The Resilient Farmer by Doug Avery

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

Doug Avery The Resilient Farmer

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.

Doug Avery Resilient Farmer South Island New ZealandHis 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 wanda@ruralsupport.org.nz 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.

Further Reading

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

Just Like Tomorrow by Faïza Guène

How Can Life Be So Bad When You’re Living in PARADISE?

Kiffe kiffeI came across Faïza Guène’s  Kiffe kiffe demain translated as Just Like Tomorrow by Sarah Ardizzone, a french contemporary novel for young adults, via a wonderful blog A Year of Reading the World that is being turned into a book*.

Ann Morgan, inspired by the arrival of the multitude of athletes who came to London for the Olympics, decided to read a book from every one of 196 independent countries.

Each country presented a challenge, with only 3% of books in the UK being translated, she had to call on the help of her network and followers to find an English translation for many locations.

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène is a young screenwriter who, after being involved in a local community project, began directing her own films. Born in France of Algerian parents, and growing up in a northern suburb of Paris, she writes from the heart of a challenging suburb, in a part of the city that few from the outside know about and about which little is written in literature.

Fifteen-year-old Doria lives alone with her illiterate mother, abandoned by a father who is seeking a younger, more fertile wife in his birthplace, Morocco. The story follows Doria’s unadulterated thoughts, which for most of the narrative are quietly despondent yet noisy with attitude. She is not prone to drama, although she observes it around her, as if from within a bubble and provides a running commentary on everything in her mind,and on the page.

Peppered with teenage slang, suburban Franco-Arabic dialect, the voice is unique and easily conjures an image of what life must be like for Doria, as she waits to be thrown out of school and pushed into a career she has no desire for. Her low expectations of life make the small gains she and her mother make all the more pronounced and the humour all the funnier.

What Mum really likes watching on telly in the evenings is the weather forecast. Specially when it’s that presenter with brown hair, the one who tried out for the musical The Birdcage but didn’t get it because he was over the top…So there he was, talking about this huge cyclone in the Caribbean, and it was like oh my days, this crazy thing getting ready to do loads of damage. Franky, this hurricane was called. Mum said she thought the western obsession with giving names to natural disasters was totally stupid. I like it when Mum and me get a chance to have deep and meaningful conversations.

It is a slice of life, coming of age story, of a second generation teenage immigrant living her life far from the images of the city of Paris that come to mind for most of us. It is a book that has been widely translated into other languages and offers a unique insight into teenage life for those on the fringe and an excellent alternative to the more well-known French literature out there.

*Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport – exploring the mystery of a mother’s suicide #memoir

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport was 4 years old and the youngest of six children when her mother, an ambitious woman who balanced raising a large family, organising regular society events and political campaigning, committed suicide in the wake of a heart-wrenching custody battle.

Nancy now has three grown children of her own and has written this book both as a daughter needing to find answers and as a professional child psychiatrist, bringing together her education, experience, the wisdom of years and a compassionate perspective to narrate this compelling memoir of an extraordinary life whose end was sad and tragic.

From a childhood in which the nurturing love of a mother was ruptured so abruptly, through adolescence and early adulthood where the subject of her mother appears to have been taboo, it is extraordinary and something of a blessed gift that Nancy comes across a trunk of belongings that has virtually been in hiding or at best forgotten all these years. It is a credit to her father and stepmother that it wasn’t destroyed and so Nancy in her quest to know her mother better, gains access to lists, notes, notebooks, a journal and astonishingly, the manuscript of a complete novel. At last, she begins to gain a first-hand insight into who her mother really was, aside from all that had been written publicly and most importantly she begins to piece together how her mother was thinking in the time leading up to her death.

Rappaport follows leads like a master sleuth hesitating to question herself only briefly in pursuing her mother’s former lover, an estranged best friend and a former confidante of her grandmother, to unearth as much information surrounding the events of that period during her parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce. Little by little, she draws back the carefully drawn veil of secrecy, though not entirely without getting her fingers burnt.

It’s tempting to search for the villain and it could be said that each of the main characters in this true story are tried out and tested in that role, but none endure. Such is the faculty of being human, perhaps we all have the potential if pushed sufficiently but here we find few heroes or villains, just victims, bystanders and those trying to do their best under the circumstances.

It is a bold move to publish a family story when so many are touched by past events and family ties remain tenuous. Nancy suffers the expected consequences to a certain extent though she tries to navigate her way with compassion and empathy as much as she can. It’s a difficult and interesting topic, to write a version of the truth that recalls the faded memories of real life characters, while respecting those who wish to remain silent.

In my reading of this courageous memoir, some of the lessons come not from digging in the past or even from the professional perspective, but from Nancy’s own children, who are a constant reminder of the present that we live in and the role and responsibility of a mother to her children, doing her best, learning as she goes, loving them above all so that they have the best chance to be loving, caring and successful people themselves and that no matter what anyone says or does or whatever the circumstances, a mother will maintain that role whether she is fulltime, part time, at a distance or just a faded memory.