Industry motivator and mental health advocate Doug Avery is urging farmers struggling to adapt to more frequent droughts and tough growing conditions to look deeper into their own motivations and responses to deal with an issue that is not going to pass with time.
“I moved from talking about my approach to dealing with frequent drought on our own property to working more around mental health,” he said.
“In New Zealand we have got heaps of people who know a lot about solutions to problems like this. But if the owner of the problem is not looking for solutions, then we can’t do much about it.”
He initially did two road shows around NZ talking about his own personal journey from suffering drought-induced depression, to making lucerne a key crop in ensuring his farm’s future drought resilience.
Despite sell-out crowds, he felt he was not seeing wholesale change in farming approaches.
“I felt if I was going to spend the rest of my life creating nothing but noise, I would be back where I started. I realised I needed to talk about the mental side of things more, similar to John Kirwan,” he said.
Avery suspects the incidence of drought-induced depression, not unlike that which prompted him to change, is higher than ever for NZ farmers.
He ruefully observes how things are playing out in Hawke’s Bay this spring, with farmers enduring low feed levels and lighter stock conditions that are likely to domino through into yet another tough summer.
Digging into farmers’ minds is often the first step to getting farm practice changed. These days Avery encourages farmers to try and find their “why” for getting up in the morning before they try and change anything they do once they are up.
“It is often a case of accepting you can’t change the landscape you farm in, you need to change the eyes you see it through,” he said.
“When you head out each day, your primary task is to solve problems and vigorously congratulate yourself each time you do.
“It’s an inoculation process to realising the world is a tough place and accepting the impact of things going wrong is a good way to get better.”
He doesn’t want resilience to be confused with “hardening up”– through resilience comes tools to deal with challenges like climate change.
“And I think that maybe if I had those tools a few years ago, then I would still be farming,” he said.
For Avery, his “change of eyes” included recognising he was a “farmer of water,” with protein and fibre the outcome of that.
This involved learning to collect kilobytes of data about his farm system. That data improved in value over time as more and more was collected and could be compared and analysed over time, signalling impending droughts and feed shortages.
“Put most simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. We measure everything here now, we were among the first to take on FarmIQ, before that using Farmax and Xero,” he said.
Avery takes something of a tough love approach to getting his peers to change, but is in admiration of many in the next generation of farmers emerging.
“They are much better at adapting. Here in Marlborough there is a generation coming through who don’t look at things in terms of how they used to be. Instead they view it as ‘this is what we’ve got, what can we do with it?’,” he said.
“They are also better educated.”