That's the Spirit: Bill Fisher - Coonamble NSW
Over a lifetime in the district as a farmer, a councillor and an amateur thespian, Coonamble’s Bill Fisher has seen the town’s fortunes wax and wane along with the seasons and the shifting forces of population and economics. One thing that’s remained constant, he says, is the spirit of Coonamble’s people who are used to rolling up their sleeves in the face of adversity. Bill talked to Jen Cowley about his home town and why the future of small communities, and the agricultural industries that underpin them, is in good hands.
Bill: I’ve lived here all my life and the majority of my friends are here. I like the community, it’s a nice place to live.
We have a pretty vibrant farming community here with good backup networks, good agents, good stock and station agents.
Jen: You’re a councillor with Coonamble Shire Council, and you’ve been involved in a voluntary capacity with a number of community organisations and activities. Why is that important to you?
Bill: Coonamble has given me opportunities that, hopefully, I’ve made the best of, and I think it is important to put your hand up to attempt to give back to the community that has been very kind to you.
Coonamble has a great lot of people who are community minded and who do community-based things without wanting any recognition. We are also very fortunate to have the services we have here and the community works to keep them.
Jen: Do you think small communities are used to working harder for the things they have and to maintain the services and is that getting harder as the population shifts?
Bill: That’s a complex issue. Agricultural demographics have changed drastically in my lifetime, and population has declined a lot because of changes in agriculture and more efficient agricultural practices. There’s a lot more corporate agriculture in this district which is good in one respect but does eliminate a number of families out of the district. That means that, for the people who are here, we’re conscious of and grateful for the services we have.
Bill Fisher, Coonamble NSW
Jen: So, you work to support those?
Bill: Absolutely. Most of the district is conscious of trying to support those services we have left. It is also still very important that the business community remains competitive, because if you are going to pay double for something that you can buy in Dubbo or a regional centre for half price, locals won’t shop locally. People are prepared to pay more, but they are savvy enough to know they aren’t going to be totally ripped off. Businesses also need to embrace technology.
Jen: What opportunities do you see in the advancement of technology?
Bill: I’m probably not the person to ask about technology, but the thing I really see is the opportunity for people to run businesses remotely. That’s already happening with a number of younger people who are doing internet selling and running businesses from home, or working remotely in other industries. There used to be the idea that if you wanted to get anywhere, you had to leave and go to Sydney or even to Dubbo, but that’s not necessarily the case now.
We are seeing a number of communities that are enjoying a wave of good young people among their populations. For instance, our son has come home to work on the farm and be part of the business and he’s very fortunate that there are some really good people in his 30-35 age group around Coonamble who are embracing businesses and have come back to be involved with family farms. This has coincided with a lot better agricultural outlook than, say, 25-30 years ago.
Jen: And that’s despite the adversities the primary industries have faced over the past five years.
Bill: Absolutely. The last drought has been dreadful, but I’ve never seen a year like 2016 where had exceptionally good weather. The prices and opportunities in that year, although they didn’t apply to everyone, were terrific. A lot of people did exceptionally well that year and I dare say this year (2020) is shaping up for a particularly good year (in agriculture) also. Livestock prices are excellent, and prospects for grain growing this year are second to none.
Jen: Do you think all the doom and gloom that naturally surrounds a climatic event like drought, fosters a misconception that the future of agriculture in Australia is on the skids?
Bill: It depends how the media portrays it. It’s a misconception that there’s no future for agriculture, but that’s how the media portrayed it during the drought. I think that, of all the industries in this country, the possibilities for agriculture are wonderful. I just hope that, especially after this Covid-19 thing, there will be a thought and value change by most people to acknowledge that we can do a lot better job of value adding many things in this country. That value-adding can be expedited by better infrastructure and connectivity to public transport.
Bill Fisher, Coonamble NSW
Jen: Is that something small towns like Coonamble can take advantage of and how would you do that?
Bill: At this point in time, (we need) to get some sort of connectivity to the inland rail – the Melbourne to Brisbane line that is supposed to be working by 2027. I think there are a lot of opportunities that could come from that, certainly more than I can envisage. Real estate here is cheaper for those wanting to build a business, and if you have connection for suitable transport to get to port or market quickly and efficiently, why not build that business here compared to somewhere else?
Jen: In the interest of transparency, what’s your connection to the inland rail project?
Bill: I’m on the community consultative committee for the inland rail. I’m one of the council representatives for Coonamble.
Jen: What made you want to put your hand up for Council?
Bill: I didn’t have any particular agenda. I had been asked by a couple of other councillors if I was ever interested. I decided when our children were finished their education, that it was time to put my hand up to at least try to give back to the community. I had also been on the board of the aged care hostel for five or six years and that was a very rewarding experience.
Jen: Tell me about your involvement with Coonamble Amateur Theatre Society (CATS).
Bill: I first got involved before I was married. I haven’t been involved in it for the past few years, but it was great to keep the memory working well with playing various parts in various plays over the course of 20-odd years, with a production every couple of years. It actually gave me the ability to meet a lot of people in the community whom I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to cross paths with. There were a lot of new teachers who came from interesting backgrounds, for instance. Being in agriculture you tend to stick with the people you deal with, the friends you have are those who are in same sort of industry that you are in yourself, so anything that takes you beyond that circle is good.
It’s always really interesting to think that in your own small town, there are all these people from all walks of life that you haven’t yet met.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions people have about life in a small town and what would you say to people through the eyes of that misconception?
Bill: The biggest misconception is that if you come to live in these places, there’s nothing to do, that it’s boring. That’s simply not true. People love living here. My mother lives on her own in town and there are a couple of young ambulance officers who live across the road – they absolutely love it here. They were keen to just come and do their three-year stint and then go again, but they say they wouldn’t mid staying their three-year stint and going, but probably wouldn’t mind staying for a considerably longer sting. Some of the young police who come here say the same thing.
Jen: Is that one of the challenges? To actually get people here and throught Coonamble’s door so you can show them the reality?
Bill: I think the greatest challenge is the Great Dividing Range. Whether it be this community, or Dubbo, or anywhere west of the Great Dividing Range – if you can get people to climb over that divide, they see a different world. A lot of people will never experience that. That’s sad.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.