Vinnies has made a big difference

It is impossible to convey the toll that a bushfire takes on individuals, but you would soon get a sense of it were you to speak to farmers Ingrid and Norm Sharp, whose voices are still thick with emotion one year on from the Black Summer fires of early 2020.  

They choke up describing the bushfire that ripped through their Cudgewa farm in north-eastern Victoria, perhaps because the primary subject of the carnage in their case were the animals that they had spent they lives tending to – about 240 beef breeder cows. 

Only 100 acres of the couple’s 1000-acre property did not burn. They spent a harrowing night trying to fight the fires to protect their stock and farm in an area that had previously been in drought. “The fire kept coming at different times and from different places. Some areas in the valleys just exploded,” says Norm. 

Ingrid and Norm locked up the cattle that they could in yards before the fire, but they couldn’t get them all in time. The cows were difficult to reach as they were spread around the property, which is split into numerous blocks separated from one another. “The cows out in the open and near the boundaries of the national park were the worst affected,” he says. 

After the fire passed and morning broke, on no sleep, they made a wretched journey round the farm to find scores of their livestock either dead or dying. Around 100 died as a result of the blaze, and 60 of those the couple had to euthanise themselves in what Ingrid calls “the worst, worst, worst day of our lives”. “We had to take photos of each one for the insurance company. It was just horrendous and heartbreaking,” she says.  

Norm talks about the care he had for the stock, some of which he had reared himself. “It cuts really hard that they suffered,” he says. “The fire was so fierce, we did all could. When it’s coming down the hill chasing you, you’ve got to fall back and defend what you can.” 

The fire also destroyed a significant amount of hay and infrastructure, so they made the decision to destock some of their remaining cattle because they couldn’t manage so many in the immediate aftermath. Fences were gone on all nearby farms and it took weeks to get back all the cattle that had survived. All in all, the beef farm went from having stock of around 240 cows and 100 calves to 60 cows. “We went from being fairly bright and viable farmers to pretty much nothing,” says Norm, a fifth-generation farmer in the district. 

Although it was smoke-damaged, the couple are thankful their home survived. But they lost around 15kms of fencing and a significant amount of equipment, including a hay baler and wrapper machine that Ingrid says was Norm’s “favourite toy”. Norm explains that the price of insuring all the machinery needed on a large farm is prohibitive, so working out what to insure becomes a game of roulette, common to many farmers. “We had $100,000 worth of stock insurance, but then we lost a $100,000 of machinery that wasn’t insured,” he says. 

The immediate impact of the fire cut off the couple’s water for a few days and the electricity for three weeks, during which time they relied on a generator. They had to alternate turning appliances on and off, which promptly led to their fridge packing up.  

And this is what they spent their first Vinnies Victoria grant on, funded by Victorians’ kindhearted donations to our bushfire appeal. “Vinnies was very generous. We ended up with a better fridge than we expected,” says Ingrid. 
The second round of funding from Vinnies helped Ingrid and Norm pay to look after two backpackers who stayed with them for four months helping to rebuild fencing, sheds and work the cattle, as well as another couple who stayed for two months. 

“What impressed us was that Vinnies came back to us after the first grant to see if there was anything else they could help with. We didn’t have to approach them, and that was really appreciated. There was no red tape either, which was important because our heads were not in the place to deal with that,” says Ingrid. “And the money was in the bank very quickly. 

“Vinnies was very understanding and proactive about getting back to us and checking up on how things were going,” she adds. 

The couple feel that they are recovering fairly well and have gradually restocked to 170 cows, but they say that the pandemic has slowed rebuilding because many government and volunteer workers who would normally be on hand after such a disaster had to leave the district.  

The fires have made Ingrid and Norm, 59 and 60, take stock of their health and their future because they have seen the heavy impact it’s had on others in the community. “We’ve made sure to take regular breaks away from it this year. We’ve got our plan, and we’re working on our own personal recovery, as well as that of the farm.” 

Ingrid says that she has often visited her local Vinnies Shop in Wodonga – which she loves – as a shopper and to donate goods. “So I just think, this was our time to have little help back that will make life easier for us and hopefully sped up our recovery. 

“Vinnies has made a really big difference to us, knowing that we weren’t forgotten.”