Rural Youth still has role in today's world

30 May, 2001 10:00 PM
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ONCE upon a time most young rural people belonged to a young farmer or youth group organisation.

These groups were the training grounds to groom the next generation's agri-politicians, the rural and regional leaders of today's farming communities.

It was also a forum for people to meet, exchange ideas and, in some cases begin relationships which would stand the test of time as together they took on Nature in the world or agriculture.

But today, as Generation-X prepares to take rural WA well into the 21st century, many are questioning the relevance of today's rural youth groups and whether these groups will survive the coming years as they succumb to funding problems and declining membership numbers.

In recent times there have been numerous changes to what were traditional events.

The introduction of various youth orientated events, replacement of Miss Showgirl by the more politically correct Rural Ambassador award, and high profile events involving WA's politicians have placed rural youth on a higher pedestal in the past couple of years.

But have these young ambassadors done it on their own through their own guidance and initiative, or have rural youth groups played a pivotal role in their training?

WA currently has two groups aimed at rural youth and there is varied evidence that these programs have worked for some people, with young community members going on to diversify into different farming ventures, become leaders of community groups and even be elected to local shire councils.

The WA Federation of Rural Youth (WAFRY) is WA's oldest rural youth group, having been established around World War One under the Junior Farmers banner.

The New Rural Generation (NRG) has run for the past two years under the Progress Rural program established by former politician Monty House, but which will be disbanded in July - perhaps an indication in itself of the group's relevance.

The NRG project has received government funding for the past two years, enabling it to conduct training seminars and interstate jaunts on a regular basis, perhaps grabbing a bigger share of WA's youth market.

Designed "to support rural people, 18-35 years of age, to develop strong networks across the state, to encourage positive vision and directions", project coordinator Claire Humphrey said at the time there were young people who were depressed about living and working in rural areas.

"It was set up to generate life lines for young people".

There is no doubt that interstate study tours have been the signature of the NRG program, which aimed to let young farmers see what was available outside their own backyard ‹ a prospect extremely appealing to any young person with a view to travelling around Australia.

Ms Humphrey, readily admitting that continued funding has been vital to the group's success, said the trips had also reaped great benefits, with tour members meeting like-minded people before returning to WA and using the networks "to move into different areas of diversity or leadership in their own communities".

The more time weary Junior Farmers had a name change to WAFRY in the 1970s when numbers were at their peak with around 50 clubs dotted around the state. Today there are six, which includes two in Perth.

But current president Jason Jarvis said if you looked at membership numbers alone you wouldn't get a true indication of the number of people involved in the group.

It was originally established around training and development activities and as a way of improving the lives and outlook of rural youth.

Mr Jarvis said regardless of the group's original foundation base, which still forms part of the group's main ideal today, the primary reason people were joining was for the social aspect and as a way of meeting new people in different areas. "As an organisation run by youth, for youth, Rural Youth has no equal".

Tongue in cheek, Mr Jarvis said it was still the best introduction agency he had come across.

And, in what is possibly the strongest link to past years, he, like so many others before him, met their future wives through this organisation.

When the group lost its government funding in the 1980s, member numbers dropped and the opportunities for activities became less and less, so the organisation is now in the process of trying to rebuild itself to its heyday levels, "looking at where we can be the most effective with the least amount of money".

The group provided "an excellent introduction to the whole concept of living in the country" for former Junior Farmers' member Lynne Johnston when she was new to both a rural community and the rural way of life.

"Covering a broad base of so many aspects of rural life, it was a means of gathering for youth and it had a purpose," she said.

Now very much involved with the PGA, Mrs Johnston is not surprised that member numbers have dropped over time, with rural youth leaving country areas having different expectations from life, but was sure there was still a place for rural youth groups, "only a different place".

And perhaps she has the answer for today's struggling groups, and that is to look forward rather than back and see where they want to be in 10 years time.

"Have a look at what role they want to play in the future because they definitely still have a role in our rural communities"

Former WAFF president and well known agricultural identity Peter Lee also benefited from the practical knowledge and lively social scene associated with Junior Farmers.

Joining the group in 1955 while in Trayning, Mr Lee said there was never the need to go to Perth or to the next town just because you wanted to, but if you were going for Junior Farmers that was fine "because Junior Farmers was good".

"It was a real different social scene then and Junior Farmers filled all the functions of providing practical farming knowledge along with creating a wider social scene. It was a great marriage bureau," he said.

But Mr Lee is sometimes saddened that the group hasn't been able to keep up with today's changing times and that it hadn't been able to re-invent itself to function effectively and efficiently. But suggested there was possibly still time.

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