'HOWDY mate! Can we make it Saturday morning? I'm leaving here at 7.30am tomorrow to build a house. Is that ok?'
The emailed message from Andrew 'Cosi' Costello, to reschedule an interview in Siem Reap, typifies the changing nature of the Adelaide-based TV and radio personality's Cows for Cambodia charity as it branches and entwines new projects to empower deprived rural communities - most of whom subsist on less than $1.50 a day - by gifting families healthy Brahman cows.
"These people keep smiling in the face of everything that's been thrown at them - it never ceases to amaze me," he said during a rare period of downtime on location, about 15 kilometres east of the city, where his production company is starting to shoot footage for three episodes of the next Channel 9 South Aussie with Cosi travel series.
"It reminds me constantly that material possessions are far from everything," Cosi said.
Within a couple of minutes, he is on the move, organising a cart carrying hay, drawn by a cow, as the backdrop to what might be a good introduction piece, and directing his camera crew to a street stall where he has found that, besides selling smallgoods, the proprietor collects bat poo, which falls from surrounding trees onto strategically-placed plastic sheeting, to sell as fertiliser.
"Things happen when you least expect them," he said.
"I love it when stuff just turns up."
And that is how it all started. On holiday with his mate Anthony 'Thomo' Thompson three years ago, the "country boy at heart" thought he should help out.
"Thomo's sister worked for a charity, based in Phnom Penh, so we got to see the hardships people in rural areas faced," Cosi said.
"It was humbling."
He returned with wife Samantha and eldest son, Harry, a couple of months later. They bought a parcel of land at Chambok village, Roulos Commune, 15km from Siem Reap, and bought their first cow for a family.
Initially, the recipient family is loaned an impregnated cow and assumes ownership of the calf when it is born. When the cow becomes pregnant again, she is moved to another family and the process continues.
The value of a cow to a Cambodian family, who must enter a contractual agreement with the charity, is huge and enough to bring them above the poverty line, with most opting to keep heifers until they can be serviced again, adding to their asset.
"You can build a house for a third of a cow's value, so it's easy to see the attraction," Cosi said.
Bull calves can be sold as meat to wet markets.
At Chambok, the charity has erected cattleyards where the CfC bull, a massive Brahman called Jet - bought for $3250 - has free rein to mingle with roaming cows, which would otherwise be tethered. This traditional practice always poses considerable problems for cow owners, when their animals are on heat, because of distance to a donor bull and the cost of servicing.
A three-step vaccination, multi-vitamin and drench program - with free advice from Elders and products from chemical company Vibrac - has been developed for the cows and is overseen by a full-time farm manager. All cows are tagged.
Cosi grew up at Kadina, Yorke Peninsula, the son of a country policeman and a nurse. He graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College as a precursor to becoming a farm manager. Instead, he and Thomo won SAFM's Great Race, leading to a career in radio and then television.
"I guess with the charity, I got my wish to be a farmer of sorts," he said.
Cosi's humour and down-to-earth approach is well-known to viewers of South Aussie with Cosi and the 165,000 followers on his three facebook pages. The same is evident in the banter and jokes with the cameramen, Cambodian 'Mr Fixit' and part-time employee Vicheth Cham, tuk tuk driver Bun and the villagers.
Cosi and Samantha are laying the foundations to import Brahman cows from Darwin as part of export consignments to Vietnam, and then truck them to Siem Reap. Elders is helping out with logistical advice.
The plan is to have 100 cows for a village, with a maximum 1000 cows in the program.
"At the moment, it costs us between $US650 and $US900 to buy reasonable cows locally, but the process is very slow and expensive," Cosi said.
They also plan to use their land and whatever space they can find in the villages to grow fodder.
The charity, registered in Australia and Cambodia, receives mainly small donations from facebook followers and fans of Cosi's television programs. It also supports a school at Chambok - "we sort of adopted it along the way" - and builds sustainable housing for villagers in need.
So far, 50 families have benefited from the program at a cost of about $40,000, with more than $80,000 raised from donations.
"I'd love to see the program extended to other countries in the third world - so it's important we get it right here," Cosi said.
Details: www.facebook.com/Cows-for-Cambodia. Three South Aussie with Cosi episodes will be screening over summer on Channel 9 as part of the new series.