If calls to the Rural Support Trust are a barometer of farmer stress levels, the dial is most certainly on ‘high’.
Neil Bateup, the farmer who founded the Waikato-Hauraki-Coromandel Rural Support Trust in 2004 and chairs the national umbrella body for the 13 other RSTs now operating, says the call rate has certainly lifted in the last few months.
August figures for his local trust are up 50% on normal, he says, “and our normal was probably higher than the previous year’s normal as well.
“We’re also seeing more calls from other sectors too, including fruit and vegetable growers, thoroughbred breeders and apiarists.”
The Waikato-Hauraki-Coromandel RST fielded 46 requests for help in August and would top 400 on an annual basis. “As well as that we had another 100 or so farmers and growers who were hit by the cyclone damage and flooding and were in regular contact with us.”
It would be the same or worse for RSTs for the East Coast and Northland.
It isn’t just the cyclones. A wet autumn, a very wet winter and a “cold, cold August” means feed supplies are not in a great space.
The financial pressures of rising costs and interest rates, and the depressing milk price forecast, can be devastating enough – particularly for those farmers carrying high debt.
“But for farmers it’s about their animals and crops. If they can’t feed their animals well, and every time you step out the door you’re pulling on your gumboots and raincoat because it’s wet yet again – well, it’s incredibly demoralising.”
Neil, who was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for all the volunteer hours he has put into RSTs, says he’s noticed the complexity of calls coming in of late is on the rise too.
“You get a call come in and it might be about financial issues or a relationship breakdown, or it could be an employment dispute. It might have culminated in a mental health impact.
“When you actually meet with the individual or family and start to dig in, there’s often two or three underlying factors driving it.”
For some people, a call for help can be sorted relatively quickly. Some just want to unburden, to share their story with someone who can give an outside perspective. Just talking through the issues, and beginning to put a plan around what actions might be needed – perhaps even before you line up people who can get alongside them with expert advice – “often helps an awful lot,” Neil says.
For others it can take many hours, even days, over an extended period to unwind all that’s going on.
The RST’s Farm Business Advice Fund is a useful tool for those who are financially stretched. With the agreement of the farmer or grower and their bank/lender, an independent advisor can be brought in to take a look at the business. With government funding, the RST can put up to $3000 towards the advisor’s costs, if the bank matches it.
“The independent advisor can assess the options, see if there’s scope for restructuring the way things are done and so on.
“In many cases, a way can be found to carry on the business and keep the bank happy but in some situations, it’s terminal. Then it’s a case of looking at the best way to exit the business to the best advantage of all parties. So it’s a pretty valuable service to tap into.”
The Farm Debt Mediation legislation is also proving useful for those farm businesses in serious financial strife.
“I know it is tough to ask for help, but if you feel things are not quite right for whatever reason, reach out to the RST or your industry body or expert early; getting support helps you take back control of the situation and can be very, very helpful. The earlier you reach out the quicker you can get a plan and get back on track,” Neil says.
“Otherwise it can get to the stage where the finances, or the relationship breakdown or employment argument is so dire, it’s hard to come back from.”
Succession planning – or rather the lack of it – can be another tinder box. If it’s left too long, emotions run high and the positions of those involved can be entrenched.
“We’re not experts and will not tell you what to do. But we can listen and give options and if needed connect you with the right professionals – other farmers, farm advisors, financial advisors, counsellors.
“Then our RST team will just walk alongside and help where or when needed. Every situation is different.”
Fortunately, talking about mental health is no longer the taboo it was. Farmers and growers are better at reaching out, Neil reckons.
“There’s still a long way to go but it’s certainly getting better.”
Back when Neil started the first RST nearly 20 years ago it was most often the farmer’s wife ringing up out of concern for her husband – and that still happens – “but we often now get guys who will call and say they are not tracking too well”. Referrals can also come from rural professionals and friends who notice someone is struggling.
“I would just say, ‘if something is worrying you or you are having a tough time make the call [0800 787 254]’.
“You’ll get someone who is independent, won’t make judgements, and who will keep things as confidential as you wish.”
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.
In Focus Podcast: Tending to mental health on farm
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That’s beginning to change with programmes like Farmstrong giving voice to those who have been affected. There are others in the farming family who also work tirelessly to normalise talking about our mental health.
One of those is Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford. Bryan talked with Wayne and his wife Tyler about their journey, what it was like to struggle personally and what it was like to have your partner retreat into themselves.