Growing Up on a Hill Country Sheep Farm
I spent the majority of my childhood on two hill country sheep farms in rural New Zealand (Port Waikato and Te Akau); Ngapuriri in the photo below left, my Dad and my son in the other two photos on his retirement farm.
Not knowing what I wanted to do in my life after school, I decided to attend an agricultural university in the South Island, a college full of farmer’s sons and those interested in horticulture, plant science and associated research. I never worked in agriculture, I spent a few years in forestry, then moved to London to study essential oils and well-being, leaving both farming and the corporate world behind.
#matesofmatesformates – mental health and well-being
Recently I noticed a few friends, many of whom are the current generation of farmer’s, on video doing press-ups in the paddocks of their farms, or on the floorboards of the woolshed, in support of mental health awareness in the rural sector, where anxiety and depression are serious issues. Farmer’s were being encouraged to start a conversation with their mates, check in on each other and to read Doug Avery’s book, The Resilient Farmer, a great conversation starter.
John Jackson, a university friend and neighbour from one of those farms we lived on, took the challenge further. Knowing farmers were suffering from drought after record low rainfall and at time when the country had been further isolated by Covid-19 lockdown, he contacted his local Rural Support Trust (an organisation that supports rural people through tough times) with an idea to raise funds to buy copies of the book to be distributed among farmers. The publisher has offered a generous discount and so the press-ups and fund-raising continues.
It is inspiring to see those who are participating, taking a minute to talk on camera a little about mental health well-being, sharing something of their own experience or encouraging others to give a mate a call. I’m sure that all the comments they receive and the interactions from old friends has also lifted everyone’s spirits. Fortunately I wasn’t tagged to do push-ups, but I thought I’d read the book and share a little of what its about, to support the initiative.
A Review of the Book
The book begins with a foreword by a well-known New Zealand rugby player from the 80’s and 90’s John Kirwan who admits that until he became aware of their particular situation he thought most farmers had an idyllic life, living in their beautiful landscapes away from the stresses of city living.
If you look at our farmers, traditionally, they tend to be introverts – they have to be, to handle the isolation. They are strong people. Stoic. Their self-belief centres on being able to cope with everything the land throws at them. So mental health, for them, is pretty complex. The idea of showing vulnerability is probably several times more traumatic than it is for someone like me.
They look to their family background – maybe they’re the third or fourth generation on that piece of land – and they think, My parents and grandparents built this farm, cleared it with their own hands; and I am going to lose it? They think, My parents and grandparents never got depressed; what’s wrong with me? They don’t realise that, often, their parents and grandparents did suffer, but they hid it. Sir John Kirwan (All Black 1984-1994)
Doug Avery lives in the north-east of the South Island, a part of the country that has a particular micro-climate with very little rainfall. His father had a small farm, but when Doug got involved as a young man, he had energy and ambition and quickly figured out that they’d make a better living by expanding, so he convinced his father to purchase a neighbouring farm. He farmed according to traditional methods that had seemed to serve previous generations, but when successive years of low rainfall caused severe drought, his animals, his mental health and his livelihood suffered.
For farming folk as for everybody else, the really big things in life are outside our control. The only thing we can control is how we meet these challenges.
In short, he stuck his head in the sand, hiding away in his office, not confiding his worries to his wife and growing increasingly irritated with everyone around him. He became an angry man and a less social one and began thinking that perhaps everyone would be better off without him.
I thrive on reward, and that had vanished from my life. I was so ashamed and afraid, and yet so determined to blame everyone – anything – else for my problems.
My problem was the way I farmed, and the way I thought about things.
In his book, he describes his personal descent and that of the farm, of the environment. There comes a turning point when a friend invites him to attend a seminar being held by a plant scientist, a researcher from that same university we went to. Reluctantly he agrees to go. Listening and after meeting and working with him, he has an epiphany when this man tells him he isn’t farming sheep and beef, he’s farming water, and not very successfully.
Learning to farm differently – to farm with nature, rather than against it – is at the heart of that success. But even more important I had to change my thinking processes.
His farm sat in a part of the country that had more of a Mediterranean character, hot summers, mild winters and dryness, a challenge for traditional farming. Their nearest neighbour was a salt works, for them long, dry summers and the warm north-west winds were ideal. When he stopped being angry and started engaging in a more collaborative way with people who had knowledge he could tap into, who wanted to work with him, everything changed.
When asked by a specialist why he had a system that didn’t fit the natural curves of what nature was offering him on the farm, he realised he hadn’t been asking the right questions.
My big problem was that I didn’t stop to consider the nature of this place. I was working against it, uselessly trying to make it fit my old ideas about what would work; and in doing so, I was working against myself.
In the book he details a three pronged sustainable approach to dealing with the problem. Environmental, financial and social. While he doesn’t really share much about the method he followed to deal with his depression, beyond admitting he needed to change his thinking, his attitude and behaviours – there are references to support networks provided and one of the stand out first things he asks anyone who comes to him sharing their despair, is whether they have talked openly with their wife. And the second thing he says, after they say no – is that she’s unlikely to react how you think she will.
Resilience isn’t about not having bad times; it’s about having the tools to recover from difficulties, to adapt, to bounce forward. Part of resilience is being honest and self-aware about the feelings we carry inside ourselves.
Ultimately, Doug too has family who are going to farm and he has been able to pass on what he has learned, in the hope that they might avoid the depths of despair to which he fell. His community suffered devastating earthquakes and so he has taken his learning and experiences with depression to the wider community, being part of a group of people who check in on others, he recognises the look, the sign of someone trying to keep it all together and knows how to listen, to start a conversation, to let people know that we are all connected, that people care. It started for him in the farming community and has extended out to the wider community. He finishes with a suggestion about the education system, which makes me think about sharing something that has existed here in France for over 50 years MFR (Maison Familiale Rurale) at school level.
In my view, our education system tends to prepare people en masse, but in reality nearly everyone has an individual task and an individual destination. We need to start personalising education to make people more purpose-ready for the life they want to live.
It’s an excellent book that people with any connection to rural communities will take something from and for those who know little or nothing about farming lives, it will be an eyeopener. It’s a job that is often a life commitment and he talks about it in a way that people will be able to understand and relate to and discuss. He’s become an inspiration to many.
Support The Initiative – Rural Support Trust
To support the initiative and contribute to the purchase of books for the rural community:
Email email@example.com and ask for more information or if you are in New Zealand simply make a deposit to ANZ 06-0145-0743411-00 with the reference “Mates”. All donations with the reference “Mates” will be used to buy copies of Doug Avery’s book The Resilient Farmer and distributed throughout the country.
Brilliant Podcast – Past All-Black John Kirwan talking on BBC Radio 4 about the daily tools and tips he uses
Mentemia – the new mental health well-being app, launched during the Covid-19 epidemic, currently available free to New Zealanders and Australians.
The Minefield Podcast: Rugby man Ben Jeffery’s – The mental health struggle that nearly cost me my life
This sounds interesting and worthwhile stuff. I’m fascinated by your backstory!
It’s a world away from life today, some good stories from those days though, working on a writing project that will share some of them, if I ever finish it.
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Oh excellent. Keep writing!
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This is such a necessary conversation. We have similar issues in the UK – different climate but definitely a tradition of not speaking about feelings, and farming is such challenging work.
It is encouraging to hear that it is being encouraged, I listened to a podcast today by the NZ sporting hero John Kirwan and his perspective was so refreshing, his honesty so refreshing about the neglect of the mind compared to the focus and attention we give to the body. And right now I would say that mental health is probably in a state of pandemic in a few countries.
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What a wonderful thing….both the book, and your review in support of it. Farming is a very difficult line of work. In the states, we’ve had a rash of suicides by young, discouraged farmers. It’s encouraging there is a recognition for that, and an effort to help those in need.