By Hamish Barwick
When farming livelihoods disappeared under a mountain of silt, bridges were washed away and communities cut off following Cyclone Gabrielle in February, it was not surprising that the mental wellbeing of farmers and their communities was also impacted.
While public attention has shifted away from Cyclone Gabrielle, farmers have been supported in the cleanup and rebuild by the Federated Farmers Farmy Army volunteers and contractors in Hawke’s Bay and Central Hawke’s Bay.
An important part of the work is supporting farmers through conversations.
“In those conversations, we hear the good, the bad and the ugly and of course the reality of the situation when they have lost their homes, property, stock and livelihoods. You can often hear in their voices or read on their faces when things are not OK,” said Farmy Army co-ordinator Catherine van der Meulen.
Fencing work undertaken in Hawkes Bay and Central Hawke’s Bay as part of the ‘Commence the Re fence’ campaign has been a huge boost to morale.
“The feedback we’ve had from farmers is ‘what an incredible morale booster it is just to have skilled people working on the farm and making a huge difference with the work they are contributing’.
“There is years’ worth of work to be done and we need to make sure people aren’t forgotten.”
While farmers are traditionally known for carrying on and not wishing to be a burden on others, the Farmy Army has continued to support these farms beyond the farm gate to valuable resources like the Rural Support Trust (RST), who offer a range of financial planning and mental wellness support.
During July, the Farmy Army logged 476 hours over 68 on farm days on 17 farms in Hawke’s Bay and Central Hawke’s Bay. With ground conditions in Gisborne drying out, a donated tractor and rammer from Stephenson and Taylor relocated from Hawke’s Bay to Gisborne last month.
“When we launched the Farmy Army in March we had over 200 volunteers working across Hawke’s Bay, Central Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne supporting farmers through various stages of recovery with general farm clean up, temporary and permanent fencing and tree planting,” said Van der Meulen.
The ‘Commence the Re fence’ campaign launched in Hawke’s Bay during July where the Farmy Army have been able to support farmers with two donated tractors and rammers. The Farmy Army were able to average three days of permanent fencing per farm for 20 farms and 5500 metres of fencing each month.
In addition, the Farmy Army recently received 6000 fence posts donated by the Lions Club Cambridge. These fence posts had been re-purposed by Repost in Marlborough and distributed out to Hawke’s Bay, Central Hawke’s Bay and Tutira farmers.
Guthrie Smith Arboretum in Tutira opened their doors to the Farmy Army where volunteers were based for three weeks, with groups of volunteers staying on site and being deployed to eight farms in the region.
This deployment recommenced on September 23 and runs until October 8, when the Farmy Army will be back in Tutira and continuing to recruit volunteers. The Farmy Army will provide accommodation and food for people whilst they are volunteering.
The Farmy Army will also be in Gisborne until October 23. To bolster volunteer numbers, Van der Meulen plans to get corporate organisations from outside the region who want to do team volunteer days involved.
“We’ve had quite a few groups from Fonterra come over from Palmerston North to Hawkes Bay, but we would really love to engage more corporate organisations into getting their teams on the ground to support farmers,” she said.
Farmy Army volunteer Tessa Whitaker has been working in the Hawke’s Bay since April and says the mental health and spirits of farmers has been lifted. Describing herself as cheerful and a hard worker, Tessa said farmers are full of “gratitude and grateful” for the support from herself and other volunteers. “They are very happy that the clean-up has taken less time than they expected.”
Tessa moved to the region from Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty and intends to stay as long as she is needed. She has enjoyed the experience working with horses, seeing a different part of New Zealand and the chance to undertake volunteering similar to woofing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
The Farmy Army experience has also been rewarding for retired farmer Alastair Macgregor who volunteered at Tutira and intends to go back there later in September. Macgregor worked in farming and leasing for 40 years.
“I’ve lived in areas where neighbours have had stock losses and I know what these guys are going through. It’s quite depressing for some of them, that’s for sure,” he said.
“One farmer said to me that the psychological help they get from Farmstrong is really good but to have people come in and work alongside them for three or four days gave them a real lift as they could see progress being made.”
“As long as the need is there, I will quite happily keep going back.”
He encouraged other retired farmers and contractors to volunteer their time and be involved.
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.