30 April 2020
No matter how big or small your business, the weight of keeping it viable and profitable through drought, bushfires, floods and then COVID-19 hits hard financially, as well as emotionally and mentally.
Every business owner has a story about their journey; turning a business idea or passion into something tangible, successful and of which you can be so very proud. It involves hard work, going without, teamwork, energy and drive.
Lisa Roberts and David Charlton’s story began 20 years ago when they established Provincial Plants and Landscapes, their environmental rehabilitation, landscaping and nursery business in the Wandella Valley.
“We started at Wandella with very little but passion, zero infrastructure or services and built everything from scratch,” Lisa said. “We built our handcrafted home at Wandella and raised our family here.”
Their eight-acre nursery housed hundreds of thousands of plants along with most of their mother stock used for cuttings and their native seed store. Lisa, David and their team were growing their own plant range, trialling a commercial aquaponics system that worked in harmony with the nursery and had 300 established fruit trees.
The Wandella nursery employed up to 15 people and supplied millions of plants for landscaping and restoration projects in the ACT and NSW, creating and restoring habitat, wetlands, grasslands and beautifying suburbs, subdivisions, parks and playgrounds and other outdoor spaces.
On New Year’s Eve, the Badga Forest fire churned into a mini tornado that ripped without mercy through the valley and across ridgelines, annihilating all in its path. This firestorm picked up everything Lisa and David had built with their bare hands and swallowed it up.
They lost not only their home but kilometres of fencing, four million litres of water storage capacity and associated irrigation, substantial stand-alone solar power and hot water systems, machinery sheds, storage sheds, potting sheds, potting machines and tractors, all their tools, equipment and nursery supplies, office and associated facilities; all the infrastructure that had taken 20 years to build.
Their other commercial nurseries at Brogo and Pialligo in the ACT also came under threat from the fires as did their home at Tanja. “The stress was overwhelming,” Lisa said.
“So we’re back to where we started, with no power, water, phone, internet, buildings or facilities, plus we have to deal with the clean up over 200 acres and the impact of the ecological destruction.
“We are very grateful for the life we created and the resilient business that is Provincial.
“We’re moving forward,. However, we feel a deep loss of life as we knew it; a part of our livelihood and our landscape and all that inhabited it.”
Everyone has a breaking point and when COVID-19 hit Australia, Lisa hit the wall.
“After enduring drought, then fires, extreme hail events, flood and then the implications of COVID-19, I knew I had to reach out and seek counselling,” Lisa said.
“I’d been trying to hold everything together for such a long time and, finally, I couldn’t deal with it anymore and needed support to deal with the trauma. I thought I should be able to cope on my own and keep on going, but I couldn’t and that’s ok.
“I found the level of trauma, the grief, the fear and the fact that everything was totally out of my control overwhelming.
“I didn’t feel safe, anywhere. These crises, one after the other, have threatened our life, our homes and our livelihood.”
So far Lisa and David have received no government financial assistance and are still waiting for word on when their property clean-up will happen. They got a small Red Cross grant early on and have applied for the $75,000 primary producer grant. Lisa said the grant eligibility criteria and application process was “ridiculously limited and difficult” and that there is no support available to replace lost stock.
There are also insurance issues; they lost an estimated $1.7 million of stock and infrastructure at Wandella, excluding the house, and the insurance agency has offered $314,000.
“None of what we lost can be rebuilt quickly or easily and plants take a long time to grow,” Lisa said. “It’s hard to put a value on what we’ve lost in terms of future earning capacity by losing that property.
“At the moment I’m trying not to freak out over maxed-out credit cards and a huge overdraft, compliments of the drought, fires and covid-19.
“We do have existing contracts to fulfil, which is something, but we will have to buy stock from others now to be able to complete those jobs and have to find the large sums required to do that.
“Another concern is our responsibility to our staff; their safety, their employment and their mental wellbeing. They are very important to us and we have a duty of care for their future.”
Lisa said she and David haven’t made any concrete decisions on the future of Wandella as yet. They know they want to do more in the environment space; they know they need to grow a lot more trees and will expand the Brogo nursery. They, like many others affected by the fires, are considering deeply what’s truly important to them, their family, their team and how they contribute to the world.
“Our longer-term view is to continue to do more around our changed climate,” Lisa said. “We want to honour our values and we have a good platform to make change and will speak up using our expertise to enact effective Climate Change Policy. We will continue to put our money where our mouth is. And to look after ourselves.
“I know positives will come out of all this, particularly in terms of how we design our lives and communities and address our changing climate.
“I look forward to powerfully and creatively building back our resilience and helping our communities to reconcile, reassess, recover and rejuvenate.”
Photograph: Provincial Plants and Landscape’s Wandella nursery, before and after the summer bushfire