'Life on a farm in Tasmania prepares you well for social isolation'

Grace Walsh visited her partner's family farm in 2015, and loved it so much she stayed

‘Not knowing when I’ll next get home next is heartbreaking. I’m missing family and close friends more than ever’ - Grace Walsh in her office in Tasmania

‘Not knowing when I’ll next get home next is heartbreaking. I’m missing family and close friends more than ever’ - Grace Walsh in her office in Tasmania

 

Grace Walsh left her urban life in Dublin in 2015 to run a farm in Tasmania/Lutrawita with her partner, and to work in community development. 

How did you end up on the other side of the world?

I grew up in Shankill, Co Dublin and came to Tasmania in 2015 to visit my Tasmanian partner. I loved it so much we made the decision to stay and run his family farm.

How has Covid-19 affected you in Tasmania?

Life on the farm prepares you well for social isolation. It was early autumn here when the lockdown started, so our garden was full of vegetables and our freezer filled with farm-raised meat. We could go for walks and be outdoors without worrying about interacting with anyone. Compared to the reality for most people during lockdown, we felt incredibly lucky.

We are building our herd of cows as food security is even more of a priority for our communities now

Tasmania is an island like Ireland. Has that made a difference?

In March the premier of Tasmania closed the borders, which meant it was easier to control transmission and clusters. Most of the cases were concentrated in one area, which was closed off temporarily from the rest of the population. Borders remain shut and Tasmania has been free of active cases for more than 50 days.

There is enormous economic pressure alongside this - the festival, tourism and food industry have been crippled by the lack of visitors, which the state relies on so heavily. However, it has meant that restrictions have eased earlier than planned.

Tasmanians are now enjoying the freedom to travel and holiday on the island. With the outbreak in Melbourne, reopening borders has been delayed and the state government is taking a very cautious stand on when that might change.

What does your day look like now?

I was fortunate to start in a new community role in June and in the past two weeks we have begun to work from our offices and having meetings in person. My work involves supporting a collaborative leadership group, in a regional community in Tasmania that is facing socio-economic challenges.

Youth unemployment, already an issue, has increased since the pandemic started, but the community is responding by building a sense of local pride, leveraging financial support for recovery and engaging community and youth voices in the work they do. It is great to be part of such a positive, proactive initiative in such challenging times.

On the farm we are building our herd of cows and repairing the old dairy in the hope that we can process and supply directly to customers next year, as food security is even more of a priority for our communities now.

Has the situation affected food there?

On the one hand, small Tasmanian producers were seeing huge demand for their products and many transitioned to online delivery services, expanding their reach. On the other hand, with the economic downturn many people have been finding themselves unable to afford adequate food supplies.

A recent survey carried out by the University of Tasmania found that more Tasmanians are valuing local produce and have changed their purchasing habits. However, one in four people reported running out of food during the lockdown and charities that supply food aid have reported a huge uptake in their services. Although Tasmania is known for its produce and a portion of the population can eat the best food imaginable, the pandemic has highlighted and exaggerated inequity around food access.

Are children being home-schooled?

During the lockdown, schools closed for most Tasmanian students and lessons moved online. However, Tasmania has one of the lowest levels of digital literacy in the country, particularly in low-income households. As educational attainment is already an issue in the state, moving to online classes has entrenched educational disadvantage. There have been some initiatives to address the digital divide, but the impact of sustained periods out of the classroom on pupils has yet to be assessed.

Not knowing when I’ll next get home next is heartbreaking

Will Tasmania change after this?

My impression is that there is a growing appreciation of what life in Tasmania has to offer. People seem to be valuing the natural spaces that are here in abundance and feeling prouder of their state. Dependence on tourism will raise challenging questions given the uncertainty around interstate and international travel.

I am concerned that the emerging cultural diversity that we were starting to see here, brought about by population-growth strategies, skilled-migration visa opportunities and refugee intakes, will be stalled as avenues for international travel and migration close.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?

Pre-pandemic life meant visits home could be reasonably regular, and you always knew you were just 24 hours away if something urgent arose. The current situation with international travel, particularly with Australian borders closed, has made the distance so much more challenging. I know I am incredibly lucky to be where I am as the world faces huge disruption, but not knowing when I’ll next get home next is heartbreaking. I’m missing family and close friends more than ever.

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