James Cleaver loves the country. He’s the first to admit that his hometown of Nyngan – famous for the Big Bogan, a statue that locals have eventually come to laugh at – is his favourite place in the world. Yet, he refuses to romanticise it.
James spent the first decade of his life sharing a two-bedroom cottage with his parents and three siblings. He was born into the millennium drought so, outside his front door, the dusty plains looked more like a moonscape than fertile farmland.
“Mum and Dad were always pushing us away saying that we had to get a degree or a trade if we ever wanted to come back to the farm,” James said.
So away he went – off to Armidale to study law. In 2016 he began work as a solicitor, by 2018 he had left the legal profession completely, he was going back to work in ag.
But, with his parents’ words still ringing in his ears, he didn’t go back to the farm, instead opting for a job with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) as a Rural Support Worker.
James began this role during the peak of another drought, this time more severe than any in recorded history.
“By the time I started up, the drought was plastered all over the papers. Every news station and social media giant is trying to get a story about it,” he explained, “people were looking for someone to hear from and I sort of landed in that role, which I’m very thankful for.”
Acting as a kind of go-between spokesperson for struggling rural communities and the national media, James was a natural. But it wasn’t just the media he was liaising with, the conversations he was having with farmers on the ground were influencing policy-makers too.
“Before [this job] I was sitting in the solicitor’s office and writing wills or commercial rates for a bank or something like that. I just didn’t feel like I was having a great impact. Then, all of a sudden, I was in the thick of [the drought conversation]… and I could help.”
As 2020 rolled in, so did the rains, ending what felt like a never ending drought. This meant, however, that funding for the Rural Resilience Program that James was working under ran out.
For a while, he tried his hand at banking. He laughed as he told Oli that it might be the shortest stint as a bank manager that anyone has ever seen.
“It just wasn’t for me,” James said. He wanted to be back in government.
“I was very lucky and this job came up in The Office for Regional Youth as a Community Coordinator.”
For someone like James, who is passionate not just about farming, but the communities that are built around it, it is a perfect job.
“When I was working with the DPI, it was hard because I could see there was support for the farmers but there often wasn’t support for the people in town who were often just as impacted by hard times.”
“Now, it’s my role to look at rural communities as a whole – Indigenous children, disadvantaged children, farmers’ children, miners’ children. They’re all interrelated.”
“It’s all about relaying what we see out there and what we hear when we’re talking to people in the community who know what’s going on and who you can trust. Once you find those stories, you take them with you and pass them on to the ministers.”
“I love being that person.”