This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
Dylan Ditchfield can look back and see the very different stages he has gone through in his farming life. He and his wife Sheree milk 400 cows on about 64ha in Wendonside, Southland.
“When I was coming through the industry, I had a real focus on financial gain and growing the asset. I had an amazing upbringing as a child, but we weren’t always flush with money so it was very important for me to be financially independent.
“That drove me to be successful in farming and then it became an addiction. Subconsciously I just wanted to grow and grow and what happened was that I left my family behind. I fell on my face and had a big wake-up call. Now I am very happy in my own skin doing what we do.”
Today, the Ditchfields work with three other team members to run the dairy farm. It’s a flat structure with no hierarchy and they all have their own responsibilities, Dylan says. This approach provides time for the couple, who were among Farmstrong’s earliest supporters, to be involved in their wider farming community.
A number of years ago they set up a Farming to Freedom leadership course to help other couples build resilience and be the best they can be as people, leaders and farmers. The course brings couples together and provides a comfortable place for people to talk about things and support one another, Dylan says.
The course aligns well with Farmstrong’s Five Ways to Wellbeing – staying connected, keeping active, enjoying simple pleasures, learning, and giving back to friends and community. It was through one of the couples on the course that they were introduced to regenerative farming, which uses a variety of sustainable practices to improve the health and vitality of the farm soil.
“The hardest thing to change in moving to a regenerative system is the farmer’s mindset. Once you change that, things start to flow. It’s not easy. We are learning off each other as we go.”
One of the things he likes about the regenerative community is an openness to listen to one another and learn. He and Sheree helped to establish a discussion group for Otago Southland, which began with about 10 people and has now grown to about 50-60 people.
“People love it. It’s about farmers getting together and sharing their knowledge and experience. They’re open and accepting of different points of view.”
Dylan says his mindset in regard to wellbeing has also changed slightly over the years.
“Probably back then it was more about getting time out, looking after yourself, and getting time away with family. All those key ideas Farmstrong promotes, which are still really important to manage workload and prevent burnout.
“But now our kids have left home and we have more flexibility. We have come to realise that wellbeing is about being happy where you’re at. We are not chasing growth like we were. It was an ingrained mindset.
“For us now, it’s about giving something back to our community and positively impacting other people. It doesn’t matter what we do – whether it’s farming or coaching or mentoring or being with our family and friends, as long as we are doing that, we feel fulfilled. You don’t have to take a holiday to feel that way. We still need time out – we regularly look at our yearly planner and block out times in advance. But it’s that overall sense of purpose which makes the difference.”
For Dylan, wellbeing is about having a positive orientation towards everything, even during challenging times.
“With the environment and culture we have created, it’s not a chore anymore. It’s a pleasure to be out there amongst it. We feel better connected with our farm, our animals and our people and we could do it every day.
“This attitude doesn’t mean that you don’t have hard days when you think you are letting people down or your mind is spinning like crazy when things get a little chaotic.”
The thing to remember is you can change your mindset, says Dylan. “What you are feeling does not necessarily reflect what the outcome is going to be.
“There’s a lot of anxiety out there and it’s often because of people’s mindset. Take the drought, for example. Yes, there’s a drought and yes, it’s hard, but if you have a plan, you follow it through with constant monitoring and you get through that way. You can only do what you can control and what you have influence over.
“One of the things we teach in our course is being mindful. Look around and be grateful for what you have and what’s going to happen is going to happen. We do the best we can to mitigate threats. And if we can’t, that’s just the way it is and we’re okay with that.”
For Sheree, a key strategy when she is feeling under the pump is to focus on the present.
“Over the years we have got better at focusing on what we can do right here right now, in this moment, rather than losing ourselves in the future or the past. It’s the future or the past that builds anxiety and you ruminate on it. Being in the moment just releases you.”
The rural sector is currently under a lot of pressure, Dylan says. The pandemic, and weather events like droughts and floods, bring great uncertainties and on top of that he believes communities have become more polarised on issues.
“We are noticing that there are more extreme views on different issues, bringing divisions within communities and industries. People are hooked on social media and living in a kind of false world. It isn’t like that, but we perceive it to be.”
“We need to get people on different sides to see their commonalities and try and find a pathway forward together, rather than looking at people that disagree as a lost cause resulting in further division.
“And it’s not just the vocal people saying stuff, its people in the middle listening to it. That itself creates stress and anxiety because all of a sudden you are expected to take a side and you don’t want to take a side.”
As part of its You Matter, Let’s Natter initiative, Farmstrong has been encouraging farmers to stay connected during challenging times and has created resources to pass on the skills of being a good listener. Dylan acknowledges respectful listening is critical to people’s wellbeing and building a positive, rural community.
“Being a good listener is something which Farmstrong promotes and it’s something we need more of in the community, especially now.”
More: Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers to deal with the ups and downs of the industry. To find out what works for you and lock it in, visit www.farmstrong.co.nz