Words by Penny Clark-Hall, images supplied
“You can’t get more authentic than a rural community” or so the saying goes. The rich tapestry of rural communities is a beautiful and powerful thing. The highs and lows of life that are enjoyed and endured are made all the richer for sharing the joy and burden with those that chose to make rural New Zealand their home. Whether it is by necessity, chance or devotion, there must be something in the water that turns these people into the giving, warm, kind, collaborative, ‘can do’ people they are. Cynics may say it’s a necessity of living rurally, however, it goes deeper than that.
The glue that binds a rural community is stronger than an urban one. We’ve seen it time and again during natural disasters, family tragedies, raising children and supporting each other’s businesses, hopes and dreams. The most recent example of rural communities at their finest was the flood in Mid Canterbury. The natural disaster instigating a nationwide response and outpour of support. “I’ve been really proud to live in such a caring community where people call and text to see how you are,” said farmer and National Federated Farmers Board member Chris Allen.
Chris was severely affected by the flood. He lost 22 fences, all now covered in silt and gravel. His trees are gone, fodder beet crops are under half a metre of gravel and the wall of his 6.5ha pond has blown out leaving debris and gravel in its place. Despite all this, Chris said he is one of the lucky ones. He says the water only ran through their property for three days, while others had to wait weeks before the onslaught stopped.
The overwhelm of the work that needs to be done has been made easier to swallow due to the incredible support from volunteers in and outside of the community. “How the community came together in that first week was really humbling. We had two lots of Lincoln students and volunteers that came and pulled stuff off fences. It was the visual progress we needed to get going.”
Chris also had the local tramping club come for two days, then the student volunteer army. “One of the guys who came with them was quite special. He had received help from the Farmy Army after the Christchurch earthquakes and wanted to repay them for it.” There’s never a right time to say yes when someone is offering to help but Chris says this time saying yes wasn’t so difficult.“ Our local Lions Club phoned to see if there was anything they could do and have been here from the very beginning. They’ve put my boundary fence back up and they just haven’t left. Every week they come back saying, ‘you keep farming and we’ll do the fences.’”
This type of heartwarming support has been coming from all over the country. Farmers have been banding together to help out, with feed donations now reaching around 11 truck loads. One of the farmers coordinating feed donations, from Milton in Otago, is Nigel Woodhead. He says his community has been surprisingly generous due to the shortage of feed in the area. “We usually hold a local feed competition where we judge bailage and then sell them off to raise money for our A&P show. This year with the flood I thought why don’t we donate this to someone that’s in need? We were mindful that people are still tight on feed down here but people really came to the party with 36 bales in total donated and some individuals donating five bales each.”
Farmers have been supporting each other through natural disasters and adverse events for years. It is that pay it forward mentality that ensures each community is supported when faced with these types of events. “When one of us is in trouble we all rally, and that support is never forgotten,” said Nigel.
“I’ve never forgotten the unit of hay my uncle gave me in the drought a couple of years ago. It’s just about being a good human.” One good human (a farmer) even donated $4000. Josh Dondertman, who is the newly appointed Mid Canterbury Rural Support Trust Chairman said the community is struggling but the support has been much appreciated.
“A farmer who was affected by the Waiau earthquake came down to see if he could help out with his bulldozer and ended up being a beacon of hope,” said Josh. “Having him talk to some of the farmers was really useful to show them that this isn’t the end. He was great even without the bulldozer because he was able to show the community there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The offering of help outside of the farming community also came in fast and from all angles. “I couldn’t answer the phone fast enough,” said David Clark, local farmer and Federated Farmers Mid Canterbury President. “We were just inundated with offers of help. I couldn’t keep up, so we had to get funding for a flood coordinator.” There are now also coordinators for South Canterbury and North Canterbury also, all under the Farmy Army umbrella.
If there is one thing that always remains true, it is that rural communities always pull together and this event was no exception. David says there has been fantastic support at all levels - from neighbours helping each other to emergency services, Ashburton District Council and industry groups (particularly Federated Farmers).
“People are just getting on with what’s got to be got on with. This is a massive event and it’s going to have a massive impact on people’s businesses.” There are issues that have been highlighted and accentuated as a result of the flood but right now the focus is on the clean-up and the wellbeing of not just the community but the animals who’re returning to riverbeds rather than pastures. Aside from dealing with the flood response as a farmer representative, David is also a farmer and neighbour himself, incidentally to Chris Allen. They had a hair-raising moment when they had to rescue two people from drowning in their car outside Chris’s home.
“I last spoke to Chris on the Saturday night and I said to him if you need me anytime through the night just call me. I got that call at 4am.” Chris spotted a father and daughter in trouble when he was out on farm checking stock. He saw its headlights pointing backwards as it started to bob off down the road. While 111 had been called, he realised that no one was going to be able to get them out without a decent sized tractor. “I bought the biggest tractor I had,” said David. “I had to cut a fence to get through to them and by that time the headlights had gone off so it was hard to find them. When I did, the water was nearly halfway up their windscreen and they were trapped. I could see it in their faces that they knew their life was in the balance.”
David said he caught their car with his tractor wheels to stop them washing away and had to smash the window of the car to get them out. Passing them lifejackets, David helped them climb onto the tractor cab. As he started to pull away from the car his 16 tonne tractor started to wash sideways. “We high tailed it out of there. Everybody involved knew the gravity of the situation. It was quite emotional. They knew they were really really lucky to be alive.”
There were other rescues that Sunday. Other people who were also very lucky not to lose their lives due to a strong, resilient and heroic community ready and willing to help. The recovery ahead seems daunting yes. But as human rights activist Desmond Tutu famously said, ‘the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time’ and with the benefit of a resilient rural community at the helm the problem is shared and indeed halved.