SOUTH of the Murrumbidgee River, surrounded by a cypress pine forest, lies a small town with a big heart. What Coleambally lacks in size – it’s home to just 650 people – it makes up for in tenacity. In fact, as almost everyone you meet here will proudly tell you, Coleambally’s community spirit is second to none.
A shining example of the town’s gritty, can-do attitude is its community farm. Run almost entirely by volunteers, the 379-hectare plot in the Riverina region of NSW has raised more than $2 million since it started nearly 22 years ago. Leased from the government, the farm is run by a committee of representatives from the town’s clubs and organisations, including schools, health services and sporting groups.
“It all started because the Coleambally Lions Club members saw the need to establish an asset for the community and decided to grow a small rice crop every year as a fundraiser for the town,” explains Trent Gardiner, treasurer of the Lions Club and member of the committee that runs the farm.
“Farmers would rather volunteer their services, machinery and equipment for one day of the year on the plot than sell raffle tickets in town. And, in the end, the farm raises a lot more money.”
FARMING COMMUNITY HARVESTS HOPE
Gradually the club members shifted their focus to a new site north of the town where they developed the community farm. Officially called the Murrumbidgee Shire Community Demonstration Farm, it is used to run agricultural trials and machinery demos as well as raise funds for both Coleambally and nearby Darlington Point. Rice, corn, barley, wheat and cotton have all been sown, grown and harvested by volunteers to fund a range of community projects for both towns.
Each year the clubs and organisations in town put in a proposal for a paddock and the committee determines who will grow a crop for that financial year based on their merits. “It’s then up to that winning group to do the groundwork and the farm committee takes a small percentage of the profits once all expenses are paid,” Trent says.
The winning organisation is responsible for developing the paddock. “In the early days we had volunteer bulldozers, laser buckets and road graders to get the paddock into shape. The more volunteer work the group can get, the more profitable their yield will be,” says Trent.
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Funds raised by the farm are injected back into the community, from upgrades to sporting facilities to schools, health service and community clubs, but it’s not just the farm that raises the much-needed cash. When a young woman from the district suffered a serious farming accident on a four-wheeler last year, the community pulled together in a different way.
“Close friends organised an auction and raised more than $80,000 for her,” says Trent.
“It was a heartening night. People were bidding against each other for all manner of goods and services and people dug deep. I think a fake pot plant went for $1,500. The spirit behind it was contagious and that’s what Coleambally is all about.”
EFFICIENT IRRIGATION SYSTEM REAPS BENEFITS
Trent Gardiner, a member of the committee that runs the community farm, with the cotton harvest.
Back in 1968 when the town was founded, the issue of irrigation was gaining momentum. Surveys showed the area to be outstanding for irrigation and work on the Coleambally Main Canal, to bring water from the Murrumbidgee, began in 1958. Four Bucyrus-Erie dragline excavators were used to dig the canal, one of which is still on show in Coleambally today.
“Coleambally Irrigation Co-op is the most efficient open-channel irrigation system in the world and was the first fully solar powered, gravity-fed and computer-operated open-channel system in the world,” says Trent. “It didn’t come easy. We were at the bleeding edge of technology at one stage during that journey, but we got there in the end and the community has been reaping the benefits ever since.”
NSW Farmers’ regional services manager for the South West Daniel Brear sees the fundraising farm as an essential cog in the community ethos of the town. “A lot of towns have an amazing sense of community,” he says. “It comes from individuals getting together to see what they can do to benefit the whole town. “Your own interests often come second to that of the community, and seeing farmers investing resources in this farm shows that the people of Coleambally and Darlington Point are looking at ways to support many interest groups in the towns.”
“With the revenue raised from the farm directly benefiting the community, there is a great way to build pride into something bigger.”
COMMUNITY FARM DRIVES COTTON PRODUCTION
In May this year, a joint partnership at the community farm between the Coleambally Community Club and the Lions Clubs harvested a 72-hectare cotton crop, raising more than $200,000 to be shared between the two organisations.
The profits were made possible because about 100 locals donated their time, machinery, equipment and elbow grease from start to finish until the job was done. “Seed trials were supplied by cotton seed distributors. Volunteers did all the labour, both ground and air spraying and watering,” says Trent Gardiner. “We had four pickers, two tractors and trucks donated for the harvest. The cotton yielded 12.95 bales a hectare. It was a big effort from start to finish and a great result for the community.”
Their efforts will see their much-loved community club back on its feet. “The Coleambally Community Club is a prime meeting place in town where we hold weddings, funerals, debutante balls and other public gatherings,” Trent says. “It was suffering financially to the point where it nearly had to close its doors, but this injection of funds will put it back in the black. The club will now be in the best financial position it has been in for the past decade or so and its doors will stay open.” The remainder of the money raised in the joint venture will go to the Lions Club for various community projects.
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COLEAMBALLY HONOUR ROLL
The Coleambally spirit is strong – and nobody knows this better than cattle and stone fruit farmer John Ward. John is receiving a Certificate of Honour for his 30 years’ service to NSW Farmers, where he is chair of the Coleambally branch, has served as an Executive Councillor, and is an R U OK ambassador. John, pictured above in his prune orchard, has made an important contribution to the Association and agriculture in general.