Monday, February 26, 2024

Hanging ten while you’re hanging tough

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The healing power of the ocean on the body and mind were the inspiration for Surfing for Farmers, an initiative that has NZ farmers taking regular saltwater therapy.
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In this year’s Land Champions edition, we celebrate domestic and imported people in agriculture, from the Italian clan that owns a slice of North Otago wool production to the teacher rebooting ag education in the hort heartland if western Bay of Plenty.

For Stephen Thomson, a spot of rainy day Netflix viewing back in 2017 has a lot to answer for.

In October this year Thomson, as founder of the Surfing for Farmers initiative, collected the prestigious Rural Champion Award at the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Awards.

It was a remarkable rise for an initiative that started as a way to get 25 Gisborne farmers off their farms and to the beach to relax. The programme is now run out of 28 locations around New Zealand and last year 4000 farmers took part.

The concept began on the couch of Thomson’s family home in Gisborne while he and wife Nicole were watching Resurface, a Netflix documentary.

It told the story of Iraq war veteran Bobby Lane who, after years of post-traumatic stress, felt the only way out of his trauma was suicide. That was until he met a former big wave surfer and discovered surfing and the healing power of the ocean on the mind and body.

“There was a line in the documentary where a guy said, ‘I used to wake up every day and want to kill myself. Now I wake up every day and want to go surfing,’” says Thomson.

“That struck a chord with me. I thought about it and I just put it out there. We could use surfing as a way to help farmers. I wasn’t so much targeting farmers right on the verge of suicide but instead improving all farmers’ mental health and giving them a good time and experience.”

Thomson, a rural real estate agent with Bayleys in Gisborne, was well versed in the struggles farmers were experiencing.

After 13 years as a farm consultant he had sat around plenty of kitchen tables as stressed-out farmers tried to make tough decisions about their farming future.

“I was living among it. There were suicides going on around the country. You may not have known the people, but you hear about it.

“You just knew that if you were talking to five people who are stressed out, there were many others out there who weren’t sharing their problems.”

He had been brought up on a farm and, although a child at the time, was well aware of the farm and financial stresses his parents faced.

Convinced he could offer support for local farmers through surfing, Thomson got to work. 

He found 12 local sponsors to each donate $1000 and convinced the Gisborne Boardriders club to help out with surfboards, wetsuits and coaching.


About 400 people took part in Surfing for Farmers last year.

“On the first Tuesday of December 2017, we had about 25 farmers turn up and we haven’t looked back.

“It sounds a bit selfish now but I was only ever really worried about my own backyard at the time. I was trying to look after Gisborne farmers.”

But as word spread about the initiative, Thomson’s phone started to ring. Others from around the country were wanting to use the Surfing for Farmers template.

Thomson was happy to help out, but adamant he wanted everyone to stay under the Surfing for Farmers umbrella, rather than set up individual units.

“I just felt we would be able to do the job way better as a national charity.”

Thomson was initially surprised at the interest in the programme but as the phone calls kept coming, and the number of groups grew to six, he realised he was on to something. There were plenty of farmers around the country who were needing, and wanting, support.

“I was just trying to help my community but when you stop and think about it, farmers nationally have all the same problems.”

Thomson said the decision to use surfing to help farmers was based on the “science around salt water therapy” but also personal experience.

“I’m a shit surfer but I love it. I know that feeling when you get out among the waves and you get away from it all. You can literally just sit out the back and wait, lie on your board for half an hour and get some time to yourself.

“There are no cellphones, no staff, dogs playing up or flyblown sheep. It’s all about you and the waves. If you want to catch the next one you do, if you don’t then you just let it go.”

Thomson says feedback from programme co-ordinators has shown it is having a significant impact on mental wellbeing.

During a recent drought one farmer said if he wasn’t surfing he would be sitting at home staring out the window. Others told of how the programme has helped save their lives. The fact some farmers travel for more than an hour each week to attend a surfing session shows how much it is valued.

Thomson says if the programme has helped save one life it has done its job. 

The challenge now for Surfing for Farmers is to maintain the programme’s quality as participant numbers rise along with operational costs. He estimates it now costs up to $1500 per session for each location around the country, which includes equipment, lessons and a BBQ. 

It is funded through sponsorship and grants. Bayleys, Rabobank, Jarden, Beef + Lamb NZ, Fonterra and Ballance agri-nutrients are the major sponsors but hundreds of smaller businesses throughout NZ also pitch in.

Following a tough year for farmers, coupled with Cyclone Gabrielle, Thomson is anxious about the growing demand for the service – 70 farmers turned up at a recent North Island event – and the ballooning costs.

“It costs a fortune to run,” he says.

 “My biggest fear is keeping it sustainable from a funding point of view and getting the buy-in from farmers.

“We need to be keeping it fresh, keep it entertaining and at the same time keep it grassroots. It needs to be by farmers, for farmers.”

This year’s programme catchphrase has been “Taking the beach back to the paddock”.

Thomson says it is about heading to the beach, switching to a relaxed and chilled out beach mode and then taking the relaxed vibe back to the farm for the rest of the week.

“That’s going to see you and your staff in a better mental space, happier families on the farm and better production and decisions.”

After all, that’s all Thomson has ever hoped to achieve.

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