Growing up on a dairy farm in Simpson, South West Victoria, was not always easy but it was a life I would never trade for anything. I grew up with an older sister, younger brother and my mum and dad. I definitely suffered from ‘middle child syndrome’, thinking I was always missing out.
My earliest memory of ‘farm work’ was standing in the lane screaming as a herd of calves came hurtling towards my sister and I to go into their new paddock of freedom. It may now be the time to mention that I was scared of ALL animals and didn’t venture much past the backyard for a great deal of my childhood. I have now dealt with this fear, love animals and can leave the backyard.
But this story is not about me directly, it is about my Dad. Dad was born and raised on the land and moved to the Heytsbury Settlement as an infant. School was not his thing, so at the age of 15 he left to work full time on his family farm. He met my mum and convinced the city girl to move to the country and begin a life together milking cows and raising their three kids.
Dad was always the light in every room, he was a large presence, both physically and metaphorically. He was loud, funny, loved his family and friends more than anything in the world and was the mate that everyone relied on to cheer them up when times were tough. He had this uncanny ability to drive you insane and make you laugh at the same time. He was extremely passionate about the dairy industry, advocating for change through rallies, meetings and most importantly was always supportive and positive towards the next generation of farmers.
I’m certainly no expert when it comes to all the facts and figures of running a farm but here’s a simple break down of what happened each season for my parents and many other farmers alike. They got paid different amounts for their milk per litre throughout the seasons and this could vary from 50cents down to a pitiful 20cents per litre. For most farmers, they would also have to buy in extra grain, hay and sometimes supplements to keep their cows going during the winter months when there was not much grass around. Keeping the cows fed to an adequate standard so they keep producing premium milk also dictates what price per litre a farmer gets paid, as milk lower in quality gets paid a lower amount. All the while, their running costs did not change with these milk prices, in fact most costs continue to increase each year. Imagine your wage fluctuating with the seasons. In comparing this to a minimum wage earner, it would be like halving their income for 6 months of the year when it’s deemed that they don’t ‘need’ that amount to survive but in fact, your living costs are still the same, if not increasing.
Over the years the dairy industry took hit after hit. Deregulation in the early 2000s meant that factories did not have to offer a standard price for milk per litre and farmgate prices and incentives to produce more milk varied between factories. This meant that market competition could determine what price a farmer got paid for their milk, even though consumers were still paying a steady amount at the counter. But factories dropping milk prices, the costs of running the farm ever increasing, families walking off farms that had been there for generations, farmers negotiating with banks not to foreclose on loans that were not being paid back all added to the heavy pressures on the dairy industry.
My Dad was always positive about the dairy industry though, yes he had his moments of doubts and frustrations but he continued to get up every morning and milk, talking about the turn around that was sure to come. I was somewhat oblivious to this as a child and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I could see the true impact that this was having on my Dad and Mum. My Mum had always worked off the farm, as a nurse and midwife, as well as milked the cows with Dad but had made the decision to cut back her nursing hours to help out more on the farm.
We saw that Dad was beginning to struggle on the farm, things weren’t getting fixed like they used to, he lost the fire in his eyes and the positive talk faded into the background. Dad knew that things were not going so well for him and agreed to seek treatment but by this time he was a shell of the man he once was, the depression had well and truly taken over his once bright mind.
The 17th of November 2016 was just like any other day, I had gone to work, come home, nothing out of the ordinary. We had all moved out of home at this stage and it was just Mum and Dad at home. Mum was worried about Dad, like we all were, she’d even had the really tough conversation about suicide with him and he assured her that it was not on his mind. That night I went to bed and was woken at 2am by a phone call from my mum ‘Courtney, we can’t find Dad’ and I instantly knew he was gone. It’s a feeling I cannot describe but I just knew I’d never see my Dad again.
Suicide is a tough topic to talk about, especially when you have lost a loved one to it. Mental health is also something that can be tough to talk about, add in rural, men, stigma and social expectations and we have a huge challenge on our hands. But as me and my family are moving forward, coming to terms with losing Dad, we have made the decision to not stand silently and let this happen to other families like ours. The men in our lives can be hard to crack when it comes to talking about how they feel, often speaking of failure and burden when it comes to mental health challenges. But we can be the voice that can speak, when they may not able to.
The dairy industry is certainly still struggling, our famers across all primary production are bearing the brunt of a nation that wants top quality produce at a budget price. The supermarkets and factories are certainly not taking the pay cuts to allow for these prices. So our farmers are the ones continuously suffering at the hand of the very people who need them the most to survive. The year my dad died, farmers in Victoria were getting paid an average of 38cents per litre and it was costing them nearly a $1 per litre to produce this. Tell me how this is anywhere near fair?
My family paid the ultimate price for this, my Dad’s life and we are not alone in this suicide statistic. What we can do is make small and steady changes by supporting local producers, pay that little more for your fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy. Be consciously aware of the impact that your choices can have on other people. The rural crisis is real, farmers stoically face the many things they cannot change like the weather, crop failures, illness. But farmers should not feel abandoned or used by the very people who need them. Farmers are a very proud bunch, they do not want handouts and pity, they just want a fair price for the premium products that they worked so tirelessly to produce.
Lastly, we’re all guilty of assuming our family and friends are ok because they aren’t telling us they’re not. But we know their usual behaviours, moods and actions. If anything seems slightly out of whack, just ask. We cannot change lives with silence but we might just change one with a pesky message, call, drop in for a cuppa or whatever you feel may get to that person. Don’t be afraid of a NO.
*Please note that I have talked about the cost of milk production and price per litre from my family’s experiences and this can vary greatly across the farming industry.
If you or a loved one need assistance, Lifeline is an anonymous telephone service available 24 hours per day on 13 11 14.