- 7 July 2020
Australian farmers have had to battle some extreme conditions in recent years, struggling through one of the worst droughts on record as well as some of the worst bush fires the world has ever seen.
Many have had to face the heartbreaking decision of selling their properties or are being forced into bankruptcy. For some, their business has been handed down through the family for generations and for others, they had hoped to start something of their own.
Throughout the devastation, farmers have exhibited their resilience fighting through the flames and dry lands surrounding them. The cost to feed their animals during drought often means it is more practical and financially viable to sell them.
Australia's agriculture community has taken massive hits in the last year and although there have been many efforts to help, such as "Fiver for a Farmer" and "Agricultural Day", an annual celebratory day in November, some Aussie farmers slip through the cracks of receiving support
One farmer understands this heartache all too well; Katrina Sparke, owner of Red Leaf Farm in Fitzroy Falls, located about 2 hours south of Sydney.
Red Leaf Farm has low stock numbers with very seasonal produce. This allows them to nurture and maintain their hands-on approach and focus on their "you are what your food eats" mentality.
“You are what you eat” has driven my passion for producing magnificent food by taking the adage a step further back… “You are what your food eats”. Katrina said.
Red Leaf has been a state winner in the delicious Produce Awards in 2017 for Red Leaf lamb, for Red Leaf suckling pork in 2018 and in 2019, a Gold Medallist at the National Delicious Produce Awards in 2018 for their suckling pork.
The Farm is home to heritage breed Saddleback pigs, Highland cows, Border Leicester cross Merino sheep and an array of horses, dogs, chickens, geese, peacocks, goats and one donkey.
Katrina runs the farm with her husband and four children.
"The drought has been extremely hard. In winter 2019, we could not fill our silo for love nor money. The price of grain went up from $100 per tonne to $500 per tonne in the space of a week. The cost of grain, transport and butchery, was costing more than the pig itself," Katrina explained.
"We used to rotate the pigs from paddock to paddock on quite a strict basis, so that they would get fresh pasture. But when you have no pasture in any paddock, suddenly there is no point moving them because there is nowhere fresh to move them to. You'd end up moving them from one dry dirt patch to another."
With the struggles that people in the agricultural sector have been facing, the skills shortages that are occurring as a result could have major impacts on Australia's future produce.
"To people in the industry I am considered a young farmer. Anyone aged around 40 is a young farmer, this is just mind blowing. To think that 'definition' of a young farmer is not someone aged 20-30, is scary because it makes you concerned about how many Australian farmers we will have in the future. If there is no one willing to continue the jobs now and keeping produce local, Australia will become dependent on imports. Which is incredibly sad for the future of not only Australia's agriculture, but for the food and hospitality industry, and the tourism industry — since many towns and regions, such as the Wingecarribee region, market their tourism on paddock-to-plate restaurants, wineries, and so much more."
Katrina has gotten her farm through drought but is not entirely in the clear yet. Red Leaf was also affected by the summer bush fires that ripped through NSW.
"The bush fires got as close as 5 kms from our farm, we were on standby for weeks — and the days in which we thought it would reach us, we would take turns in staying up through the night being on watch," Katrina said.
"It was truly amazing how the community came together to get through it. Neighbours were helping neighbours; people were just willing to help in any way they could without even having a second thought. We prepped the land and the house for the fire in case it got to us; we are extremely lucky to not have been burned. There was a lot of smoke damage and I'm still cleaning up after it 2 months later," she continued.
Unfortunately for Katrina and her family, because their farm was not burned, she's not eligible for any financial assistance.
"It sounds horrible to say but it may have been easier to financially recover from the fires if we had been burned. We lost business for months due to the fires, but this isn't being recognised entirely. The council is still asking for rates to be paid without allowing extensions or anything. We are struggling to stay afloat — my husband and I have had discussion about selling. It is the last thing we want to do since we have built this farm from the ground up, but if things don't get better this year, selling could be on the table."
Both of their train carriages were fully booked through December and January. Sadly, due to the bush fires, all those bookings were cancelled, and no extra income was coming through.
"It will be a while before we see new visitors come through, I think, but we are hoping for the best."
Red Leaf Farm is a truly extraordinary place, and the amount of love and dedication the Sparke's have toward it shows. Katrina is going to continue to try and come up with new business ideas to bring in an income, and her family will continue to work hard together. Not only does Red Leaf house gorgeous animals, but it is also home to a stunning river that flows into their very own private waterfall. And the Sparke's share this space with others.
"We often have school groups over to utilise the river and picnic space. It is such a gorgeous area that should be shared by many and we are happy to accommodate this," Katrina said.
Australian farmers are not out of the woods yet and may not be fully back on their feet for a while. But it is farmers like Katrina and her family that prove just how important Australia's agriculture is. These local farmers that distribute to their own communities and around Australia are worth supporting. Keeping Australia's agriculture local is worth supporting.