Faith and perseverance in the face of drought
Brothers Mark and Pat Daniher, their children and parents, have lived through drought before, but this one is proving tougher than most. However they told Catholic Voice journalist CHRIS GORDON they remain optimistic and defiant, recognise they are in a better position than many other people and remain strong in their faith.
Leo Daniher has seen a lot in his 88 years.
The patriarch of the Daniher family, he has lived near Ungarie for most of his life and faced everything country life could throw at him.
Like that bloke in the James Taylor song, he’s seen fire and he’s seen rain. He’s seen sunny days that he thought would never end.
But he’s never seen a drought as bad as this one.
Well, maybe once. It’s a toss-up between this one and the drought of the 1940s.
“This drought … it’s severe,” Leo reflected at his property.
“The worst I’d seen before this was in the ‘40s and that was terrible. But I think this one’s just as bad. It’s looking like 1946 all over again.
“The last two years have been very poor. It’s been hotter, drier… crops have virtually died. I don’t think it’s going to finish any time soon. It might get worse.”
Leo lives just across the way from his son Mark between West Wyalong and Ungarie. While he has eased off on the physical side of running the place, now in the hands of sons Mark and Pat, he still keeps an eye on the place and his input is invaluable.
The Daniher family
Leo has a perspective on local droughts few in his community could match. One of five children (Jim, Jack, Leo, Tess and Mary), Leo and his two brothers married three sisters. Jack married Beryl Erwin, Jim married Edna and Leo married Dorothy. Those three marriages produced 28 offspring… 11 kids each to Jim and Jack and their respective wives, and six to Leo and Dorothy.
“We really propped up the Catholic School in Ungarie,” Mark said.
“We filled up the buses and the classrooms. We went to school together, got on well together, we had a great childhood. We didn’t have much but it didn’t matter, we’d be out kicking a footy in the dust and dirt and tackling.
“Dad and Jim started the farm and all of us kids helped out. Some went away to school, some went and played footy and when it came time to split it 20-odd years ago, Dad and us went our way and Jim and his kids went their way.”
If the Daniher name sounds familiar, four of Mark’s cousins played for Essendon in the AFL.
Like everyone in their district, the Daniher’s are only too familiar with sad and tragic drought stories. The realities have been insurmountable for some.
The Daniher’s have also done it tough, but not as tough as some, they hasten to add.
The family-run merinos and wheat crops on their 8000-acre property, “Rose Glen,” and both their stock and crops have helped them survive.
Deciding to sell or keep stock can be a difficult call … do you hang on so you have stock on hand when you come out the other side, or do you sell, temporarily boosting income and saving the money you’d spend on the stock feed?
Much of a farmer’s job can be a mix of astute choices and gambling.
Mark and Pat decided to hang on to their stock, with a wheat crop they could use for hay. So far, they’ve had enough grain and hay to get through and have been able to keep their stock numbers high.
“We decided to do something out of the ordinary and hold on to the mob,” Mark recalls.
“You generally sell some off when you get older ewes each year, but we held on to them to see how we’d go. We got another lot of lambs out of them so we ended up with extra lambs at lambing time as well, and we’ve got a great lambing percentage, the best we’ve ever had.
“We offloaded those ewes once we weaned the lambs and got them fat enough, so they’re gone. Now we’re back to our routine where we get rid of some of our older ewes, which are the five year old ewes now.
“All of the wether lambs went earlier while they were still looking pretty good. So we’re back to our basics.”
Keeping a positive attitude
While Mark and Louise agree this is the worst drought they’ve experienced, they are quick to declare that they are doing much better than many people.
Mark refuses to complain. The choice to be a farmer was his and he knew there’d be tough times. He remains pragmatic but at the same time optimistic.
“We’ve cut our own hay and kept our own grain from last year and the year before, where some haven’t got that or have already used what they had,” Mark said. “We’re pretty lucky really.”
Louise echoes those thoughts.
“We live in the driest continent in the grips of a drought, which is just part of an overall bigger picture,” she said. “This sort of thing is going to happen. But there are so many more people worse off than what we are.”
Mark and Louise’s daughter Lizzie believes her father and uncle’s effort and ability have played a crucial role.
“Dad is an incredibly smart farmer,” Lizzie said.
“He’s phenomenal at what he does. I was only saying to Mum the other day that Dad and Uncle Pat understand the land and understand their machinery. They don’t have to go out and buy new things. They fix it, they try everything they can. They’re just very capable. They persevere and make good decisions and that’s helped us through.”
Keeping their faith
One constant for the family through the ups and downs of life on the land is their faith. While Mark and Louise both understand that some people have had their faith tested by long periods of difficulty, such as this drought, their faith remains undiminished.
“A recent Gospel reading summed it up beautifully,” said Louise who, as well as teaching at St Mary’s War Memorial Primary School, works part time as secretary at the Parish Office.
“It was from Luke 18:1-8 – the unjust judge and the persistent widow. When the widow approaches the unjust judge she doesn’t get what she wants. But she keeps at him, she’s persistent, she doesn’t give up and eventually, he gives her what she asks for.
“And if the unjust judge rewards persistence, how much more will a loving God?
“I think that’s what we do too. We’re persistent in believing in prayer. We pray for rain daily. Maybe our prayers may not be answered the way we want them but in the long run, they will. I think if you give that away, you give in to despair.”
Mark said that former parish priest Fr Emil Milat had a very practical approach in addition to his spiritual assistance.
“He’d offer novenas, prayers of the faithful and so on,” Mark said.
“But he’d also come out. He’d spend a lot of time out here, feeding cows with us, working in the shearing shed, drafting sheep. And he wouldn’t just come out for an hour, he’d roll his sleeves up and be at it all day. Priests are part of the community and it meant a lot to us.”
Staying the distance
The family name remains known and respected across the district, not just for their sporting accomplishments, but for their role as solid, reliable members of the community. And the name looks like sticking around for a while to come.
Leo isn’t going anywhere.
“I get to see these people every day,” he says of his family.
“Dorothy looks after me and drives me around. We’d be in a bit of trouble if we couldn’t get around but that’s not a problem yet.”
“We’ve never considered walking away,” Louise adds, “and particularly with Leo still alive.
“The farm is what he’s known all his life. He grew up just a few miles down the road, probably on a tougher block. But we also don’t want to go. We genuinely believe the better days are coming.”
They’re doing it tough, but not as tough as some.
They count their blessings and try to be self-sufficient.
And they keep their faith.
“It’s the one thing that I always turn to,” Louise said. “We keep steadfast and we keep praying, and our God has a listening ear.”