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How one exceptional farmer counsels his peers.
STORY BRUCE McMAHON | OUTBACK MAGAZINE
Queensland dairy farmer Ross Blanch once wandered his paddocks talking to a herd of cows. Today he’s still out there on the family farm, some 70km by road west of Brisbane, yet more often Ross is on his mobile phone talking to troubled farmers as Lifeline Farmer to Farmer Crisis Support counsellor. It is a unique program, based around listening and backed by personal farming experiences, and Ross’s own highs and lows.
“I was always going to be a farmer; there was nothing else,” he says with a ready smile. “And I like all aspects of farming. I’ve had beef cattle, stud cattle, dairy cattle, crops.”
As a fourth-generation farmer, Ross works alongside brother Steve on a 240ha block their father took up near Rosewood in 1954. The Blanchs lease a further 160ha and run 300 head of Friesians, Brown Swiss, and AIS cattle, 140 of those milkers.
Ross, 66, left school in year 10 to head to the farm, yet sees that it’s his Lifeline education that has proved as valuable. “I went through a tough time in my life 30 years ago and a couple of people supported me through it, and when I came out the other end of it, I thought, ‘Wow’. Without that help I don’t know where I would’ve got to,” he says. So, Ross headed off to Lifeline in nearby Ipswich and 28 years ago began training as a volunteer counsellor to take crisis calls from around south-east Queensland.
“It was pretty challenging because all I’d ever known was talking to cows,” he says. “It was a bit different but the training soon accustomed me to talking on the phone. You become really about 95% listener. And that’s where the key to it is – listening.” He says Lifeline saw his potential, kept training him and he kept on volunteering for shifts, counselling all manner of people with all manner of problems.
Then at the end of a crippling drought in 2019, Ross got talking to another farmer at the local cattle sales. “He told me he was living on baked beans and toast – no cattle left, no money. That’s when I went to my manager and said, ‘I wonder what we can do?’”
That manager Karen Prestidge suggested starting an exclusive call line for Ross and making farm visits where possible. That was the origin of the Lifeline Farmer to Farmer Crisis Support, now supported and funded by supermarket chain Woolworths and about to add another farmer as the program’s second counsellor. Karen sees Ross as a bit of a trailblazer, but with his years handling crisis calls, plus his involvement in community recovery work, he was a natural fit for the task. “It was just an extension of what he was already doing,” she says. “It just made sense to people, so as soon as the idea was floated, and we made plans to inform different stakeholders, it got a lot of support and promotion.”
Calls to Ross come from around Australia and he could write a book about the people he’s helped – rural people struggling with droughts, floods, debts and disasters. “It’s really blown me away how much it’s caught on,” he says. “But once you help someone and they start telling people, that’s the best part. One person I know whose life I saved – he was within a minute of taking it – is now my best person for referrals. He’s probably handed on 20 referrals. He’s brilliant. He can spot things because he was so low himself.”
Ross Blanch with fellow farmer and friend Stephanie Van Der Westen at Lower Mount Walker, Qld.
Ross referred another man (“riddled with anxiety”) to a mental health agency. He recovered within 2 months, then rang one day and said, ‘Ross, this fella, you need to talk to him. He’s where I was at’.”
Ross has weathered plenty of droughts, floods, good times and bad himself. Now he just rolls with the punches, he says, but understands everybody’s experience is different. Something that appears trivial to some, may be major to others. “Basically, if someone’s struggling you bring them to the situation today rather than looking back. Get them to today, see where they’re at and talk about steps to go forward. You build a rapport and listen as long as possible.”
Most calls come in between 6am and 9pm. Most are 5 to 10 minutes in length, and rarely last past 20 minutes because, even in strife, farmers still have jobs to be sorted. Ross’s experiences, and being fluent in ‘farmer language’, are valuable. Sometimes he may offer practical advice on a specific farming issue with the caveat that the solution may not work in that particular instance. Usually, though, Ross notes, the caller already has the answer, it just needs to be dug out of them.
“Some people appreciate just having a yarn, not that I tell them what to do but I talk to them in a language that’s helpful,” he says. “You need farmer language. Sometimes it’s a bit blunt but farmers like it blunt, they like it real.” He is big on telling people to reach out, a sign of strength, not weakness. “Suffering in silence is not healthy,” he says.
“Things can be going okay for farmers. Physically they’re okay but then all of a sudden, a disaster hits them – might be a flood, might be the drought gets worse, might be a cyclone, something major on the farm happens – and then their mental health comes in and once you lose your mental strength, your physical strength, and your ability to cope, fails.
“Sometimes I notice older people, when they slow down, that it’s a struggle to have to adjust to slowing down. That affects their thinking again and their mental health is affected a bit. Especially when a disaster hits. Rebuilding when you’re older is a lot harder than when you’re bullet-proof and 30.”
Ross sees loneliness as a massive rural issue, accentuated by the COVID pandemic. Accommodation struggles are growing too. Ross understands he’s not an expert in all things, so has contacts in different agencies, from backup at Lifeline to mental health services and Drought Angels. Lifeline also looks after Ross with debriefs and resources. “With all the experience on the crisis line, 28 years, it really is now easy to let it [the problem] go and know it’s not mine,” he says. “If I’m going to help people, I have to be fit and healthy mentally.”
Ross has grown with his counselling and farm visits, and he is now comfortable talking to anyone, from farmers to politicians and corporate bosses. It has been rewarding, he says, and he’s often swamped with chocolates and cards and cartons of drinks. Those rewards extend through to the farm; in 2022 the Blanchs earnt Norco’s Most Improved Milk Quality from 200 farmers.
“That’s from talking to all these other farmers and they’re giving me tips,” Ross smiles. “At the end of the day, I’m only an ordinary old dairy farmer.”
Lifeline: 131 114
Lifeline text: 0477 131 114