That's the Spirit: James Cleaver - Nyngan NSW

Despite the siren call of a promising career in law, Nyngan-born-and- raised James Cleaver quickly realised he wasn’t cut out for an “inside job”. He decided his legal and economics qualifications could be put to better use in supporting the small communities and primary industries of Western NSW which for which he’s an ardent advocate through his work in rural resilience support.

Jen: You were one of the NSW RAS Rural Achievers for 2019 – what do you hope you’ve been able to achieve through that platform?


James: There’s a perceived divide between the city and the country, so I’d like to think I’ve helped to bring greater awareness to what we’re doing and what’s going on out here in western NSW; how things really are, not just what you see in the newspapers but the real view. At the same time, my focus has been and is the people part of agriculture – I’m not really that much into tractors or specs on livestock, for me, it’s more about who you’re dealing with. So, through both my time as a Rural Achiever and in my work in rural resilience, it’s about trying to inject a little equality and fairness into “the system” and trying to look after the little guy. That’s the part I like, and that’s what I’ve tried hard to push.

Jen: On the subject of misconceptions, do you think there’s a notion that you have to leave the bush to have any kind of success or quality of opportunity.

James: To an extent I reckon. I also think that misconception exists in larger regional centres – that is, that you have to leave the smaller village or the smaller town to go towards these bigger regional centres. Tamworth, Dubbo, Lithgow, Bathurst, Orange – and they draw away from the smaller communities, which doesn’t help that social fabric. That takes us back, I think, to the fact that people in the city, and in larger regional centres also to an extent, don’t really understand what we do out here. I think there’s a huge demand for that kind of information – I think people, particularly in the cities would genuinely like to know more. I don’t think it’s a lack of will to know, I think it’s more about a lack of communication on the part of the regions.

The demand for awareness is there – you only have to look at Buy from the Bush (the online marketing campaign) which created a huge demand. People (from the cities) were falling over themselves, going “We want more!”. It’s a two-way street – we need to be offering them more, too. We need to be part of rebuilding the relationship between city and country.

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James Cleaver, Nyngan NSW

Jen: So, it’s up to small communities to bang their drums a bit as well.


James:  Exactly, and I don’t think it’s a case of saying, “We make your food, so you have to acknowledge us and eat it.” It should be more about us marketing our product as being fantastic, clean and fresh – it’s not about forcing it down people’s throats, it’s simply about marketing our produce as the brilliant commodity it is.

Jen: When it comes to younger people getting involved with their community in some capacity, do you believe the older generations are prepared to mentor the emerging community leaders? James do you find that (re: older people mentoring) as well? 


James: I think the older generations are just really happy when someone wants to step up, so there is certainly encouragement for younger people who want to have a crack. I think the biggest challenge is that there are fewer young people than there used to be in small communities, so a lot of pressure falls on existing volunteers. But there’s not lack of opportunity. If anything, there is too much opportunity, there’s so much going on. There’s a range of young leadership programs, like the RAS Rural Achiever, Nuffield (Farming Scholarship), the Young Farmer Business Program, and all these other different groups young people can be a part of. I don’t think those same kinds of opportunities and pathways occur in urban centres, where you really have to work your way up to the top – here that distance is a lot shorter and the pathway is clearer.

Jen: What is the most positive thing about being part of a small community?


James: I go back to the simplest of things. I can walk through a supermarket and see a few people I know and have a conversation. When you’re driving along the road and people wave back to you. Even the smallest bit of acknowledgement, that small bit of social connection, that just does it for me, I reckon. That’s the beauty of the place. That’s it, hands down.

Jen: Does it go to a sense of belonging and sense of place?

James: It does. You’re not a number, you’re not just an anonymous person on the train on their phone. People want you to be part of this community.

Jen: Tell me why you still have faith as a young person in regional Australia?

James: I think if you look behind the newspaper articles that show people as being hillbilly or bogan or standard stereotypes, you look past that and you can see there is ingenuity, there is innovation, there are people competing at shows, trying to showcase the best of what we do. That all sits in the background and doesn’t get acknowledged, but if you look that little bit further through it you can see that reality, which gives you the faith. We’re still heading in the right direction. The chips may be down – and that’s what happens in this land of boom and bust – but we learn to deal with it, get through it, come out the other side and go again.

Jen: Why do you think regional people and small communities on the whole, still survive against odds that sometimes seem insurmountable?

James: There’s so much history, so much tradition. You become part of that. There’s also the fact that ingrained throughout that history is the tradition of learning the lessons and moving forward. For instance, we (younger generations)  take the lessons learned from the millennium drought and use that knowledge. We are all products of those eras each of those moments of time. We are the product of a drought, product of a flood. You watch your parents and you look at what they have done differently, and you learn from that.

This business is also a lifestyle, you’re very much a part of it from right in your early beginnings, and you’re learning the whole way through from when you’re very young. That learning process doesn’t stop. Ever, I suppose.

NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020. ​​

Click here to order a copy of the 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book.

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James Cleaver (right) with family members at Nyngan NSW.