A central Queensland couple, who watched their agistment business disintegrate through drought, have found an untapped market in people looking for a taste of rural life.
- Gracemere couple Nicky and Ben Dobson turned their fortunes around when they opened their farm to the public
- They offer more than a dozen classes to people, many of whom have a disability
- The clients say visiting the farm has changed their lives
Nicky and Ben Dobson have become disability service providers with their farm a safe place for clients to learn new skills. Demand is so high they can't keep up.
Ms Dobson said experiencing life on the land had a profound impact on her clients.
"I've got really sad stories behind a lot of my clients, and I know this keeps a lot from dying, to be honest, they live to come here every week," Ms Dobson said.
"It really gives them purpose and enjoyment and it just allows them to feel included, as organised chaos as it is out here, it just works and people just fit in."
Before the drought, the Dobsons ran a profitable spelling and agistment business for racehorses but their client base and profit dried up when the grass did.
Mr Dobson said, within six months, most of their clients had taken their horses to greener pastures elsewhere, which forced them to diversify to support their young family.
"It was pretty dark days for a while trying to work out where we were going to go and this kind of landed in our lap a little bit and Nicky grabbed the ball and away she went," Mr Dobson said.
The Dobsons initially opened a horse riding business.
"One of those clients was training to go to the Special Olympics and she asked me why we didn't have a farm where people could go instead of hanging out at the shops," Ms Dobson said.
A way forward
Two years on, Ms Dobson said constantly implementing feedback had kept the business growing.
"We've evolved with what clients have wanted so we started off with the horse riding and now we are doing overnight camps, BMX groups, and pony pampers," she said.
"It puts the dirt back into childhood because we live in such a sterile world and everything is clean.
About 90 clients a week attend the 42-hectare 4Mile Farm located about 10 kilometres from Rockhampton.
The Dobsons offer more than a dozen classes featuring animals and tasks unique to rural life, including fence fixing and farmhand classes, and even a guinea pig breeding club.
"It just allows people to come and be farmers and do whatever they really want," Ms Dobson said.
Monique Russell, who is non-verbal, has attended classes twice a week for about two years.
Her carer Jenny Geer said Ms Russell's mood shift was noticeable when travelling to each session.
"She gets very excited and squeals," Ms Geer said.
"I wonder whether it's the disability that encourages her to be with the animals but she loves the animals and they love her."
Harry Marshall said he had been homeschooled since he was bullied in year 4.
"Being homeschooled, you don't get much interaction with anyone apart from the home tutor and your parents and family so doing these programs is really good for me for getting out and about," Harry said.
The Dobsons employ about 12 people and Mr Dobson has had to reduce the time he works as an equine dentist to meet the demand.
"We are flat out," Ms Dobson said.
"There is a huge demand from all ages — from two-year-olds right through to adults."
Alex French has been employed at 4Mile Farm for three years and said he wanted to keep working there for another 50 years.
"We muck up the poo, fill the waters, feed the animals, and hang up the hay nets," Mr French said.
The 20-year-old says his job is "the best ever" and he "loves everything" about it.
Tina Wilson, who has autism, said she felt the most included she ever had at 4Mile Farm.
"I was almost ready to give up on ever finding a job suitable for me with my abilities," Ms Wilson said.
"Nicky and Ben really stepped up and allowed me to feel like there are actually some places out there for people with disabilities."
Ms Wilson attended the farmhand group and performed a variety of tasks including fixing fences, putting up signs, looking after the animals, and painting.
"It helps me with fine motor skills and allows me to be better at my hobbies of colouring in and painting, so I do use a lot of the skills I learn here in everyday life," she said.
Ms Dobson said while she didn't know what direction they would take the business next, providing a service for the disability community would remain a priority.
"I don't see us changing out of this because there's such a need for it and it's in our heart too," she said.