Sunday, December 3, 2023

Time to rethink how we farm without harm

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Cyclone Gabrielle taught us hard lessons about preserving farmer wellbeing in the era of climate change.
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By Lindy Nelson, Safer Farms chair

In all the ways I’ve thought about what it takes to farm so we get home safely every night, I never imagined it might require an inflatable boat or helicopter. Cyclone Gabrielle delivered us a signal from the future about the impact of climate change and it pretty much said “You’re not ready.  

“You’ve spent time thinking about the environment you farm in, your land, water, plantings and the protection of ecosystems, but what about yourself and your people?” 

The lessons were delivered with a cruel ferociousness, destroying land, lives, livelihoods, animals and infrastructure. Separating families, communities and even some of us working on the same farm. The cyclone redefined for me what it means to be physically and mentally safe during and after an event like this. Where is the safe place where farming communities can come together and how do we protect one another now and, in the future, and farm without harm? 

Like so many of you, I am thinking about the mental and physical toll on our farmers and their families right now, almost two months post-cyclone.  We already know that 24% of on-farm injuries can be directly attributed to diminished wellbeing, stress and tiredness and these are a precursor to accidents. I imagine that number post-cyclone probably just tripled. Now, combine this with farmers having to make huge on-farm decisions in a state of post-adrenal fatigue. 

So how do we support them to make good calls daily that keep them physically safe, and long-term calls that keep them psychologically safe?  

Farmstrong has prepared the ground over the past few years, giving farmers the tools to help them through the day-to-day ups and downs of farming, and safeguard their emotional and physical wellbeing.  The Rural Support Trust and others are swinging into gear with planned activities. Our industry bodies, Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ), Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers, are working hard to both understand and meet farmers’ immediate needs. 

Yet on farm, day to day, minute to minute, we are alone with our farming partners, our families – those we work with.  What are the good calls we need to make to prevent harm? What are the conversations we have to have with ourselves and those who work with us, to ensure we put our wellbeing before the mountain of tasks ahead of us so we get through?

Earlier this month, Safer Farms rallied industry leaders for an urgent meeting to gather experiences and insights and to understand how we can be better prepared to mitigate the stress, anxiety, loss and damage inflicted on farmers during climate emergencies.  How might we rethink what it means to be healthy, safe and well on farms and understand this as the psychological toll sets in?

Common themes emerged: Many felt a lack of preparedness within their communities when they were cut off; many had grave concerns about animal welfare; and a phenomenon known as survivors’ guilt had kicked in – “at least no one was hurt” or “at least we have a house”. This thinking could mean we aren’t acknowledging or even grieving for our own loss. 

And the feeling of being overwhelmed was starting to set in, too.

Everyone who attended the meeting – Pāmu, PGG Wrightsons, Alliance, Farmlands, Ballance Agri-nutrients, Agri-Women’s Development Trust, Ngāi Tahu, Greenlea, Farmright, Silver Fern Farms, BLNZ – agreed we need better industry-wide preparedness and collaboration, with strong community response hubs in place for the future. 

This includes a plan for communities to be able to respond to emergencies in their own way and draw on services they uniquely need, and agreement between industry agencies as to the roles they play in a response. 

This could include the formation of rural climate emergency response teams; the identification of community safe hubs (similar to a marae where sleeping, cooking washing facilitates, communication and electricity are available); and/or emergency wellbeing skills programmes to equip communities with the skills to effectively communicate with farmers in distress.

Protecting farmer wellbeing in the face of increasing adverse weather events will be a key component of the Farm Without Harm Strategy, which Safer Farms looks forward to launching in May this year.

For many farmers their environment has completely changed, their land has changed, and they too will have changed. How we look out for our farmers and for each other, and ensure that we are making good calls on farms, has never been more critical.

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