Thursday, August 18, 2022

A wake up call

A near-fatal accident completely changed Owen Gullery’s approach to life and farming. Now he’s alerting other farmers to the dangers of fatigue.

Owen contract milks 480 cows on a dairy farm near Cambridge. He’s been in the industry 20 years and loves “the daily challenges of farming – good and bad.”  But a few years back a tractor accident almost killed him.

“I’d only been contract milking a couple of years in Manawatu. I was your typical ‘I’m gonna take on the world’ guy, working full-on hours. I wanted to make as much money as I could, bank every cent so I could buy a farm,” Owen says.

“That drove me to work 200 to 300 days in a row without a break. I was working from four in the morning till eight at night most days.”

That combination almost killed him.

“The night it happened I had a cow I knew would have problems calving, so I was waiting to calve her. I went out to check her late at night. We had a three-pond effluent system and I knew she was in the paddock by the dry pond, but it was a pea soupy kind of night, with fog everywhere,” he recalls.

“By the time I got to her it was 11 o’clock at night in October, and I hadn’t had a day off all year.

“I drove the tractor up the side of the pond where I thought she was, went over the bank and before I knew it, the cab was filling up with effluent. I’d driven into the wrong pond because I was so tired.

Owen says he couldn’t get anything to open to escape the cab space. 

“I ended up gasping for breath in the last couple hundred millimetres of cab space, managed to kick the back window open, grabbed the blade on the back of the tractor and hauled myself out. It was pretty scary,” he says.

After that traumatic experience, Owen completely changed the way he approached his job. He employed part-time help. He took his first break of the year and scheduled two afternoons off a week from then on. The family also reset their life goals.

“We changed from being prepared to go anywhere and do anything just to own a farm to concentrating on being a stable, secure, happy family, no matter what it meant in terms of farm ownership,” he says.

“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but that’s what happens when you see your life flash before your eyes.”

Owen’s story is dramatic but not unique.

A study of 500 farmers who made an injury claim with ACC revealed 58% reported an aspect of diminished wellbeing had contributed to their accident. The most mentioned factors were fatigue/exhaustion; lack of sleep; not coping with the ups and downs of farming; needing a break from the farm; and having too much to do and not enough time.

Which is why Owen’s been helping Farmstrong raise awareness about the dangers of burnout. These days, as well as farming, he plays tennis and cycles to keep fit and coaches kids’ rugby. He also meets up with a group of other rural guys once a week to “solve the world’s problems over a beer”.

“Farming can be hard yakka. You’ve simply got to have downtime to stay healthy and safe,” he says.

“That’s why I think Farmstrong’s invaluable. In the dairy industry we talk about feed and milk, cows and grass. But there’s a whole area of farming that’s still largely untapped and that’s people’s ability to cope physically and mentally. I think if people were in a better head space, relationships would flourish and properties would do better.

“Farmstrong makes it easier to discuss these things. Sure, rain and fertiliser make farms tick, but farming is all about people.

“Farming can be a great lifestyle, but not the way I was working. Prior to my accident I probably had no more than a week off over three years. Looking back, I realise there were near misses and close shaves all the time. But it literally took an accident to change my thinking.”

Let’s leave the last word to Farmstrong Ambassador Sam Whitelock:

Farmstrong ambassador Sam Whitelock says life can get really busy on-farm, so having a strategy to manage fatigue is vital.

“I know from having grown up on a farm that farmers are great at looking after their stock and pasture but, sometimes, not so good at looking after themselves,” Sam says.

“I like to think of my wellbeing as a bit like a bank account. Making small, regular ‘deposits’ by doing the things that boost my energy levels, like scheduling time to catch up with mates and go hunting or fishing, means I’ll have something to draw on when I’m under the pump.

“Let’s face it, there are only so many hours in a day, so when life gets really busy on-farm having a strategy to manage fatigue is vital. On a farm no one is going to come and tell you to have time off. You have to prioritise it and make it happen yourself.”

More: Farmstrong is an award-winning rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and farming families live well to farm well. To find out what works for you and lock it in. Check out our farmer-to-farmer videos, stories and tips on www.farmstrong.co.nz

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