Farmers find unexpected joy in Black Summer fire recovery

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When your farm burns, you lose your income for several years. If you’re unlucky, you also lose your home.

So speaking with families who lost it all yet still consider themselves “lucky” can be hard to reconcile.

Ask Katie Zagami if she’s sugar-coating her story and you’ll get a straight answer.

“There has been the ups and downs … yes, there’s been some really tough times and times when you’ve just wanted to run away from everyone and everything and stick our head in the sand.

“But you look back at it and there are just too many positives that come out of it.

“It’s still sad … but we’re all here, and the friends that we’ve made, and that support.”

Long recovery

A farm can burn in a matter of hours.

The fires burning in East Gippsland made big runs in the final days of 2019.

Now, almost two years on, many farmers there are still working to rebuild their businesses.

The recovery process is rarely replicated on opposing sides of a boundary fence. Each farmer progresses at a different rate and with different priorities and objectives.

At night, a large fire burns down a house on a farmAt night, a large fire burns down a house on a farm
Kevin and Milusa Giles’s home was destroyed in a bushfire that hit the area on December 30, 2019.(Supplied: Kevin Giles)

Flower farmers fortunate

Kevin and Milusa Giles own the Wildflower Bunch flower farm at Sarsfield. Only 700 out of 14,000 plants survived the fires.

But despite the big losses, Ms Giles considers they’ve recovered well.

The couple have built a new home, replanted the farm and replaced irrigation lines.

Pink and white flowers stand against a green undergrowthPink and white flowers stand against a green undergrowth
Flowers bloom after the fires at Kevin and Milusa Giles’s Sarsfield farm.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

“We’ll get a few stems off each plant after two or three years,” Mr Giles said.

“But it’ll be four years and maybe up to five years until it’s up to full production.”

To ensure an income, Ms Giles took up work at a clothing shop in town.

“It’s so different … rebuilding your self-esteem in another industry,” she said.

“I’ve always loved my clothes, so it wasn’t too hard … but just being out there, working in the public eye all the time with your customers … I can’t wait until I work back on the farm.”

A couple stand in front of a row of plants bearing protea flowers.A couple stand in front of a row of plants bearing protea flowers.
Kevin and Milusa Giles consider themselves fortunate, despite losing more than 13,000 plants.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

Mr Giles may soon also have to face that challenge as he runs out of work to do on the farm.

“I’ll probably have to go off farm and get a job three or four days a week and then come home and irrigate the crop after work,” he said.

“I’d prefer to be working on farm, working for myself … it’s a big decision … I don’t know how much demand there is for a 61-year-old in the employment market.”

Close-up photo of a large white flower.Close-up photo of a large white flower.
Only 700 out of 14,000 plants survived at Kevin and Milusa Giles’s Sarsfield flower farm.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

Tough, but not all bad

Nearby at Wairewa, Matt and Katie Zagami lost their home and their vegetable-growing business in the fires.

They said friends, family and charities had provided great support to rebuild their lives, but reinstating their farm income had proved much more challenging.

A couple stands in a paddock with long green grass. Two cows graze in the background.A couple stands in a paddock with long green grass. Two cows graze in the background.
Katie and Matt Zagami say they’ve had a lot of help to rebuild their lives, but getting the farm back to production has been more difficult.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

“We really struggled to get our head around rebuilding the actual house, but in terms of rebuilding our life, that support has been amazing,” Ms Zagami said.

After the fires, she increased her hours and returned to work full time. Mr Zagami took the opportunity to look after their four children.

“It’s something 40-year-old blokes don’t get the chance to do,” he said.

“[Katie] looked after the kids for 16 years while I worked, so it was probably my turn to put my hand up and do a bit more … that was a huge change, and it did probably take a year to actually appreciate the fact I had the opportunity and embrace it.”

Setbacks and opportunities

They also applied for a government concessional loan to help the farm recover, but much of this later proved to be wasted time.

“It took 12 months for us to get a no at the end and it was really disappointing.

“We had three or four years of drought leading up to the fires and because we hadn’t made a profit in those years … we weren’t eligible.

“It just made you question everything about what you were trying to do and help people and to get your business up and running.”

Rubble from house destroyed by fireRubble from house destroyed by fire
Matt and Katie Zagami lost everything in the bushfire that ripped through Wairewa.(ABC Gippsland: By Kath Sullivan)

Despite the setbacks, the Zagamis have also realised such a great loss also brings big opportunities. It could even help them build a better business than they had before the fires.

They hope to start growing snow peas hydroponically, and say it will provide more consistent supply as well as more consistent employment for their workers.

“We employed about four full-time people and 20 in our harvest crew [before the fire]. They all lost their jobs immediately.

“It was hard for us but it was definitely hard for the community as well and we haven’t found a way to put those jobs back in place yet.”

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