires and Covid-19 could have been lethal to its existence. But things are not all doom and gloom. Small businesses everywhere have been encouraged to adapt, change their business strategies, re-focus their target (if need be), employ greater diversity and through a time of heightened uncertainty, to just keep marching on. 

Dirt and dust tracked your one step forward and every step backwards. The only thing walking forward brought was a gush of wind. Wind that pushed you further back to the cracked, dry sparse land, which swallowed up any hopes of future rain. It might as well have screeched “Give up now”. Dry summer storms and shattering lightning strikes warned us that we had only just reached halfway and with the benefit of hindsight, was an omen of the hellish season ahead. This place roared against us. It sapped our strength. The drought taught us to cross bridges we couldn’t feel beneath our feet. Through sheer willpower, we ground each day out. Wiser, stronger, yet still vulnerable.

This short rest on the journey did not last long. 

From drought, farmers (and Australia as a nation) turned their heads only to be met by vicious fires and plumes of smoke. Hours that turned into days, days that turned into weeks and weeks that turned into months. It was suffocating. Smokey air hung like an oppressive curtain, making strenuous exertion for more than a few hours intolerable. Watching the ‘Fires Near Me’ app and checking the wind direction became common place. Although in our local communities case there was nothing to burn, only dust. The media had warned the nation to brace themselves for the horrific conditions due on New Year’s Eve. Soaring temperatures and ferocious wind was the norm. Town after town was being told to evacuate immediately before it became unsafe. If you chose to stay, it was at your own peril. There was no beating the beast. To many in the firing line, 3pm felt like midnight. The sky was black, and the fires were creating their own weather. Embers were flying. Debate was raging as to whether the New Year fireworks in Sydney should go ahead. After all, should the city celebrate when there were many individuals suffering in rural Australia from the world’s worst fires? Rain, a fire’s worst enemy, was the ultimate answer in the end. But the brave and inspiring efforts of the firefighters cannot be underestimated, as 34 lives were lost for the benefit of the Australian nation. The fires of 2019 burnt a total of 12.6 million hectares, with a whopping 5.4 million burnt in NSW itself. A total of 1 billion wildlife devastatingly killed, 434 million tonnes of CO2 emitted and approximately 11.3 million individuals affected by the smoke. The impact was catastrophic. 

We would have hoped that by the end of February we had seen the worst of it, the worst of a new decade. But this was not to be, as Covid-19 emerged from over the seas. It has left a mark, a dark stain that will never in history be forgotten or removed. As kids we were told of stories of the Wars. Will Covid-19 be the story we tell our kids and grandkids? Times are challenging, interesting and unprecedented. University courses have been moved online, schools were shut down and classes were taught remotely (via zoom), businesses and corporations were forced to introduce the Government’s policy of Work From Home which meant that all the cities came to a standstill. 

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Full article

‘Rural-ing the Covid-19 look’

A dynamic duo? The positives and negatives of Covid-19 on communities in Rural Australia.

Having lived and grown up in a rural town, this article explores the effects the triple whammy of drought, fire and Coronavirus has had on a typical farming family enterprise, as well as local community Harden-Murrumburrah. The following experiences and those of the local community are a microcosm of rural-life more broadly.

Of course regional areas are not just populated by farmers, but by all those who support farming and the associated industries. Harden-Murrumburrah, is a small regional town located in South West NSW. Like all small rural, regional towns, Harden has been severely impacted by rural-urban migration over the last 30 years. As the saying goes, bad things come in three’s. The triple whammy of drought, fires and Covid-19 could have been lethal to its existence. But things are not all doom and gloom. Small businesses everywhere have been encouraged to adapt, change their business strategies, re-focus their target (if need be), employ greater diversity and through a time of heightened uncertainty, to just keep marching on.

Dirt and dust tracked your one step forward and every step backwards. The only thing walking forward brought was a gush of wind. Wind that pushed you further back to the cracked, dry sparse land, which swallowed up any hopes of future rain. It might as well have screeched “Give up now”. Dry summer storms and shattering lightning strikes warned us that we had only just reached halfway and with the benefit of hindsight, was an omen of the hellish season ahead. This place roared against us. It sapped our strength. The drought taught us to cross bridges we couldn’t feel beneath our feet. Through sheer willpower we ground each day out. Wiser, stronger, yet still vulnerable.

This short rest on the journey did not last long.

From drought, farmers (and Australia as a nation) turned their heads only to be met by vicious fires and plumes of smoke. Hours that turned into days, days that turned into weeks and weeks that turned into months. It was suffocating. Smokey air hung like an oppressive curtain, making strenuous exertion for more than a few hours intolerable. Watching the ‘Fires Near Me’ app and checking the wind direction became common place. Although in our local communities case there was nothing to burn, only dust. The media had warned the nation to brace themselves for the horrific conditions due on New Year’s Eve. Soaring temperatures and ferocious wind was the norm. Town after town was being told to immediately evacuate before it became unsafe. If you chose to stay, it was at your own peril. There was no beating the beast. To many in the firing line, 3pm felt like midnight. The sky was black and the fires were creating their own weather. Embers were flying. Debate was raging as to whether the New Year fireworks in Sydney should go ahead. Afterall, should the city celebrate when there were many individuals suffering in rural Australia from the world’s worst fires. Rain, a fire’s worst enemy, was the ultimate answer in the end. But the brave and inspiring efforts of the firefighters cannot be underestimated, as 34 lives were lost for the benefit of the Australian nation. The fires of 2019 burnt a total of 12.6 million hectares, with a whopping 5.4 million burnt in NSW itself. A total of 1 billion wildlife devastatingly killed, 434 million tonnes of CO2 emitted and approximately 11.3 million individuals affected by the smoke. The impact was catastrophic.

We would have hoped that by the end of February we had seen the worst of it, the worst of a new decade. But this was not to be, as Covid-19 emerged from over the seas. It has left a mark, a dark stain that will never in history be forgotten or removed. As kids we were told of stories of the Wars. Will Covid-19 be the story we tell our kids and grandkids? Times are challenging, interesting and unprecedented. University courses have been moved online, schools were shut down and classes were taught remotely (via zoom), businesses and corporations were forced to introduce the Government’s policy of Work From Home which meant that all the cities came to a standstill.

Working From Home, or ‘WFH’ (as it was captioned on many Instagram stories) became the norm. If it hadn’t yet been enforced, all businesses were certainly only a hop, step and jump away from it.  Face masks, hand sanitiser, and gloves became de rigeur. Public transport was viewed by society as a hub of germs and if possible to be avoided at all costs.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the working year for many had only just begun. Returning employees were adjusting to work life routine following the Christmas period holidays. New graduate employees were only just learning the ropes. For these graduates, WFH seemed and was daunting.

Kate*, an employee at a professional services firm certainly grappled with this new online way of life as her firm slowly moved online.  Kate said “I found it really hard learning how to function in an office or firm like mine and dealing with people who are more senior than you and their demands.” For Kate, dynamics and engagement with co-workers changed as she was no longer able to understand her co-workers thoughts, feelings and emotions in a face to face manner. Kate said that “in the initial stages, it took a while for the reality of the situation to hit, which meant that she was in the office for an extra week or two weeks.” Kate said that during this time in the city, “it was still a matter of this virus could kill you, as nobody was aware of how severe the disease really was”. It was the unknown disease targeting new victims daily. The cities sense of fear meant that most people had by this stage fully transitioned to ‘WFH’. Kate said “almost everyone in the city had stopped working in the office, George Street and Martin Place were completely empty and I just remembered being scared”.

 

The date was March 16, memes of 2020 as a joke were scattered all over social media platforms. Jokes aside, the outlook was not good. The only news we were hearing in Australia was of the drastic increase in Covid-19 case numbers in Italy and Spain, insufficient PPE gear for the front line workers, limited ventilators, lack of beds in ICU and patients dying alone.  Some nurses and doctors were organising Facetime calls for these patients with close family and friends. Someone being there via a screen was better than no one. The public were starting to see images of exhausted nurses with indented PPE wear marks on their faces. Covid-19 was really making the public re-assess the true value of those who are nurses, teachers and doctors, those who serve the core of our humanity. It was only a matter of time before all areas of business started feeling the far-reaching financial squeeze created by COVID-19. The general thinking appeared to be that rural Australia was unaffected, life was normal, and it was good to be a farmer in these times. True, life was normal. All the obligations were still there; livestock to be fed, crops to be sown and a population to feed. But farming does not occur in a vacuum.

 

On May12 2020, the farming industry suffered a sector specific hit from Covid-19.  Whether the Chinese Government’s announcement of 80% tariffs on Australian barley exports, and the revocation of Chinese beef export licences of four Australian abattoirs, is a genuine insistence on the technicalities of trade, or a direct response by China to Scott Morrison’s request for an independent inquiry into the origin of Covid-19’s outbreak is a moot point. But it certainly has had an impact. The Australian peoples’ suspicions that the Chinese response was a tit for tat response, has since been backed by a coalition of 116 countries as these countries insisted it is time “now more than ever that an alliance is formed to demand from China more clarity, objectivity and fairness in its trade relationships”. Calling for answers from China, with a large support network will certainly “blunt the edge of Beijing’s coercive diplomacy” as it would encourage China to ask themselves if there is “too much to lose if it continues to weaponize its trade relationships.” No matter which interpretation of China’s actions is adopted, one thing which has become very evident in this time of Covid-19 is our dependence on trade with China, especially in beef exports and the year on year increases that have occurred. In 2005, Australia exported 1, 012 tonnes of beef to China while last year this had grown to a total of  300,133 tonnes which represented 25% of all our beef exports.

 

Sam, a farming businesswoman, believes that “what Covid-19 has shown all traders in the world is the need for diversification in markets”. Sam said “the growing middle wealthier class of China is attractive, hence our keenness to supply that market”. Sam identified the need for diversification in terms of numbers, quality and value of products. Finding new and diversified markets is easier for some agricultural commodities than others.  Sam for example said “wool tends to be less flexible in finding new markets as it requires quite a lot of processing beyond our shores, so it depends on mills located only in specific countries”. As it is, “the Italian and Chinese mills are the predominant milling countries, leaving them to be purchasers of the product.” In terms of beef and cherries, Sam said “yes we can more easily send our product to different countries without much issue, but in doing so you ignore a population the size of China’s at your own peril”. Instead we “just need to strive for balance in marketing our products to China as well as to other countries”.

 

Sam insists that Covid-19 was a shock on many fronts and that directly or indirectly it  has affected wool, beef and cherries on their farming enterprise. As a business, they first felt the impact of Covid-19 through the sale of their fine merino wool.  “Our wool was due for auction on or around the weeks that Covid-19 first became a significant issue in Australia”. The market dropped significantly and as a result auction clearances dropped to less than 50%. “Not knowing how long this emergency would last, we made the decision to nevertheless sell our wool despite the significant price decrease”. The impact is felt so heavily by Australian wool producers as “significant end-users of our fine merino wool are Italy and China, both of which were badly affected by Covid-19.” Sam said “we were very concerned about the closing of borders and the impact on transport  to get our inputs in and outputs out, however transport concerns were not as significant as we first thought.”  Of greater concern was the ban by China on the Kilcoy Pastoral Company Abattoir which is where a significant portion of Sam’s beef is sold. Sam said finding alternative markets was the answer, and “our principle buyer in Kilcoy assured us that the company was seeking other markets, and that they did”. Prior to Covid-19, Kilcoy informed Sam that their export market was roughly 30% Korea, 30% Japan and 30% China. In seeking other markets, Kilcoy are now “selling chilled beef via air transport into of all places, the heart and soul of beef consumption, the United States, an interesting adaption by Kilcoy through which we have benefitted”.

Sam also discussed the likely impact of Covid-19 on the upcoming cherry harvest which occurs in October/November. “I anticipate Covid-19 will have a significant impact on the cherries.” The ban on international travel will be detrimental as “we can export our cherries to Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand normally in the bottom of passenger planes. Our access to these markets, coupled by the trouble we may face sourcing people power to pick our cherries, which is normally constituted by international backpackers who have now been stopped from entering the country, could result in unprecedented challenges.” Whilst acknowledging the challenges that may lie ahead, Sam admits that “I really think one of the best things to have come out of Covid-19, is the understanding by most Australians, of the importance of food production and the people who create that food production which is farmers. It was particularly reassuring to hear that as Australian farmers we can produce enough food for 75 million people when we only have a population of 25 million” – an amazing feat.

Harden – Murrumburrah as a community facing such uncertainty was also adapting in looking to minimise the detrimental impact of Covid-19. Adapting to the circumstances was important for both local businesses in Harden-Murrumburrah and also to local farming operations that rely on the town for all that it offers. Farming families, rely heavily on the growth of small local communities, so their personal businesses can also grow.

The Harden Regional Development Committee, (HRDC) was set up  in 2016 to counter the effects of the rural-urban migration that had plagued the town for the last 50 years. Chris Ireland as CEO of the HRDC is employed to “basically involve all opportunities, whether this be business economy, tourism economy or events economy.” During Covid-19 “The HRDC  put together a large marketing package to promote affected businesses within the area whilst offering one on one support and mentoring”  It sounds selfish Chris said, “but I like to see the results, you know and see the work that I am doing. I like seeing the happiness and joy on their faces, of those who I have assisted.” The HRDC secured funding from the Kruger Trust (a private benefactor) to help small businesses in Harden-Murrumburrah through the Covid-19 pandemic. The Kruger Fund, was established in 1996 after the death of long-time local dentist Geoffrey Kruger, who bequested a large sum for the betterment of the town. As a result of the Kruger Foundation’s support, the HRDC have been able to provide three separate rounds of grants to affected local businesses and community groups in sums that ranged from $10,000 to $5000.  Since Covid-19,  Chris has “touched on every business or community group across the region.” Although Chris believes he should not say it during a worldwide crisis, he is of the belief that the crisis has certainly lifted or shown what the HRDC can do for local businesses. The HRDC’s significant role in mentoring Harden Murrumburrah’s businesses to adapt to the changed environment of Covid-19 has certainly lessened what could have been a fatal blow to the township and adjoining farms.

One of  the silver-linings that have emerged since Covid-19, includes the fact that businesses in Harden-Murrumburrah are no-longer constantly competing against one another. Chris said that “business 2 business relationships have dramatically improved…I don’t want to say they have come to a truce.. but businesses are saying things like well we can offer this so perhaps you can offer that.” Prior to this, sheer competition was the driving force between these businesses. Chris is hopeful that by bolstering and boasting about local business on the Hilltops Collective Instagram account established by him, community members will agree that they can get supplies from our local community, without travelling to the bigger neighbouring towns of Young or Wagga. Chris went on to say “that it is also important for Harden-Murrumburrah as restrictions ease, that we start hosting events to boost our economy”. Chris said that “families no longer want to see each other via a screen”. Chris has been hearing locals say “where we once ate out once a month, we are going to try and eat out once a week”. This will lead not only to increased socialisation within a small knit community but also bolster local support of these important businesses. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of shopping locally, not only for farm supplies but for all supplies including even for the most basic such as food. Without businesses in Harden-Murrumburrah such as Delta Agriculture, Thompson’s Rural Supplies or Nutrien Ag Solutions, but also the local supermarkets, nurseries and cafes, family farming operations suffer through increased wait times for products, loss of local farm labour with more families leaving town seeking employment elsewhere, as well as the potential risk of farmers selling up. These are the risks associated with not supporting our local community.  Aside from locals supporting locals, it is also now time for Harden-Murrumburrah to really capitalise on families and individuals wanting an escape from the bigger cities. Chris said “I don’t think we are going to see less people leaving country towns but quite the opposite”. Chris believes “Covid-19 will see many people realise that they can WFH and so leave the bigger cities for a cheaper, more relaxed lifestyle in the country”.

 

Australia, luckily is girt by sea, which has enabled the Australian Government to put in place effective restrictions in a timely manner to prevent the spread and impact of the deadly disease. Likewise, Harden-Murrumburrah is a distinct rural community and similarly to the federal response, Covid-19 has caused all within Harden-Murrumburrah including its farmers to stop and consider how they can work together with the attractions and strengths they have, encouraging those who live within, to support each other to adapt and prosper and to encourage those who visit to stop, support and spend. Recognising their value as a community will increase their value as a community.

*Kate – This name has been changed for privacy reasons.