FIVE Wheatbelt women recently spent a week investigating how farming families in the Wimmera Mallee region of Victoria survived 10 years of drought.
On their recent trip to Birchip in the shire of Buloke, Victoria, Jo Fulwood, Cunderdin, Erin Turner, Pingelly, Shauna Stone, Quairading, Jane Mouritz, Hyden and Sarah Miller, Beverley, toured the cropping region, celebrated women in decision-making roles and learnt climate change adoption strategies from local farming families and the Birchip Cropping Women's Agronomy Group.
The tour highlighted the need for good mental health services to help people deal with the extended period of drought throughout western Victoria before this year's bumper season.
Fulltime mother of three, Jo Fulwood said the trip highlighted how resilient people had become because of the dry years.
Ms Fulwood farms with her husband and young family on a mixed grain enterprise where wheat, canola, barley, oats and lupins replaced livestock years ago.
"Despite the financial hardship, the drought seemed to strengthen the fabric of the communities," she said.
"Dry seasons seem to happen over extended periods of time and we need to be prepared for that.
"This means local and state governments may need to step in and provide better support services to farmers, who through no fault of their own, are struggling to deal with drought."
Ms Fulwood said she attended the Birchip tour with a family and community based interest rather than a specific agronomic one.
"I'm a fulltime mum of three children under six and some of the other women who went over are a lot more physically involved in the farm," she said.
"Although I'm very interested in agronomic practices, development and maintenance, I was really keen to see how the Victorians strengthened their communities during the really hard times."
Ms Fulwood witnessed some amazing people and friendships throughout the duration of the tour and said it was the highlight of her trip.
"It's a strange silver lining to an unusually dark cloud," she said.
"The Victorian State Government ought to be congratulated for the part it played in helping to keep the Birchip community afloat.
"The Government helped to fund projects and small events which had enormous social benefits."
The Government-funded community barbecues which provided people with the opportunity to establish and revive social connections within the community.
"It assisted in developing social networks and connections so those who were struggling to deal with the anxiety of the drought weren't living in social isolation," Ms Fulwood said.
"It also provided the community with a chance to identify those who weren't attending events and follow-up with them to make sure they weren't struggling alone.
"Although I'm from a farming background I didn't claim to know a lot about mental health and emotional wellbeing but it was clear these serious issues were being addressed on a community level.
"It is really significant particularly in prolonged periods of hardship."
Ms Fulwood said understanding how to spot emotional weakness within a community was a key thing she took away from the tour and a seemingly minor event like a community barbecue helped significantly.
"Others set up simple exercise groups and the Government also helped to fund education programs for sustainable domestic living in a drying environment," Ms Fulwood.
"The education program outlined ideas and case studies that could be implemented into our everyday domestic environments.
"Simple things like washing efficiently, installing grey water systems and using different lawn and plant varieties around the home.
"It was all very practical and presented in a very non-condescending way."
Ms Fulwood had never met the other four women before travelling to Victoria but said she had heard of most of them described as progressive leaders within their rural communities.
"They are all amazing and intelligent women," she said.
"The networking opportunities made available to us were priceless."
Community projects weren't the only items on the agenda and the group attended various workshops on property diversification, farm finance, climate change research and dry season strategies.
The project was supported by the Wheatbelt NRM and funded by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry under Australia's Farming Future.
For more information and to read about the ladies' experiences on the Birchip tour visit http://birchiptour.blogspot.com.
For more stories on Dealing with the Dry, see the full feature in this week's edition of Farm Weekly.