By Simon Edwards
Take incredible pride in being a farmer, putting nutritious food on others’ tables. But beware of letting your farmer role become your entire sense of identity.
“The thing with farming is that you could be doing a great job but outside factors, or decisions you’ve made based on expectations of the weather that didn’t pan out, trip you up and make you feel like you’ve failed,” Richard McIntyre says.
“Our sector is always going to have peaks and troughs. If you’ve let farming define too much of who you are, then when those troughs are really serious and you feel like you’ve failed, the risk is you start asking yourself ‘well, if I’m not making the grade as a farmer, then I’m not making the grade as a person either’.”
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week ran from September 18-24, and the Federated Farmers dairy chair says during long hours in the milking shed and on the calving run, he’s had plenty of time to ponder the farmer psyche.
“Farming is a lifestyle more than a career in so many ways. You live where you work and the pressures and obligations are 24/7.”
“I think farmers, more than any other group, get wrapped up in that identity of what they do. It’s why when someone attacks farming, the impact on the environment, what happens to the animals or whatever, they can feel personally attacked.”
Richard says he’s proud to introduce himself as a dairy farmer when he meets new people. But his Twitter feed notes he’s a husband and father first “because it’s easy to forget that.
“I could stop being a dairy farmer and still be me.”
Like the vast majority of farmers, Richard says he’s experienced highly stressful times, such as when they first bought their herd, the milk price dropped significantly and there was absolutely no money to spare. He’d come home after a tough day, feeling weighed down with the workload, the responsibility of those who are relying on him and knowing they were going backwards financially. His children were his antidote, his reminder of what really mattered.
“My kids knew nothing about all the stuff happening on farm and didn’t really care. They just wanted to see their Dad.”
Richard believes it’s really important for mental wellbeing to have things going on outside farming to give you perspective.
“One of the things I love about Feds is that it lifts my mind up above my own farm. I get to see how it is for other farmers in the district, and right around the country.”
There’s truth in the saying ‘a problem shared is a problem solved’.
“Everyone goes through the ups and downs, just by virtue of being a farmer. It’s about how you manage it.”
It tends to be the farmers who try to tough it out on their own, maybe not even talking to their partners about what they’re going through, that get out of their depth.
“If you’re not meeting up with your mates like you used to, or you’re no longer doing those things outside farming you enjoyed – they’re warning signs.”
Richard says he was reading about an elite athlete who said ‘you know you’re over-doing it when you meet more than two bastards in a day’.
“He was saying that level of grumpiness, where little things wind you up, is a signal you’re not in a good space.”
Thankfully, there’s good evidence now that farmers are more willing to reach out when they’re struggling.
“The more that we can get it out there that it’s smart to talk about these things early with family, with mates, with experts…to work out a plan, the better.”
Taking time out is not as easy an option for farmers as it is for other occupations/vocations. In many jobs, when the workload is overwhelming there are others who can take over, or the tasks can be left until next week without it all crashing down. In busy parts of the season, some farmers can go for months without a day off.
As the Federated Farmers 2023 Employer Report underlined, difficulty of recruiting in rural areas, and farm cost increases running at double or more than inflation limiting the financial ability to take on extra staff, take a toll. Findings from more than 450 farmers surveyed included:
Just 15% of employers reported paying themselves well, 17% only paying themselves well because they have less staff than they need; half paid themselves less than staff, 11% do not pay themselves at all;
Most of those who reported not paying themselves well or were only doing so because they employed fewer staff than required also reported an impact to their mental health (72% to 89% respectively)
The impact on mental and physical health was the most severe in those who were able to pay themselves a good wage but only because they forged on with fewer staff than needed. This group reported their mental and physical health impacted at 89% and 80%, respectively. This emphasises while there is a financial benefit, it is a sure-fire way to be burnt out/increase your risk of an accident.
Richard said it’s often hardest on the person at the top – the owner/operator, the employer, the sharefarmer who ultimately carries the can. They have duty of care to make ends meet, duty of care to other staff, duty of care not to breach any regulations, and duty of care to the animals.
That last one can weigh very heavily, Richard says.
“I think some people might regard farmers as, I guess, a little bit cold-hearted at times about their livestock but it’s not the case. Farmers are there because they love looking after animals and feel an immense duty of care.
“In dairy, for example, you know your cows. You milk them every day. Often you’ve raised that cow from when it was a calf. You know their mum and you actually chose their sire.
“I know most of my cows from sight, before I even look at their number. They’ve got their own personalities, or you’ll remember them because of some event – this one calved in the middle of a stormy night, that one who had triplets.
“There’s this real connection. So when there’s not enough cover because of a wet winter or a drought, or because there’s no money to buy more feed, it is incredibly stressful.”
Those duties of care never let up. It’s often not possible to escape the stresses for a weekend because the animals still need to be cared for, and often no-one else knows the farm well enough to step in.
Fortunately, says Richard, the Rural Support Trusts have people – retired farmers often – who can take over to give an owner/operator at the end of his/her tether a break.
“That’s my main message, I guess. You’re not alone. Others have gone through these things, and still are. The real failure can be not sharing your worries, or asking for help.”
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.