The Rent a Farmhouse scheme explained

December 23, 2009

Christine Weston was the force behind the “Rentafarmhouse” in Cumnock. It was a bold scheme to reinvigorate the small rural community by renting vacant farmhouses for $1 a week to attract new families to the district and save the local school.

Mrs Weston gave a speech to the Australian Regional Economies Conference held in Parkes in July, 2009. Excerpts from that speech follow.

Basically eight years of drought were starting to take their toll – families were leaving town, mums were going back to work and taking their kids to childcare facilities in larger towns, older children were not returning home to work on the farm and farmers could not afford to employ farmhands.

Our goals were simple – save our school, save our community and fix up our farmhouses. The four selection criteria was simple too, we wanted; 1. families with children 2. community orientated people 3. renovation skills or interest 4. ready for a tree-change Through a local contact we were able to gain a spot on A Current Affair. We went to air on Friday night October 3, 2008 at 7.20pm Australia-wide.

We had 1,800 unique visitors to our website in just 24 hours, 3,600 after one week with 16% return visitors. We had people turning up at the General store and local pub all weekend asking if they could have a look at the $1 farmhouses. Some had driven from Sydney.

The application process was just 14 simple questions asking why did they want to live in the country? What can you offer a small rural community? How many kids? How many pets? That was always a good one as some would answer 2 dogs and a cat -when you emailed what sort of dogs they would reply two very gentle bull mastiffs or two friendly fun-loving staffies that do not like sheep. Now if you know farmers, most of them do not want dogs on their farm especially these type of dogs, they are genetically tuned as hunting dogs so they are gentle and friendly only because they live in the city and have never seen a sheep, goat, piglet or baby calf before!!

One month later, applications closed. 128 applications were received, all including a family photo. 85% applications were received online and 15% postal. The applications were web savvy, literate and very keen to be a part of our community. One in three applicants was what our community had identified as what we needed.

They came from all over the country 40% NSW, 30% QLD, 20% VIC, 5% SA/WA/NT and 5% overseas from NZ, South Africa, UK, Ireland, Israel and Uruguay. There were four families living in caravan and one in a car.

Seventy five percent had renovation experience which was perfect as some of the houses needed help.

Sixty percent of the candidates were from the country – they wanted to return so their kids could experience the same pleasures of their childhood, like growing vegetables, riding a bike in safety, riding horses, playing in the dirt, and as one Sydney fellow wrote “escape the noise, pollution, aggression and lack of community spirit in the city”. I was surprised many of these people did not care where they moved to, they just wanted to move out of the city and were seeking a better lifestyle for their children.

Many applications definitely brought a tear to my eye, I was saddened by many desperate stories -one family sleeping in a car and the children bullied at school.

I was a little confused until one CWA lady said to me “You must select a family that is running to something and not running away from something” She said pick a family that is seeking to grow a veggie garden, or the one that wants the pet lamb or the son that wants to climb trees, do not pick a family that is running away from problems of divorce, death, unemployment, rape or bullying. Cumnock is already a fragile town and you do not have the welfare services to manage issues like that so you are doing this to save your school and strengthen your community with skills.

We achieved more than we had anticipated;

1. we saved our second teacher and managed to get a third teacher with enrolments increasing from 34 to 60 kids. The Librarian and Admin assistant position were back to full-time.

2. we saved our bus run, so much in fact that we had too many kids for the bus! We now have 20 kids and it was only a 13 seater! So the Ministry of Transport was very supportive, we did two bus runs for a couple of weeks until we found a larger bus

3. We managed to get the Newsagency/café re-opened.

After six months, 75% found employment within a one hour drive of Cumnock.

The farmhouses are being renovated – tiles and paint have been donated by the local hardware stores, many second hand stores have been supportive with supplying furniture. The community now has the numbers so we could or-ganise dancing lessons, mosaic classes, one of the girls teaches us yoga, another family wants to start up Little Athletics, another ready to do jewellery making classes next month. We have just finished a welding class by TAFE Outreach–which has given some of the men extra skills. It is incredible how community-orientated these new families are – they all want to be involved. They are all so motivated.

The new skills and energy in our community have reinvigorated the whole community, even existing residents are more motivated. It was like one big knock-on positive influence. We have now placed nine families in $1 a week unrenovated farmhouses, two in $50 semi renovated farmhouses and ten in $150 fully renovated a week farmhouses, and six town houses and two farms have sold in our area since our rentafarmhouse scheme launched last October.

When the new families moved in -the Country Energy truck was out here each week, as was the Telstra man looking for long lost phone lines that had not been used in some cases for 10 years, the Aussie broadband was here installing dishes on the roof, the roof insulation man was preparing quotes, the plumber was signing new water tank rebates, the electrician was connecting stoves and new children were buying school uniforms. The town was a hype of activity. Jobs were being created.
We have created a mini-economy in Cumnock – this scheme has the capabilities of saving all small country towns and attracting city people out here.

On a local level, Cumnock is definitely buzzing again and for now, happy. Only time will tell if the 20 new families that have moved will stay.

On a state level, 14 rural NSW communities and 10 individual farmers have contacted me for help.

Danielle Allen from Greenethorpe (just near Cowra and Grenfell) replicated our exact scheme and has reaped the benefits. She co-ordinated their $1 a week farmhouse campaign.

She told me last week they have successfully filled their four farmhouses and have 14 extra kids for their small public school, securing their second teacher. They even found a baker for the local store. She was ecstatic.

To date, I have 1,400 families who have subscribed to my e-newsletter, all expressing interest in moving into a farmhouse anywhere in Australia.