Brendan Farrell delivers hope with every bale of hay he has carted to drought-stricken farmers. The straight-talking truckie tells JODIE O'SULLIVAN why he refuses to be called an unsung hero.
Brendan Farrell knows farmers in outback Queensland who have eaten Weetbix for breakfast, lunch and dinner for days on end.
He’s met desperate wives who send the kids out with Dad in the ute ... so that he comes home again.
There are kids who are five-years-old and have never seen rain.
Drought breaks people, Mr Farrell says bluntly.
“You can be the best farmer in the world but if a drought drags on for eight, nine or 10 years, you exhaust every piece of energy you have to keep going,” he says.
It’s why the fourth-generation farmer and freight operator feels he can’t stop what he started in 2014 after reading an article about a family struggling to survive the drought at Bourke, in NSW’s north-west.
Now Mr Farrell – “Bumpa” as he’s known to his mates – is finalising preparations for the 12th Burrumbuttock Hay Run from Darlington Point in NSW to Muttaburra in central-west Queensland.
He’s running on about 3½ hours sleep and in the past week alone has driven 7000 kilometres to meet farmers donating hay and fine-tune the logistics of keeping a convoy of 140 trucks on the road.
The last hay run in April 2016 saw 258 trucks cart nearly 14,000 bales of hay to drought-stricken farmers.
Mustering the energy, hay and trucks needed for this run has been tough, he admits during a flying visit to his 1200-acre property at Burrumbuttock on Wednesday.
It’s a searingly hot day and we’re perched on a couple of old oil drums in the machinery shed.
Glancing across the dry paddocks, Mr Farrell laughs ruefully and remarks his own place could probably do with a bit of rain.
Hundreds of big square bales are lined up in rows, like sentinels in a war against the ravages of Mother Nature.
It's only a fraction of the load that will be hauled thousands of kilometres by road train to waiting farmers come February 23.
But you sense the enormity of the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners’ undertaking.
And there, in a faded cut-off work shirt, scrappy shorts and boots, stands the man who orchestrated it all.
Mr Farrell, 41, is quick to dismiss suggestions his efforts are in any way extraordinary.
He reacted quickly and fiercely to the Facebook furore that erupted when well-meaning supporters called for him to be recognised in the 2017 Australia Day Awards, with many suggesting he was the “real Australian of the Year”.
“I’m not a hero,” he insists.
“I’m just a bloke with a truck who had an idea.”
His philosophy is you shouldn’t have to be paid to help your fellow man.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire to help someone – just get off your arse and do it,” he says.
Joining Mr Farrell in his herculean hay quest is a loyal army of truck drivers and support crew; many have been on every run.
Lifelong mateships are forged during long days on the road and the camaraderie that is borne from a common cause.
However Mr Farrell says it’s always a shock for people to see just how tough conditions are for farming families.
“It’s horrendous,” he says.
“When we went in April with 406 trailers, there wasn’t one word spoken during the entire 80-kilometre stretch between Barcaldine and Ilfracombe.
“There were thousands of dead kangaroos everywhere and not a blade of grass.”
Many truckies offer to deliver hay to stations rather than designated points en route.
“They see firsthand why I do this,” Mr Farrell says.
“They come back and tell me, ‘Bumpa he’s rooted, I’ve never seen anything like it’ and sign up straight away for the next run.”
A ballot system decides which farmers receive assistance with hay allocated on the basis of stock numbers.
Some farmers are still too proud to ask for help.
“They say, ‘We’ll be right, so and so down the road is worse off’, but you know damn well they’re busted and don’t have a cracker,” Mr Farrell says.
Every bale delivers help – and hope.
“I want to show them they are not forgotten,” Mr Farrell says.
“A lot of men won’t talk about their problems; they’d rather see product on the ground. You gotta realise these people breathe, eat and sleep their stock.
“If they haven’t got animals to get out of bed for to feed and water, well that’s when mind games start kicking in.”
Some haven’t made it.
Years of grappling with the unwieldy beast that is drought inevitably takes its toll on finances, families and fighting spirit.
“It makes me feel very ordinary but I’m only one bloke,” Mr Farrell says grimly of the men he’s known who have taken their lives.
“There’s a lot more government and private enterprise could be doing to help the agricultural industry.
“Anyone who says suicide rates in rural Australia are going down is a f---ing idiot.”
But for the tragedy of those lives lost is the knowledge many more are saved.
That’s what drives Bumpa Farrell to keep the rigs rolling.
It’s seeing three generations of farmers piled into a truck, having driven 150 kilometres to collect their allocation of hay.
It’s the locals in tiny outback towns who wait by the side of the road to wave and cheer the convoy through.
It’s everyday Australians who donate their last $10 to the cause.
And it’s the little boy who comes up to say: “Thanks for the hay Mr Farrell, Dad’s got time to kick the footy with me now.”