Farmer Relief a community mission

By Jeanette Severs

THE STATISTICS grab your attention first — 142 farming families, $50 000 in Visa cards, $55 000 in groceries, 75 volunteers, 55 500 km. Then there is the passion of those 75 volunteers, committing themselves to a weekly, fortnightly or monthly contribution.

This is the data and passion underpinning Gippsland Farmer Relief, which has grown from one woman’s commitment to helping dairyfarming families during the dairy crisis, to become a registered charity supporting 142 farming families affected by drought.

Melissa Ferguson began Gippsland Farmer Relief in her spare room in 2016. Now boxes of groceries are packed and distributed from a warehouse in Traralgon, supported by St Vincent de Paul Society. It is also here the charity is administered.

No-one is paid for their time or mileage. Some volunteers commit to helping weekly. One volunteer drives 700 km to deliver groceries each month to one farming family.

“I made a general callout to the community in 2016,” Ms Ferguson said.

She received donations of time and money and established, initially, an incorporated community organisation that recently was registered as a charity. In that first year, 54 dairy farming families were assisted — with two boxes of groceries monthly, pantry staples with a retail value up to $200. There are many well-known brand names in the grocery boxes — Kelloggs, SPC, Campbell, Kraft. The charity also buys food from FoodBank. In January, school supplies are added to the groceries, for those families with school-aged children.

Referral for assistance is wholly word-of-mouth. Some farmers have self-referred, others have been referred by a third party.

“Confidentiality was something we focused on from the start,” Ms Ferguson said.

“We have a dedicated staff member who contacts the farmers. We try to do it with the utmost respect for farmers.

“We advise why we’re phoning and invite them to participate in the scheme.

“We continue our ethos of respect through the system. The 20 packers don’t know who they are packing boxes for. The 49 people who deliver the boxes drive their own private vehicles and only receive the names and addresses of the farmers they are delivering to.”

The Visa cards are delivered by registered mail. Recently, some fresh fruit and vegetable retailers have come on board, providing vouchers so families can supplement their staples with fresh food.

All product is paid for from funds raised by several Rotary and CWA clubs, schools and other groups in Gippsland.

A major fundraising initiative, driven by the retail sector, has been Parma for a Farmer. It was set up as a single fundraising initiative but Ms Ferguson said many hotels and motels had continued it beyond the initial month and that ensured a regular flow of money into the charity.

All of the money raised is spent on groceries and $50 and $100 Visa cards.

“The Visa cards mean people can buy things they need in their local community, helping their local businesses and rural economies,” Ms Ferguson said.

“One hundred per cent of our fundraising goes to farmers.”

In the last quarter, $50 000 of Visa cards were distributed and $55 000 of groceries were delivered to farmers, with volunteers driving 55 500 km.

The charity established a facility called ‘Track my Donation’, so donors could receive a report about what their donation had been spent on.

Periodically, Ms Ferguson puts out a social media call for donations of specific products — these are generally toiletries, women’s hygiene products, baby needs such as nappies and formula and laundry products.

“I’ll specifically identify what we need. Often the service clubs assist with those donations,” she said.

In the past year, the number of farming families being assisted by Gippsland Farmer Relief has grown from 98 to 142, as drought bit deeper into the regions east of the Latrobe River.