The presence of strong leadership is a key reason why some rural, regional and remote communities are able to thrive, despite significant challenges. But what is community leadership and how can it be encouraged?

Story Terri Cowley  Photo Neil Newitt

Great community leaders rarely admit that’s what they are – the very nature of community is about being part of a group and giving others a voice. Jan Smith of Girgarre, Vic, is a shining example. What she and her fellow community members have achieved for their little dairy town (population 180) over the past 15 years is nothing short of astonishing.  

“About 15 or 16 years ago the community went in to the Millennium Drought,” Jan says. “We were shell-shocked because we’d never learnt to farm without water. People retreated – particularly men. We got a small council grant to put on a community barbecue – we thought we’d be lucky if we got 100 – well, we got 300. That was a wake-up call – a real light-bulb moment. People came and they stayed and stayed. They just wanted to talk.”

Jan and others realised they needed to gather the community together on an ongoing basis, so they formed the Girgarre Development Group, a group of local volunteers who agreed to meet once a month. A friend of Jan’s from another town suggested holding a produce market to fundraise and socialise. “At that first market we had not a lot of stalls but 1000 people! We ran three markets, stopped for winter and started in the spring again, and the market has continued on all those years,” Jan says. They wanted some music to add a bit of atmosphere, so one of Jan’s friends rounded up some musicians in Melbourne. Fast-forward to 2020, and Girgarre has this year held its 14th Moosic Muster. But just to be clear, this is no busk in the park. It ran for four days, included approximately 50 workshops covering just about every instrument you can think of, and included evening concerts with leading bands.

“The community has never questioned – they’ve always said, ‘What have we got to lose?’” Jan, 77, says. “The music festival has found its own place. It’s something we’re really proud of, but when it’s over we’re so stuffed we can hardly spit. There were people everywhere singing and jamming, we had jazz and blues sessions, guitars, tin whistles, banjos.”

Everyone pitched in to supply fresh, local food to about 1500 people, including the footy club, the CFA and the RSL. “It doesn’t matter which group of people, they all put up their hand to have a crack,” Jan says. “It’s that understanding that nobody owns anything. It’s not mine, it’s ours. A happy, engaged community can achieve a lot.”

The festival has spawned a $400,000 soundshell and amphitheatre, and the community is now in the process of creating its own botanic gardens with a grand avenue and cafe. But it was a different story in the early 2000s when many businesses left town, including the post office, service station and produce store. The railway station had closed some decades before, as had the regional milk factory. What could have been the final nail in Girgarre’s coffin was the closure of the Heinz tomato-paste factory and the loss of more than 140 jobs in 2012. Ironically, this turned out to be a lifeline.

“They came to us and offered $50,000 because they were leaving and wanted to give something back to the community,” Jan says. “We got around the table and we talked about it. After everything else that had gone, we wanted something they couldn’t take away. We wrote a submission to the board asking for the land and Heinz said, ‘We love your dream. Yes, you can have the 24 acres [9.7ha] plus three house blocks in town, plus the water right on the property’, which was an amazing donation to our town’s future.” The donated land will be the site of the gardens, which are currently being designed. 

“We’ve been able to dream so big because, along the way, the community has owned it all,” Jan says. Community assets now include a car, a cottage with plant nursery, and event equipment such as a coolroom and portable toilets – all funded by the markets and the music program. The town is sustaining a kindergarten, primary school, recreation reserve and football club.

The revival of social aspects of the Girgarre community has borne fruit of the commercial kind. Last year, Australian Consolidated Milk opened a new factory there and is now working on a cheese plant. “They looked around and came back to Girgarre,” Jan says. “We had community forums for them to discuss what would happen. The planning process became so much simpler; no-one was worrying.” 

A $140 million solar farm with 360,000 panels has been approved to the west of town, and other businesses are looking to set up. “The welcome mat is out,” Jan says. “This has come about from being opened-minded and having a really solid forum where people are safe to express their opinions.”

Jan arrived, reluctantly, in Girgarre as a young teacher in 1962. “I hated the place,” she says. “I was dumped here. I didn’t drive. I came from Echuca [46km away] and I’d never heard of the place.”

She met Garry, they had two daughters, and they built up a dairy farm from 50 to 630 cows. Garry passed away four years ago and Jan has retained 60ha of the property. “Now I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says.

Fellow community member, dairy farmer Athol McDonald, says Jan has good natural leadership skills that have enabled her to bring people together and help them “get organised”. “She has facilitated a real sense of community,” Athol says. “She has a passion for the community, she’s very intelligent and is able to get the feel of the community, and she knows how to handle people. She’ll have a different style for different people.” Athol says his son Angus, 35, returned to Girgarre six years ago, after working as a builder, and is now helping on the farm. He’s part of a trend Jan has happily observed. “Ten to 15 years ago people were retiring in Girgarre,” Jan says. “But I’ve noticed in the past 12–18 months that a lot of the houses being sold are to younger people and that’s really good for our future,” Jan says. With only about a third of dairy farms left, land use is changing towards ventures such as flower-growing and goat farms. 

Jan has seen many other community leaders emerge through this process. “I’ve seen individual growth of people too shy to speak at a meeting who are now quite happy to have their say,” she says. “The potential was always there but when a lot of things shut down, the sense of community became camouflaged. Once we struck the match, it was up and going again.” 

This story excerpt is from Issue #130

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2020