Never ask a truck driver what the inside of his cab looks like.
“That’s a bit personal,” Brendan Farrell arcs up. He’s had enough of those kind of questions and refuses point-blank to answer any about family or upbringing either. That’s fair enough. Farrell is a man on a mission.
The fourth-generation farmer from Burrumbuttock, New South Wales, has been organising massive convoys of hay to drought-stricken farmers since 2014. Last year 260 trucks and 400 trailers carted 14,000 bales to Ilfracombe in central-west Queensland, where his crew also helped build bar facilities at the racecourse. In January this year, on his 13th run, 150 trucks and 200 trailers took $2m worth of hay to Cunnamulla in south-west Queensland.
Yet it’s a lo-fi operation. Farrell posts a Facebook message about where the next hay run is going and the potential dates, then drivers contact him offering their trucks, which will be loaded with donated hay. Farrell puts their names and phone numbers on a sheet of paper, which may or may not be kept in the cab of his truck. “We put on entertainment,” he says. “We take country music singers and we have a few beers with the locals who are doing it tough, so we feed their animals, feed their souls.”
Everyone wants a piece of Farrell. Considering Australia’s most successful cultural exports are probably Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin, it’s no surprise the media – locally and internationally – loves this true-blue Aussie in cut-off denim shorts and with a laugh like Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor. He is cast as a man for the people, particularly after making the honour roll of 2016’s NSW Australian of the Year awards as the local hero.
“A lot of people want me to be the face of the outback,” he concedes. “We had Lara Bingle, years ago, promoting Australia: ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ Now a lot of people want me to be that in the outback because they are hurting.”
The hay runners are certainly welcomed ecstatically when they arrive in a town. The problem – as Farrell’s assistant keeps telling him – is with his propensity to swear and his healthy disregard for politicians (“I make them look silly. They don’t want to come near me”). He’s the sort of public speaker who could cause fireworks.
A great deal of that is attributable to stress. Farrell isn’t a faceless charity; he’s very much the heart and soul of the operation. He is the bloke who answers the phone and is aghast when I suggest we do our interview next time he pulls over for lunch. He doesn’t pull over for lunch.
“When you realise that you’re trying to move mountains and your phone just keeps ringing and ringing from people that want help, you start snapping at people,” he says. “Then you go to bed and go, ‘Why can’t I help these people? Why, why, why?’ And then you start putting yourself down – ‘I should have done more. I should have done that extra 25%’ – and all of a sudden you’re in depression.”
Conditions, he says, are woeful. “It hasn’t rained. Queensland outback has their rain December to middle of March, so [there is only] three weeks to get decent rain from Longreach right down to the Queensland border for any hope for grass to grow for the cattle to eat. Same with outback New South Wales.”
He’s fed up with premiers and other politicians flying in on private jets for photo opportunities, then leaving without understanding the depth of the problem.
“I’ve said, ‘Come out here in the scrub, in the flies, the heat and the shit, and take a look,’” he says. “Politicians don’t care about farmers because the majority of voters are all along the east coast. I don’t see 4,000 head of cattle in Pymble [in Sydney’s affluent north shore]. There’s 4,000 head of cattle near where I’m sitting now getting hand fed. They will go into steaks in Woolworths and feed voters. That’s what I’ve got to get across. If we don’t support our farmers now, in 10 years’ time we’re going to be importing 100% of Australian food.”
Farrell is in Bourke when we speak and he reckons he has never seen the Darling River so low. “We need to pipe the centre of the outback because the waterways we had 100 years ago are not here any more. Now we’ve got big corporations that buy up water licences. They don’t care about third-generation farmers; they want to buy them out. There was one company that bought 14 stations from Bourke to Cunnamulla. That hurts communities.”
Suicide rates in rural areas are consistently 40% higher than those in metropolitan areas. A new study published in the Journal of Rural Health this year found that suicide by Australian farmers came down to six interrelated themes: masculinity, uncertainty and lack of control over farming, feelings of failure, escalating health problems, inability to cope with stress and an acquired capability to commit suicide, with access to means. It has got Farrell worried.
“People in the outback have to learn to vent,” Farrell says. “I get my own counselling done. I have to. I tell people, ‘When the black dog bites, it bites hard.’”
He somehow finds time to make videos for the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners Facebook page that aim to educate and appeal for donations, which are made to the Rotary Club of Sydney. The hay runners aren’t a registered charity, due to Farrell’s dislike of bureaucracy. “I’ve helped 12,500 farmers in four years and I don’t have to have a meeting about a meeting,” he says. “If the Australian people put in a dollar to a charity, they’ve actually donated about 40 cents. The rest goes to an administration fee, taxes and all this other horseshit. With me, that whole dollar goes into fuel for the trucks.”
Instead, he relies on inspiring the public and private companies to act. And act they do, fundraising through barbecues and sporting events. One couple even asked their wedding guests to donate money rather than give presents.
In travelling to these outback communities, weary though he may be, Farrell has earned an even deeper appreciation of the land. “When you get to the Longreach area, there are the most beautiful sunsets you will ever see,” he says and the change in his tone is audible. “You can lay out there in the the middle of the scrub and almost touch the sun. As I’m talking to you now, it’s going down over north Bourke and it’s an absolute pearler.”