Matt Willis, Carrajung South // April 2023 "Farming Conversations" Calendar
by Gippsland Jersey
"Every morning is a good day, Right? When I was 21 years old and coming to grips with my lost abilities I learned a hell of a lot about grit!"
Matt Willis has an incredible story and there’s not much he hasn’t faced! At 21 years of age he became an incomplete quadriplegic after a freak accident, keeping the farm going through the drought, then nearly losing the farm in the Black Saturday bushfires, his Mum being diagnosed with Huntingdon’s disease and then nearly losing his Dad in a truck accident. Despite his challenges Matt continues to farm and we think he has an incredible amount to say about mental resilience..
Where’s your farm located?
Tell me about your farm situation?
I’m on the family farm that I grew up on.
I hear that you seem to have had every possible bad thing happen to you. Tell me about your story:
On January 1, 2004 I duck dived into the water while we were camped at The Barrier in Lakes Entrance. I was 21 years old at the time and I broke my neck. I am now an incomplete quadriplegic. I was in hospital and rehabilitation for around six months. At the time of the accident I only had six months of an apprenticeship left, which I’d left school to undertake.
In October 2004 I was able to be a groomsman at my sister Michelle's wedding and to help out with our farm’s harvest season. I have always had a tight bond with my brother in-law, Chook. He’s the one that saved my life; gave me CPR on the day of my accident. In 2006 we built a rotary dairy, purpose built for my disability, to help me milk the cows a bit easier, I couldn’t milk in the herringbone any longer.
After spending lots of money updating the shed, in 2007, we were hit with a drought. Then, in 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires came and we lost 150 acres of pasture and seven kilometers of fencing. We had to sell off cows to pay our bills; we simply couldn’t keep them. Then the big Murray Goulburn milk crash happened and the drought struck us hard. Soon after that my mum was diagnosed with Huntington's disease. She's a fighter, but life is tough for her. She has carers seven days a week. Just before last Christmas dad was in an accident with a Ken Worth truck coming back from Maffra. This really impacted his memory and he gets a bit frustrated these days.
On our farm we have the capacity for about 600 cows, however, at the moment we are milking 300 and have a share farmer. Milking is hard on my body, especially when it’s cold. I can tell you when it’s going to rain; about a week before it actually rains my joints start aching. I spend lots of my time in a tractor these days and we do a fair bit of contracting.
You probably could have given up so many times, Matt. Why haven’t you? What keeps you getting out of bed each day?
Every morning is a good day, Right? When I was 21 years old and coming to grips with my lost abilities I learned a hell of a lot about grit!
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone going through tough times?
Just to take every day as it comes. When I’m having a bad day I just go and do something else. Shift my mind.
So have you had any counselling for the traumas you’ve gone through? An accident, drought, bushfire, financial crash and your mum and dad getting sick/hurt is a lot to take on!
No, not really. Just talk to family and friends. When I'm having a bad day, and start cracking the shits with my legs, I’ve learned that ‘this time will pass’.
Is farm safety on your mind as you go about your day-to-day work?
Yeah, it's always in the back of my mind. l grew up in the time when you just went and did it and you didn't think about it too much. Once you have had an injury it’s always in the back of your mind. Our appetite for risk is very low. We don’t like employing people because of this very reason. That’s why a share farmer arrangement is better suited to us. We live on a hill so you have to have your wits about you. We also live on the main road and plenty of cars drive past, so there’s no time for doing the wrong thing.
What would you do if you weren't dairy farming?
I wouldn't have a clue what I would be doing! Dairy is what I've always done. It’s good to get off the farm sometimes though.
Are you feeling optimistic about the future?
As long as we can keep getting a good milk price we can do this! We've been pretty close a few times to closing it all down. We were just lucky enough to have our first lot of share farmers come along at the right time. Not everything can be fixed straight away, but slowly we will get there. My sister has taken over all the bookkeeping and paperwork and I’ll continue contracting work and doing what I can around the farm.
So, do you still go back to the Barrier where the accident happened?
Yep, it's like falling off a horse; you gotta get back on it!
The Farming Conversations 2023 is brought to you FREE by Gippsland Jersey, Connect Well, East Gippsland Community Foundation, Orbost Regional Health and the Royal Flying Doctors Service.
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