Road back from fire a long, black one

DAIRY farmers Neil Kent and Vicki Curran are living at “ground zero” following the Stonyford fire that razed close to 90 per cent of their 122-hectare (300-acre) dairy farm.

The couple are surrounded by blackened paddocks that come to within metres of their home, with the drystone fences surrounding their house possibly the only thing that stopped the blaze from coming closer.

They are among the worst affected by the February 5 blaze that razed about 600 hectares, burning for days across eight properties near the Cobden-Stoneyford Road at Stonyford, east of Cobden.

The fire wreaked extensive destruction across the couple’s farm, burning the organic material in the rocky ground, turning some of the soil into powder and vulnerable to wind erosion.

The couple fear it might be years before some areas of the farm recover their productivity.

Much of the farm’s fencing and other wooden infrastructure was destroyed in the fire, along with poly water pipes, leaving the couple with a big rebuilding effort.

The loss of pasture forced the couple to sell off heifers that calved to keep the dry feed available for their milkers.

It has also left them waiting more anxiously than most for this year’s seasonal break to return growth to the paddocks. 

“I hope mother nature is kind to us this year,” Ms Curran said.

The couple were milking about 60 cows but the fire has led them to dry off a portion of the herd earlier than usual, leaving only about 20 in production that are being fed in a feedlot arrangement.

Ms Curran said the local dairy community had been very supportive with other farmers taking on the couple’s dry cows and dairy processor Fonterra organising a hay and silage drive for them.

“People have been fantastic,” Ms Curran said.

“It’s been really humbling.”

But despite the community support, the fire will be a big setback not only for Ms Curran and Mr Kent but also for the other Stonyford farmers affected by the blaze.

No government assistance has been made available to the couple and they said their recovery from the fire would be slow.

They had only moved on to the farm in 2006 and had come through the past few years of low milk prices and last year’s poor season.

New fencing had been erected around many of the farm’s paddocks in the past few years, only to be destroyed in the fire last month.

While the setback has not robbed the couple of their sense of humour, Ms Curran was frank about the fire’s psychological effect.

“We did not sleep for the first week (after the fire). You are that wound up,” she said.

However, being able to resume the farm’s daily routine had helped return some stability to the family of four’s lives.

Ms Curran said the alarming speed of the fire brought home the truth of the need to have a fire plan ready well before it was needed.

She said Mr Kent had time to only check the heifers after he spotted smoke before the fire reached an adjoining farm.

“You do not have time to get out,” she said.

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