Joseph Watts had a slightly unusual journey into agriculture. The FMG Young Farmer of the Year grand finalist grew up in a city and was a professional squash player for several years.
Now Watts, from Waipukurau, who will represent East Coast in the national competition, is a technical field representative for PGG Wrightson – having cut his teeth in the sector working on shearing gangs before gaining a graduate diploma in rural studies from Massey University.
He has his wife, vet Lucy Dowsett, to thank for his passion for the countryside.
The couple live on a 12ha site and also farm a small number of beef cattle – but growing up in Palmerston North, he knew virtually nothing about farming.
“My father is a police officer. He did have a beekeeping business until I was about 14 so I had a little bit to do with bees but that was about it. After school I did a sport and exercise degree while also playing squash professionally for five or six years on the world tour.
“Then I met Lucy at my local squash club while she was in the final year of vet school. She got a job at Raetihi, near Ohakune. I moved there with her and there wasn’t much work available for me so I took up shearing, did my agriculture post-grad extramurally and decided I wanted to be an agronomist.”
Watts’ variety of work and study experiences has influenced his keen interest in health and safety. He also experienced his own near miss in a workplace accident, which could have resulted in more serious injury.
“My first rural jobs were in shearing and I was fortunate to do a five-day shearing school course which covered safety, mainly around machinery,” he says.
“I worked for a few shearing gangs of different sizes and there was definitely more of a safety focus in the larger ones.
“In one job I was knocked unconscious while working with an old crank wool press. I was loading a bucket and let go and was hit by the spinning handle. I did notice things were starting to get better around the time I left shearing, about four years ago, largely due to awareness about the new regulations coming in. That included replacing old machinery, like wool presses, and better hygiene – you started to get proper washing facilities with running water in the sheds.”
Watts says his own awareness around workplace health and safety has developed further as a result of PGG Wrightson’s commitment to building a strong culture among its teams.
“The company has created a culture where people are not scared to question things if they are worried about a safety issue,” he says.
“During my time in this role I have also seen farmers’ attitudes towards safety change. I spend most of my days on different farms, mainly walking the crops, and I find it’s rare now to find someone who is against good health and safety. Most of the farmers I deal with see it as beneficial and good for business. Things are changing. It’s unusual now to see someone on a farm bike without a helmet, for instance.”
However, Watts still feels there’s still some way to go in terms of recognising the importance of managing health and wellbeing in agriculture.
“And health comes in two parts. There’s physical health and there’s mental health.
“Like many people I have known someone in the sector who has taken their own life and seen the impact that has on their family and community. It was so unexpected, which shows how people often don’t talk about their distress.
“I do think the industry is making good progress in breaking down the stigma around mental health in rural communities and encouraging people to seek help and that is really important.
“Physical health is connected to that. It is really important to manage your wellbeing. I think that, coming in from outside of the industry, I am not as exposed to that work-work-work mentality and I have a bit of a different perspective around managing wellbeing.
“Farming is really hard work but in the long term there are benefits to your business of looking after your own and your workers’ physical and mental wellbeing. You might be able to work yourself to the bone for a few years but that isn’t sustainable for you or your business in the long-term.
“It’s also important to recognise that everyone is different – just because one person might cope with working from 6am-8pm and I do know farmers who do that, it doesn’t mean other people can. I think more people are seeing that they have to take the long-term view – but there’s still a way to go on that.”
Watts also sees more farmers simply making safety part and parcel of their business as usual.
“People are recognising that it isn’t arduous and that once you have identified your risks and established your processes you might have to put 15 minutes a day into talking or thinking about safety and that is time well spent.
“That goes for me too. Recently when I was driving out for the day I realised I didn’t have my folder with my haz notes. Two years ago I would have carried on driving but it took me five minutes to go back and pick them up. It’s about recognising that sometimes you have to take a little more time to make sure everyone is safe.”