Opting for a rural lifestyle comes with numerous upsides. Escaping the big smoke to raise children on farm fresh eggs and milk straight from the cow certainly has its appeal.
However, running a farm is a full-time occupation and it’s one that doesn’t stop for holidays.
This is the reality for Eugene Rea and Chantelle Kneale who run a 250-hectare dairy farm in Mepunga, Victoria. While they thoroughly enjoy their life on the farm, opportunities to take a break are sparse.
“Sometimes you just want to get away for the sake of the children,” says Kneale. “We can never go away for more than five or six days.”
Rea and Kneale employ a full-time farm worker who is the only person able to manage the farm in their absence.
“It takes a lot of careful planning and coordination to be able to leave the cows and the property,” says Kneale. “We need to choose the right time of year. When the cows are calving or during harvest, it’s impossible to get away.”
This is a common problem for farmers in Australia. Muhammad Khan Niazi and his wife, Amanda, run a niche commercial poultry farm on the outskirts of Melbourne and find that, for them, trust is the biggest factor.
“Our farm is our passion and our livelihood,” says Khan Niazi. “We care for all of our animals and in addition to the financial cripple that we would experience if the farm sitter didn’t do the job properly, the safety and health of our birds is a big worry for us.”
Khan Niazi and his family find the lack of breaks from farm life difficult.
“We have to apologise to the kids for not being able to join friends and family on trips away,” he says. “Everyone benefits from a break from work and, for us, it is extremely hard to make a family break a reality.”
This issue was the driving force behind Phillip Kelly, and his wife Kim, creating their business, Farm Sitters Australia.
“Effectively our business is a platform to link property owners with short-term farm sitters or caretakers,” says Kelly.
Farm Sitters Australia is a membership-based, nationwide service that vets new farm sitters for suitability and facilitates match-ups between members. While jobs can be done on a volunteer basis, but most farm sitters are paid for their services.
“The majority of our farm sitters are retired property owners, managers or stock agents, or people who have had an affinity with rural and regional areas,” Kelly says.
“What we find is that they’ve done the retirement thing, they’re tired of playing golf or fishing, and they just want to do something a little bit different … It is as important for the people who have retired as it is for the property owners.”
But a farm-sitting job is not just a house-sitting gig on a larger property – it can come with a fair amount of work and responsibility.
“It is a big ask to have a property owner leave their asset under the control of someone they don’t really know,” says Kelly. And things don’t always go according to plan.
Kelly says that when problems have occurred, it has usually been due to misunderstandings.
“The key thing is communication up front. We encourage the property owners and farm sitters to talk to each other before they engage in a partnership. Sometimes people just don’t click.”
Communication is a priority for regular farm sitter, Adrian Cloonan, who has taken assignments in a number of states on properties ranging in size from 10 to 500,000 acres.
“We always ask for a manual when we take over a property,” says Cloonan.
“We need to know the quirks of the property, who the neighbours are, vet details and a backup plan if we have to leave for family or medical reasons.”
In an effort to get as much information about the property as possible, Cloonan also does a walk or drive around with the owners, and shares a meal with them before they depart.
Both in their 70s, Cloonan and his wife, Esther, only take assignments on a volunteer basis as they consider the benefits of farm sitting to be numerous.
It offers them a break from the city and they enjoy the peace and quiet, and the routine of farm life.
“We learn about aspects of farming, we get to better understand our country, it keeps our minds active and exposes us to new situations,” Cloonan says.
And despite having encountered all manner of tricky situations, including unexpected droughts and motorbike accidents, Cloonan considers there to be no downside to farm sitting. For him, it is a holiday with a purpose.