Never dull: Rob Muffet retires after 20 years with Rural Financial Counselling Service

Rob Muffet has retired from the Rural Financial Counselling Service after an intense 20 years.
Rob Muffet has retired from the Rural Financial Counselling Service after an intense 20 years.

Rob Muffet has retired after 20 years with the Rural Financial Counselling Service in Forbes - and what a 20 years it has been.

When the farmer and bookkeeper joined the community-based service mid-2000 he couldn't possibly have seen what the coming years would throw at our agricultural community.

The past two decades have seen record-breaking droughts and floods that broke the mold, plummeting and soaring livestock prices, issues ranging from dairy deregulation to the live export ban.

But as Rob reflects on the challenges that have hit our farming community in that period, his tone is far from gloomy.

The many who have worked with him will know just the upbeat tone and smile he's wearing, even as he acknowledges how important this harvest is on the back of three years of devastating drought.

In the past 20 years Rob has helped so many identify their options, advise on the ever-changing availability of assistance and so much more. And he's relished it.

Reflecting now, Rob can't believe it's been two decades since he first took on the mantle of rural financial counsellor for Forbes and surrounds.

Every day was different, every farm, every situation varied.

"You'd go to work and you wouldn't know what that day would bring. Just like farming," he adds with a chuckle.

"I loved the challenge and working with the different people."

Rob recalls the first harvest he was in the role was pretty much rained out, and the Federal Government provided replanting grants to get the crops of 2001 in the ground.

The years that followed, however, saw a rapid deterioration as Forbes and many other regions entered what was to become known as the Millennium Drought.

Accompanied with devastatingly low stock prices, it signalled a change for Rob in his new role.

"I think the counselling service started in 1986 or 1987 in Forbes but most people looked at the service then as for people who were in severe difficulty," he said.

There was a shift in perception as more people came to the service for help to identify the assistance they might be eligible for.

"(The Millennium Drought) got rid of the stigma, it made a big difference," Rob said.

"Some people just needed help over that ridge ... but how many ridges did we have in the past 20 years!

"Dairying is an example. Forbes became an area that was going to be good dairy area, the drought hit and they lost the irrigation, then deregulation hit, then the drought (again) and feed prices went up, then you get a flood ..."

Again, don't think the overwhelming sentiment is one of doom and gloom.

"If you are self employed in business, you are an optimist, I don't think there's any doubt about it," Rob says. "If you're in business for yourself you've got to be optimistic."

The Rural Financial Counselling Service is a multifacted one: it's not all about responding to natural disaster.

"We always had crisis situations whether it was flood, fire, the live export cattle situation. Then you had individual crises - a death in the family, an accident on the farm," Rob said.

"Then you still had periods where you were working with families through succession, to improve their business enterprise set-ups."

He spent a lot of time helping farming families identify the options for their business enterprise, and then to put their chosen option into action.

Rural Financial Counsellors are there not only to help identify the types of assistance and options that are open, but to help people look at the big picture and long term for their business.

"The information that's available now is massive, and I think there is just overload on a lot of farmers to be able to handle all of it," Rob says.

"You can't do all the physical work and mental work as well as the marketing, the sales, it's a high pressure job.

"One of the hard parts is to look at the big picture."

That's been more important than ever with some of the loans on offer in the current lengthy drought.

"One of the hard parts is the assistance that's available is extremely good if you can get it but it is on a time frame - you've got five years and you've got to start paying it back," Rob said.

There were also years where the Rural Financial Counselling service offered assistance to small business, and a period where community development events were a focus.

"One of the things that stands out is when we got Garry McDonald to come and speak at the Town Hall," Rob remembered.

As McDonald shared how his mental health had impacted his work even as his career played out in such public view, it opened Rob's eyes to what people might be going through.

That was one of the things about the role: every time Rob sought something out for clients or the community, he gained so much as well.

The service had a couple of shifts in structure, and evolved over time.

Increasingly, the counsellors connected to and worked with other service organisations in the region such as the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program.

With the most recent three-year drought hot on the heels of 2016 flooding, they've worked tirelessly to get an understanding of the assistance that is available to farmers and then help them navigate the associated applications.

Rob highlighted that the service has enjoyed incredible support from the community, the service organisations such as Rotary and CWA who have provided everything from funding for an office assistant to vouchers they could give to those in a crisis, through to St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army.

"Business houses, the solicitors and accountants, have worked with me a lot," Rob added.

"Even the businesses where we had clients who had debts, they were great, they were prepared to work with us to sort things out. They have all been fantastic."

Looking out at the paddocks that are slowly turning from green to gold out there, Rob speaks on behalf of all of us when he hopes for a good harvest.

The turn-around this season compared to last has been absolutely phenomenal, but we're now hoping the weather holds and the headers can get those crops into the silos and onto the market.

"We've still got a financial drought," Rob says. "A few good years are very much needed - even average years."