By Colin MacGillivray
KILMORE East couple Kevin and Rhonda Butler’s dedication to supporting farmers across the country was recognised on the national stage at the Australian Farmer of the Year Awards on Thursday.
The Butlers were named Farming Legends of the Year for their work with BlazeAid at a ceremony in Canberra.
The duo established the BlazeAid volunteer group in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, and have since helped countless farmers rebuild fences on properties damaged by fires and floods.
Since the group was established, it has grown into a national network, helping landowners across the country repair and rebuild their properties.
In total the BlazeAid has removed 15,472km of damaged fencing, rebuilt 15,208km of fencing, engaged 32,950 volunteers and helped 10,982 properties.
Mr Butler said he was shocked to learn the pair had been nominated in the Farming Legend of the Year category.
“I think they picked the oldest farmers and put them up there,” he joked.
“We didn’t know we were in it until a couple of months ago, and we don’t know who nominated us.
“Apparently the nominations went through a gruelling process and we were told we were standout winners, but we don’t know who else was nominated. We just got a phone call two months ago asking us to come to Canberra for the awards.”
Mr Butler said the couple’s work with BlazeAid simply came from trying to help others in need.
“Black Saturday, and the subsequent rebuilding of our community, was life changing for me,” he said.
“I’ve been a farmer all my life and I have seen our community come together over all sorts of things, and while I was thankful for their support after the bushfires, I knew we could do more to help others … and not just in our own area, but all over Australia.”
Mr Butler said the couple spent time with Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell, as well as Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud and then-Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack at the awards ceremony.
“We mixed with some awesome people, including the winner of the Farmer of the Year, who is an oyster grower from Western Australia,” Mr Butler said.
“It’s been a terrific experience, and we stayed for a few extra days to have a look around.”
While in Canberra, Mr and Ms Butler were also presented with a Commonwealth Point of Light award by British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.
The pair was awarded for their work to help farmers recover from the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, but had previously been prevented from going to Canberra to collect their awards because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ben White, general manager of research at Kondinin Group, which sponsors the Australian Farmer of the Year Awards, said the generosity and ingenuity of Mr and Ms Butler was extraordinary.
“The Butlers embody a spirit of resilience and big-heartedness so unique to farming communities,” he said.
“One that never gives up and that rallies together when others are in need, putting personal concerns aside for the betterment of everyone.
“Through BlazeAid, they have been able to share that spirit across the country from Victoria to New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.
“So many people have benefited from the work Kevin and Rhonda have done and together. They really exemplify the idea of a farming legend.”
Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell said the Butlers were ‘the epitome of the true Aussie spirit’.
“BlazeAid has helped many communities – physically and emotionally – in the aftermath of bushfires and other natural disasters and involving thousands of volunteers,” he said.
“Their help is not just a once-off too; it’s often months and months of work.
“People often talk about the need for a hand up, not a hand-out – BlazeAid really is that hand up.”