Thursday, May 19, 2022

Farming in a pressure cooker

A rapidly changing world is forcing change on farmers faster than ever before, but 2019 Nuffield scholar Corrigan Sowman suggests taking some lessons from the All Blacks’ playbook can help.

Former Nuffield scholar Corrigan Sowman says those involved in the primary sector need to consider more closely how it looks after its people through change.

A rapidly changing world is forcing change on farmers faster than ever before, but 2019 Nuffield scholar Corrigan Sowman suggests taking some lessons from the All Blacks’ playbook can help.

A presenter at the Farmax conference webinar held on March 9-10, Sowman spoke on the topic of his Nuffield study paper, Farming in a Pressure Cooker, and applied it to farming three years on.

In his earlier paper, he noted that global agriculture was at a crossroads, with past practices no longer deemed acceptable and often scrutinised by people with half the facts and pressure on farmers compounding as a result. 

He said some farmers were being overwhelmed by the situation, which was reflected in their mental health.

The purpose of his Nuffield research was to better understand how pressures that farmers were experiencing were affecting their decision-making and importance to farmer wellbeing of thinking about your thinking.

“These decisions underpin how food is produced and that is important to society, especially for countries such as New Zealand that rely on the prosperity earnt through exporting food,” Sowman said.

Sowman, a Golden Bay dairy farmer, told those on the webinar that those pressures have not gone away.

He said the challenge humanity is placing on the planet is being increasingly recognised and when a significant part of that involves growing food for others, if there’s some disconnection for consumers about where their food comes from, it’s easy for an information vacuum to be filled with misinformation.

Social media has changed the communication landscape and he said messages shared on those platforms are a big driver to how NZ farmers are feeling judged negatively, on top of other challenges in front of them, including the pace of change.

He said historically farmers’ response to pressure around margins or uncertainty has been to expand. And for a while that approach was pushed even harder.

However, if changes around the regulatory environment, such the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, mean there are constraints on doing that, he said farmers will need to think differently rather than just intensify their way out of those challenges to preserve margin

He said that’s where the work of Dr Ceri Evens, a psychiatrist who has worked as a consultant for the All Blacks and wrote the book Perform Under Pressure, comes in.

Evans, who is credited with helping the All Blacks get over the disappointment of their 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final loss to France to rebound with back-to-back successes at the next two tournaments, helped change the team’s mindset in terms of how players approached their thinking and coping mechanisms under pressure.

The team identified that players were making poor decisions in what Evans called HOT (Heated, Overwhelmed and Tense) situations and developed new skills beyond just technical ability.

Sowman said those skills were focused on how the team reacted to moments of pressure and the subsequent decisions made.

They learned to think differently and instead make cool decisions that were logical, fact-based and rational.

He said it’s those skills that the ABs now focus on to put expectation, scrutiny and consequences to one side when the pressure comes on in the last 10 minutes, which allow them to focus on being aware, clear and on task.

“It’s that type of change of mindset that I believe will support the next opportunity being realised for NZ food and fibre.

“The challenge is, and what I was trying to show with my Nuffield paper, we’ve got to tie the big picture together. The state of our thinking is ultimately reflected in the food we sell. We are quick to talk about the technical changes required of farmers,” he said.  

“But how are we supporting our farmers with the technical thinking skills so they don’t feel so overwhelmed by it?”

Evans makes the point that “we need to learn to be more comfortable in the uncomfortable”.

Sowman said there needs to be more focus on developing ‘soft skills’, an area he said Evans describes as the hardest to learn, because he is confident that despite the challenges, technical solutions to current challenges like ruminant methane will be found.

“I see a huge opportunity for NZ farmers to build a comparative advantage in their ability to embrace change and prosper through it,” he said.

“And the powerful thing about this is it builds trust with our customer. They can see that we care, even if that has involved us making some difficult decisions.

But he said for that to happen, those involved in the primary sector need to consider more closely how it looks after its people through change.

“How can we solve the pressures associated with fast change and judgement?” he asked.

“Farmer wellbeing is the central foundation to our future and we need to support the thinking skills to deal with some of these uncomfortable challenges.

“It’s this self-awareness that can allow us to find comfort in what are going to be some uncomfortable times.”

To listen to Corrigan’s feature on the Rural Leaders “ideas that Grow” podcast series head to: https://www.spreaker.com/episode/44412235

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