Brendan Farrell: A simple man with a heart of gold

Brendan Farrell
Brendan Farrell

THE Riverina farmer who put the devastating Queensland drought on the national agenda has been dubbed a hero, a genuine true blue Aussie, the little battler with a big heart – deserving of Australian of the Year title.

Accolades have flowed after Brendan Farrell organised the record Burrumbuttock Hay Run to Ilfracombe, which saw almost 170 trailerloads of donated hay delivered to struggling farmers.

The total contribution of hay and other donations has been estimated to be close to $3 million.

“The weekend was absolutely heartfelt. Amazing. You can't explain it, there's no words to explain it,” says Kimble Thomas, who runs a 20,000 hectare sheep property with her husband Peter at Ilfracombe.

"The whole town was out there.

"The convoy of trucks, they were just a whole heap of special people, a real team of wonderful people.

"And the person that did it all, Brendan, is just a one in a million.”

Kimble and her husband, a fifth-generation farmer, Peter Thomas, returned to the land with their four young children only two years ago when Peter left his agribusiness job with Suncorp after nine years.

“We walked into this drought, this mess,” Kimble says.

"We've got the family record for the past 100 years and this drought is pretty well unprecedented.

"We started with about 14,000 sheep when we arrived and started selling them when we got here.

"Now we’re feeding our rams, 80 head of rams, and 28 odds and sods that we couldn't truck, and two horses, so we've just continued with them.”

The donated hay and gift hampers from Queensland-based Drought Angels has been a godsend for the Thomas’s and hundreds of other families in the same dire situation.

"Everybody was so grateful, so thankful,” Drought Angels co-founder Tash Johnston says, “it just goes to show the spirit of the Australian people, when somebody needs a hand we just all come together and help out.

“Some famers had come 500 kilometres, it might have been further. It just goes to show how much they need it when they're prepared to drive 500 kilometres for 15 large bales of hay.

"We've been talking on the phone with Brendan for probably 18 months and have gotten to become friends that way but the first time we got to meet was up in Ilfracombe, we gave him a great big hug.

“Brendan is just a farmer with a big heart who wants to help out his fellow farmers. He's just a genuine Aussie, a plain down to earth caring person that saw a need.”

The Rotary Club of Sydney has used its ability to collect for charity to coordinate the financial side of the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners campaign from the start.

“All the money given goes through audited accounts and is paid out on invoices,” says Geoff Wilbow, who was president when the club first stepped in to help the Hay Runners.

"I keep saying to people, every dollar that goes into this actually goes out to support western NSW and Queensland.

"Being a Rotary club, it is all done by volunteers. We have very small admin costs and they are covered by our members fees not donated money. 

“So, unlike some charities, we can honestly say all the money that comes in goes out to where it's meant to go, and we've got a few bank fees but we cover those.

“I sit here in Sydney and manage this money. Brendan sits out at Leeton and pulls the whole thing together and gets 150 truckies, goodness knows how you do that, and encourages people to donate.”

A charity worker, one-in-a-million, a big-hearted farmer. Australian of the Year?

He’s trending better than the Kardashians and Justin Bieber on social media but Brendan Farrell is not having a bar of it.

 “This Brendan for Australian of the Year stuff, well, I'm not a big fan of that at all,” he says.

“There's a lot of people out there appreciating what I'm doing but there were people online yesterday going 'we don't know anything about this bloke, who is he? He might be a drug courier or anything’,” he says,

"Well everyone's got a dark past and when you become Australian of the Year, or nominated, people want to know what your past has been.

"Well they're not going to know mine, because I haven't been an angel I can tell you that.

"Back when I played footy I used to knock a few blokes out ... after the game.

"People don't need to know a lot of things.

"… Look, it's all good and well being nominated but I didn't do this for recognition, I didn't do this to be Australian of the Year.

"I've done this to help farmers.

"A lot of people have to realise I'm just a little bloke with a truck and I can get hay organised.

"I'm not a multi-millionaire. I've said it all along you don't have to be a millionaire to help someone.

"But if I say I'm going to do something I'll do it.

"And anyone who wants to get in my road and try to make it harder, piss off I don't want to know.”

Farrell is a fourth generation farmer running about 90 head of Angus cattle at Stanbridge between Griffith and Leeton, he has property leased out at Burrumbuttock and operates Farrell Freighters with “one shitbox old truck”.

"You spend a lot of time focused on the hay, you don't spent much time with your kids and your wife,” he says.

“And even yesterday when I came home and saw my kids on the front lawn as I'm bringing the truck over the ramp I'm going 'great I'm home' but the other side of my brain is going 'I have to make sure everything is tidied at Ilfracombe', making sure everything is right.”

He promised his wife Shannon and young family – Hallie, 6½, Sam, 4, and Charli 2½ – a holiday when the run was over.

"She's out there feeding cows and washing kids, she’s got to feed 15 poddy calves twice a day and look after all those other cattle. She gets it all done. It's a lot of work on her and people don't see that. Plus she runs the Facebook page and the emails,” Farrell says of his wife.

"The family has missed out, they've missed out a lot. That's why I said to my wife when this hay run is done we're going to Fiji.

"We booked the tickets six months in advance and paid it off, because as I said I'm not a millionaire. I can't just jump in a plane and fly to Fiji which costs $6000 or $7000. I've got to save up for that.

"It's only me and my wife, we don't have a secretary and a treasurer and all those other things.”

A tropical island may be the best place for the Farrells to be while the dust settles and Australians turn their spotlight elsewhere.