is a challenge asking country people to talk about their relationships.
Doubly so when the big dry is biting into much of the land, and
their emotional and physical energy is focused on that.
generally don’t have much time for the airy fairy, pondering of
feelings and emotions. They’re busy dealing with big issues such
as droughts, pests and isolation.
Their effort is
directed towards maintaining stock water and feed supplies, dealing
with the paperwork burden of new laws and taxes, working out ways
to educate their children, and seeking new and more profitable
“Farmers tend to
be less focused on the self, and the emotions, because there is
always something that needs attention around the farm,” says fourth-generation
wool grower Andrew Burgess from Ruby Hills at Walcha on the New
England Tablelands of New South Wales.
“It’s easy to get
absorbed in the farm work, and it takes strong mental discipline
to extract yourself from that work and focus on family matters.”
Farming is a way
of life, not a job with set hours. But actually separating business
and personal life is a difficult thing to do when business is
conducted in the kitchen.
Andrew and his
wife, Carol Watson, say business requires being unemotional, task-based
and performance oriented, whereas the family life requires emotional
input, caring and sharing, and nurturing during your lifetime.
Across the country,
one of the biggest stresses on family relationships is caused
by the drought which has hovered over most areas for years, with
only occasional and short-term breaks in this omnipotent threat
to rural livelihoods.
coordinator Rod Saal says the country people he deals with are
an incredibly resilient group, but the human relationships and
partnerships are a really important element of life that need
process has already happened and those that are still in the bush
have been tested by its cold, harsh realities. They’re wonderful,
hardy people whose human spirit armour-plates them for the tough
times,” Rod says.
“They’ve got humour,
loyalty, and such a generosity of spirit that they’ll give you
their last tea bag.”
But he says the
social capital, the relationships between people, ought not be
ignored in the pressure to meet the demands of increasing workloads
often compounded by drought.
Although the relaxed
social life of tennis parties and leisurely picnics disappeared
from the country in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they have been replaced
by social activities which also are productive.
by the Landcare movement for example provide useful group and
social interaction where people get together to discuss ways of
making their lives and properties better,” Rod says.
The faith element
is still important in country lives, says Charleville-based United
Church Reverend John Case who spends half his year travelling
in the 300,000 sq km Burke and Wills Patrol for the church’s Frontier
me is the positiveness of most people. They will joke that they’re
one day closer to rain, or tell me I’ve not been praying hard
enough because it hasn’t rained yet.”
“Most of my work
is providing spiritual guidance, listening to people express their
concerns. I don’t come across a lot of depression but there is
increasing loneliness in the bush because there are fewer people
living and working in these areas compared with 20 years ago.”
For more than a
decade, Professor Daniela Stehlik has studied farming families
experiencing drought and the implications of stress and changes.
Drought puts relationships
to the test, says Daniela, who heads the Alcoa Research Centre
for Stronger Communities at Western Australia’s Curtin University
of Technology, and men and women respond differently.
She says wives
have anxiety for their men and think about external ways they
can help the business keep going by getting work off-farm or creating
another form of income on the property.
Husbands see themselves
in the breadwinner role and when there’s no income due to drought,
this impacts heavily on their sense of identity.
Charles Sturt University researcher Ian Coldwell is studying rural
masculinity and the socio-economic impacts on the identity of
He agrees that
men very much shape their identities around the work that they
do, and the constant and looming threat of drought has a strong
influence on them and their family relationships.
“Drought is driving
all aspects of rural life in terms of the way farmers’ farm and
how they mix with the community. It affects how they feel about
themselves and how they relate to their spouse and kids,” Ian
“In drought, farmers
tend to withdraw from community activities, retreat to the farm
and don’t want to talk about their situation which rural counsellors
say is a negative behaviour that can lead to the onset of depression.
“Women often now
have off-farm jobs – either because they want to or have to –
and although the majority work part-time, this can leave the men
isolated and trying to run the farms on their own. They feel more
isolated when things are tough than when things are going well.”
Rod Saal says because
rural small business is under pressure, there needs to be recognition
of the value of financial counselling because people do have problems
with depression, debt, drought and suicide despite their overall
“The benefits of
supporting people in the regions far outweigh the costs that government
invests in providing another tool (farm financial counselling)
for people in the bush to access so they can continue to be viable.
“People need to know that there are always options, always somewhere
to turn, and part of my work involves facilitating family decision-making
about those options.
“When they encounter
difficult situations, often the first person they stop talking
to is their spouse – males are particularly bad at that – and
what they need to do is talk through the issues to work out a
says the long-term impacts of drought are on the depletion of
community resources in rural Australia.
Her research in
Queensland and New South Wales in the late 1990s and more recently
in Western Australia shows that as neighbours decide to put up
the ‘for sale’ sign and leave adjoining properties, many small
community stores are closed and many services no longer available.
She says the lessons
from the 10-year drought experienced along much of the eastern
seaboard have been heeded in Western Australia, where the Department
of Agriculture drought-declared 12 shires in August and many more
are likely to be drought-declared before Christmas 2006.
“There is a big
message here in terms of climate change and the implications of
continued lack of rain and increasing temperatures on land usage
by farm families in the wheat belt of Western Australia.
“Human beings are
adaptable, but in Western Australia we are facing rapid change
on a number of fronts which is bringing pressure to bear on communities
“A lot of farmers
in the great southern region are original settlers now aged in
their 60s or older, but these families are not necessarily planning
succession from fathers to sons or daughters as happened last
their concerns about who their sons will marry, wondering what
girl would want to marry their son and come out into this environment
and do this hard work?”
It was while working
with professional farmers in regional Queensland, New South Wales
and Victoria that Paul McGrath and his colleague John Roydhouse
noticed the lost and lonely social situations facing many people
in the bush.
Paul says this
loneliness is the consequence of reduced extended-family influence,
family break-ups, and a lack of money within communities to run
social events and support social networks.
This led them to
create the www.hunksnspunks.com.au
online dating service in 2003 to enable people in rural and regional
Australia to meet potential partners and make social connections.
“It emerged as
a result of our desire to provide an easy, practical and affordable
means of creating social opportunities and helping people link
into a social network for unattached rural and regional Australians,”
“That’s really what hunksnspunks is about. It wasn’t designed
as a money spinner, but rather as a community service providing
a modern social network that helps people connect and build relationships
with others who have similar interests.”
“I had gone through
a divorce and knew what it felt like to be financially and socially
limited, and that motivated John and I to work out a way to create
a network that was cheap and accessible.”
So has hunks n
spunks worked for Paul? “The romantic bit hasn’t worked for me
on a ‘find a wife’ level because my lifestyle doesn’t suit that
at the moment, but I have developed some enduring friendships
with people I’ve met through the site and am ecstatic over the
number of regional people we have been able to assist.”
“We have about
1000 people registered and it is growing – in spurts. The next
level we are planning is to create a network for people coming
out of rural communities and becoming lost souls in cities.”
is blossoming, with another website, www.ruralromance.com.au,
aiming to connect people who love the country lifestyle and the
down-to-earth, honest and open style which is typical of country
Based on 20 years’
experience as a family business communication consultant, Lyn
Sykes says that what makes an enduring relationship is the same
as any other contract – you need to read the fine print and clarify
When a couple begins
a relationship, there are at least three different levels of expectations
which may not be talked about and never negotiated. These expectations
are ones we know we have and have talked about, ones we know we
have but have not talked about, and some we don't even know we
have (until they are not met). How effectively these expectations
are managed will have a strong bearing on the success of a marriage
Lyn says country
people often communicate in a different way. Their communication
is understated and focuses on daily routines and tasks. They often
fall into the trap of talking about what’s going wrong rather
than what’s going right.
“When they work
and live in a family business there are a lot of assumptions,
sometimes inaccurate ones. A lot of communication is in what is
not said, rather than what is. Silence may not mean agreement,
it often means disagreement,” Lyn says.
Some farm families,
particularly those of English origin, are private and very courteous
and although that is a really good thing, sometimes it may mean
that hard questions don’t get asked. There’s a tendency to hope
things will sort themselves out rather than actively address them.
They also may have a greater level of concern about what neighbours
and others will think.
Ian Coldwell’s current research in the Riverina area is looking
at the influence of masculinity types in the field of farming.
Men with an open
masculinity style seek more sustainable farming techniques, tend
to use less fertilisers and chemicals, drought-proof with native
species and retain remnant vegetation. They look for alternative
markets, including organic markets, for their products and are
also more likely to have equitable personal relationships.
is a stifling style, whereas more open masculinity means workers
and family members have dialogue and discuss what they are doing,
even if the physical work is still claimed by the men as a masculine
domain and women still do the housework and bringing up children.
“The huge amount
of information on the internet is driving this more open style
because it presents an opportunity to embrace a wider range of
Ian says the need
for constant innovation makes farming a tough business and the
drought just intensifies all that and makes it more difficult.
“If a farm family’s
relationships are good these people find ways of coping and doing
things together to ensure the relationship survives. But if relationships
are unsteady, these things just make it worse and can impact very
“In her research
at CSU, Margaret Alston suggests women carry the greatest burden
on their backs in tough times by looking out for the health and
welfare of the family, often neglecting their own needs, whereas
the men stay outside trying to do something about an impossible
Chester Wilson, from Charleville in western Queensland, says people
are under a lot more pressure these days but most are weathering
it and putting up with the difficult times.
“When there are
relationship problems, it is sometimes hard to convince the men
there is a problem because they don’t see it, or don’t want to
see it, and women can’t necessarily define it,” Dr Wilson says.
From her home base
at Dubbo in New South Wales, Lyn Sykes is working with rural families
with the view to empowering them to have more choices.
Lyn says country
people are sometimes reluctant to seek help to improve their relationships
and communication because they lack the belief that anyone can
help them. Alternatively they may have a culture of “we sort out
our own problems in this family” or “we don’t want to be told
what to do”.
is not about being told what to do, it is a means of helping people
find out what they want to do and then doing it.
She says the thing
that separates enduring families from the bunch is that they regularly
communicate in a structured way, maybe meeting and talking once
a week about what’s happening, and having regular holidays away
– and that does not mean at a machinery field day!
The three main
areas of conflict in relationships are time, money and housing.
Differences and expectations on these subjects can be huge.
Lyn says the most
common combination of marriage partnerships is when a farm boy
marries a city girl and they can fit comfortably together if their
values of work and family are similar.
For example, people’s
ideas about how many hours make up a working day, a working week
and a working year can vary widely. When people are working in
a non-family environment, these expectations are clear but in
family farm businesses they can be less clear and become a source
One of the most
difficult family relationships link back to when a farming son
goes away to school (probably the same school his father went
to), comes straight back to the farm, lives with the parents until
he marries and then settles near by.
have lived with their parents while working with them, it is sometimes
harder to establish a new scenario with an intimate partner when
mum and dad are still close by.”
“And when extended
families live on properties, it helps if their houses are a bit
separate. My rule of thumb is that the clothes lines should not
be visible from each other’s homes because that separation helps
foster independence and privacy.”
women with successful careers move to the country to be with a
new partner, they can have difficulty finding like-minded people
to connect with in the local community.
The impact of this
sense of dislocation is lessened if their work skills are transferable
– such as teaching, nursing, and accounting professions are –
and they are able to continue their work either in a nearby regional
centre or by telecommuting.
For Carol Watson,
coming to Andrew’s family farm from a professional background
as an agricultural scientist with a range of experiences in the
business world meant she needed to push the boundaries of role
definition and expectation.
separate individuals and careers requires good communication,
as well as being sensitive to each partners’ needs and strengths
in working and living together,” says Carol.
“Andrew has a modern
approach to equity in sharing the domestic chores and making time
to have emotional input into our young daughters’ lives.
are sometimes required when you take on additional challenges
beyond the home, and that can involve becoming familiar with packet
biscuits and cakes instead of home-baked ones.”
Lyn Sykes says
good relationships are more likely when individual partners have
a broader view of the world than just the family farm, if they
have worked for others and been educated either formally or practically.
Lyn summaries the
important factors in making relationships enduring:
• Having a broader
world view beyond the family farm, and broader interests than
just the farm.
• Having life experience/education away from the family and the
• Having agreed, clear boundaries when more than one generation
is involved in the family business.
• Not living closely together or having houses within view of
each other to enable partners to have their own space for privacy
• Having mutual respect for difference, and being confident enough
not to need to surround yourself with people who are like you.
Although the Bureau
of Statistics doesn’t compare the number of marriages (or divorces)
between country and city, Rod Saal believes there are far fewer
divorces in the bush because they have the ability to pull together
when the going gets tough.
“When the seasons
turn around, the bush is forgiving and it still offers a wonderful
lifestyle with real mateship to be found.
“They show incredibly
generational loyalties too, sometimes to long-dead relatives who
settled the land, which often fires their determination to conquer
drought and other hurdles that come their way.”
In terms of family
business succession, Lyn Sykes says when there is respect from
the younger generation acknowledging the experience and wisdom
of the older generation, and the older generation acknowledging
the energy, enthusiasm, and in some cases skills, of the younger
generation then the combination can be fantastic.
But she warns that
the advent of the Y-generation (people born in the 1980s and 1990s)
will have a huge influence on future relationships in the bush.
“Gen Ys have a
very different attitude that is not necessarily disrespectful
but certainly less tolerant, more direct and less patient. They
won’t abide doing things ‘the way we’ve always done them’ so they
are likely to rattle the cages of the baby boomer generation,
their parents, who are the controllers.”
A fortunate life
– breakout profile
She has known joy,
sorrow, loss, drought and tough times. Faced adversity and risen
to its challenges after finding herself alone in the bush, without
warning, through the premature death of her partner. Being denied
the chance to say I love you and goodbye leaves a scar that never
Caroly Laurie cried
into the wind at Boree near Walcha on the New England Tableland
after her first husband Andrew died, but just as the Australian
landscape regenerates and flourishes after traumatic natural events,
so too do the people in its keeping.
from her small country community, nurturing from Andrew’s family
and good friends, and a huge dose of grit and guts, Caroly learned
to live solo on the land and emerged as a successful businesswoman
and leader, and eventually again found love in the bush.
There is a glow
of victory in Caroly Laurie’s steady green gaze and extra Irish
lilt in her voice as she announces her victory over a GST glitch
in the Boree books.
She has laboured
hard to master this tax on her wits and is clearly pleased to
have triumphed. In a quietly unassuming but determined way, Caroly
has become adept at mastering challenges and has come along way
from the dark days of 1979 when, without warning, her contented
and comfortable way of life collapsed.
Back then Caroly
was hardly able to tell a crossbred from a Merino, knew little
about counselling, had a seven-year-old son to parent and faced
her second mountain of self-discovery.
The first mountain
had been fun and easy, beginning with travels from her home in
the rolling hills of Carlow in the southeast of Ireland, through
Canada and New Zealand tending horses on dude ranches, drenching
sheep and playing solo guitar at night spots.
These travels led
her to the annual race meeting in the small town of Walcha on
the New England Tablelands of New South Wales where she was introduced
to Andrew Laurie, a much loved and respected local, a Wallaby
player who was hooker on two tours of New Zealand.
They married and
settled at Boree, in the house in which Andrew was born.
“Andrew was a capable
manager and I busied myself with gardening, spinning and weaving.
But I had only lived the life of the lady of the house for about
a year before the wool market collapsed.”
Caroly was used
to “making do” so she undertook several schemes to earn cash.
She and a friend tanned sheepskins and sewed them into clothes.
Next Caroly bought two sows and raised piglets in the chook yard
and then purchased Whim Creek shares that went from 5c to $3,
which meant she was made.
“Sean was born
in 1972 and there was great jubilation on the arrival of our son.
We had a happy and contented life, Andrew managed the place very
successfully, worked hard and was very fit, we thought. Life was
But Caroly’s life
was not destined to be straightforward. It changed irrevocably
when Andrew died unexpectedly, in July 1979, from a massive heart
attack during the first week of a skiing holiday before Sean and
Caroly could join him for the second week, as planned.
She was forced
to go forward alone after less than a decade of married life.
As a young mother, and under the guidance of a family friend,
she took on the running of Boree – a 1100 ha sheep and cattle
property where the four seasons bring extremes of heat and cold.
bottom fell out of my world. If you wrote a checklist on how not
to handle loss, particularly for a child, I did all of those things
but with all the best intentions. I didn't take Sean to the funeral
and I didn't talk to him about Andrew because I would burst into
tears and thought that was bad for him.
no counselling that I was aware of, so I became addicted to walking.
I used to cry into the wind.”
Over time the place
prospered, and in 1980 Caroly decided to do a wool-classing course
“It was like a
therapy for me. I was the only female, among all these young farmers,
and I felt very inadequate. Two years later, I topped the state.
I was thrilled about that and had a real sense of achievement.
“The drought broke
in May ‘83, things picked up, and later that year I met Freddie,
who was to eventually become my second husband.”
Freddie, a Canadian
priest, had come out from Toronto to play Golden Oldies rugby
in Sydney and Caroly was introduced to him by an old friend of
There was a spark
between them but the timing wasn’t right because Caroly was still
struggling with Boree and Sean was only 11, but sometime later
they rekindled the romance and there was no turning back.
Freddie was 65
when he moved to Boree and married Caroly more than a decade ago.
Sean is grown, married to Rachael, a positive and energetic country
girl and they have two daughters Adele and Annabel.
Both Caroly and
Freddie are involved in counselling work for the Anglican Counselling
Service at Walcha, while Caroly also does one day a week with
the service in Tamworth.
“The need is enormous
from people looking to heal from emotionally damaging experiences.”
Caroly is still
actively engaged on the farm but has also found time to attain
a Bachelor of Counselling from the Lois Reid College of Counselling
Studies, which she completed by distance education.
“I believe I have
led a privileged and fortunate life. I’ve experienced great happiness
and the depths of despair. But knowing such sadness has made me
a more tolerant and understanding person and now I really appreciate
the positives in my life.”
At home on the
sea – breakout profile
Bruce Davey says
it was love at first sight when he met Juanita, but Juanita was
just busy checking out the most beautiful prawn trawler she’d
aunties despairing that he would ever marry, he and Juanita became
friends and shortly after Juanita came to work on that beautiful
trawler and they married a year or so later.
“You can’t really
have an intimate relationship over a VHF radio,” says Juanita.
That was 20 years
ago now and Bruce’s prawn trawler has been replaced by the Wildcard,
a fully self-contained fishing boat which is home to the Davey
family of Bruce, Juanita and their three children Tiger, Johanna
They follow the
ancient migratory route across the seas at the top end of Australia
and make a living as professional fishers of barramundi and Spanish
mackerel in the waters between Cape York and the Kimberlies.
Wildcard is the
fifth boat Bruce and his father have built together. It’s a 22-metre
long steel vessel that holds 14,000 litres of diesel, 14,000 litres
of freshwater and has enough freezer space to hold 20 tonne of
“We live on the
boat full time and all the kids have their own cabins. They have
been highly involved in the business from a young age and been
paid for their work.”
“We don’t own a
home in mainland Australia, so the kids have had this incredibly
fascinating life with some amazing adventures in very remote parts
of Australia, seeing beautiful beaches, and experiencing hard
work and monsoon conditions.”
They only come
into port to offload the catch, and reload with supplies that
include about 180 loaves of bread, 150 litres of milk, two pigs,
a cow and 50 chooks in the main freezer and head off to sea for
4-6 weeks at a time.
The industry they
work in is highly regulated, with only 20 licences for professional
barra fishermen in the Northern Territory which Bruce says brings
a high degree of economic success and sustainability.
All the fish are
caught with lines from small boats. When the fish are running
it is a major adrenaline buzz says Juanita, whose record is catching
310 mackerel in one session.
“I love this life.
This is the best job in the world because I earn money going game
fishing,” Juanita says.
The children have
grown up as sea gypsies on the boat. When they reached school
age, they had lessons by distance education and HF radio with
their school work being overseen by Tina.
“We had a string
of governesses in the early days until we met Tina, who had a
gift with little ones and became a second mum to our children,”
“Tina became part
of our family and stayed with us for eight years. She jumped on
the boat at the Gold Coast as a single mum with her son Marek,
and now is a partner in our business.
“She left the boat
three weeks ago to settle in Cairns for the last year of Marek’s
schooling (in 2007), and I’m missing her sorely already,” says
Tina says living
and working on the boat has been so beneficial for the children,
including Marek, because they get to see their parents doing their
jobs and learn valuable life skills from that.
“Education is an
ongoing thing, it is not just a school-room thing, and what they’ve
seen on the boat is teamwork, doing the right thing and making
mistakes,” Tina says.
a good work ethic because they’ve pitched in to help, and Bruce
has paid them for their work so that can save up and choose how
they want to spend that money.”
As the children
reached high school age, they have all gone to board in Cairns
at Peace Lutheran College. The youngest, Elspeth, 12, will join
sister Johanna 15, and Tiger and Marek, both 17, at PLC next year.
Bruce says the
hardest thing for he and Juanita as parents is letting them go.
“We’ve lived with
them on the boat for all the years until they turn 12. Then we
have to kiss them goodbye and they’re 1000 km away, and you just
hope that other people are raising them with the same dedication
we have as loving parents,” he says.
“We only get to
see them during school holidays four times a year. The weekly
phone calls we have with them are usually via satellite phone,
which costs $2/minute to talk, because it is rare that we are
within mobile phone range.”
The novelty of
life on the water hasn’t worn off for Juanita.
“This life gives
us a very special relationship with our children, because we are
their parents as well as their friends. If they were in town,
they would be off with their mates, but a life at sea means we
go snorkelling, surfing or fishing together,” Juanita says.
“I feel so privileged
to lead the life that I do. Bruce and I are best friends and we’ll
sit together on the bridge at the end of the day chatting about
things or enjoying the solitude.”
The support of
a community – breakout profile
Sally Cooper married
an Englishman who was born in Kenya and the couple chose to make
their home amongst Sally’s existing family and friendship base,
where she grew up at Talwood near Goondiwindi in south-east Queensland.
They’d met briefly
at the Talwood Races but their romance flourished when driving
back to Toowoomba together following a summer evening in Brisbane
with friends at St Johns Cathedral.
Friends and family
were to provide a wonderful support for Sally and Chris as their
family grew from two bright healthy children, James and Margot,
to include a third child Claire who was born with Down’s syndrome.
“When Claire came
along, the things people thought to do to help us made me aware
of what wonderful, understanding people we have around us here
in the country.”
Sally taught James
and Margot at home until Claire was born and then they went into
the local school, with the travelling being shared by car pooling
went to boarding school, as many country kids do, although in
hindsight Sally wonders if she would send them away as young again
– they went in Year 6 and Year 5 respectively.
“You make these
decisions because you think you are doing the right thing by your
children by providing opportunities for education, music, sport
“Margot went away
as early as she did because she was Gifted and was just so bored
at the local school, there seemed to be no other option. Gifted
education is only just getting some attention in schools but needs
a great deal more.”
While some families
decide to move into town for more choices, the Coopers decided
not to because that would have taken them away from their support
“There are more
services available in bigger centres, but our family and friends
are here and we would have felt so alone in Toowoomba.”
was supported by the Isolated Childrens’ Special Education Unit
situated at the Brisbane School of Distance Education which helped
ensure she was being given work that she needed in order to progress.
Sally became involved
in the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association and found the
conferences an excellent forum for people to discuss education
access issues and influence what options were available.
“We are lucky as
a family that I was able to jump in the car and access the support
and help I wanted and needed, in contrast to people who live in
more isolation as some I talked to in my time on State Council
of the ICPA as head of the Special Education Portfolio.”
Claire wanted to
go to boarding school, as her siblings had, and after much investigation
by Sally, Claire boarded initially to Toowoomba and then at Brisbane’s
“They were wonderful
and welcoming, and it was a positive experience for Claire, but
when she eventually returned home to Talwood she missed the company
of the other girls.”
“We felt real desperation
for Claire when she left school. She had achieved a great deal,
had been in the choir, the athletics team, doing judo and guitar
lessons, and had done work experience for two years and suddenly
there was nothing.”
“And of course
Claire just wanted to go to university like her brother and sister!”
“Claire has been
working for the past two years in Goondiwindi and joined the Taekwondo
group, but that has involved lots of driving and limited the days
Claire could work.”
With Chris and
Sally are nearing retirement age, Claire’s needs became the catalyst
for a move into Goondiwindi.
“Now that we are
in town, Claire’s riding her bike, and involved in sport and we
hope she can eventually live independently and share a flat when
a suitable opportunity arises.”
there is respite care and a small youth group that gets together
and going bowling or enjoy pizza and other things. These are all
things Claire couldn’t do when we lived out of town because she
isn’t able to drive.
we’ve met people we never would have met and we are all the richer
for meeting those people. We are more tolerant and understanding
because we have another insight that has kept us on an even keel.”