Friday, April 19, 2024

Picking up the pieces and getting the balance right

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After recovering from a serious motorcross accident, Gary Sunshine-Tervit helps other farmers deal with their mental health through Farmstrong.
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A motocross accident nearly ended Gary Sunshine-Tervit’s farming career, but after a long period of recovery he won Otago/Southland dairy manager of the year in 2021. Nowadays, as well dairy farming, Gary helps other farmers and growers through Farmstrong. 

Tell us about your accident.
I’d been riding motorbikes since I was two, but one day during a trail ride with mates a suspension malfunction sent me head first over a 50-foot cliff. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I went through some really dark times. If you break a bone you can see it getting better week by week, but when it’s your brain, something as simple as forgetting to shut the fridge door makes you want to beat yourself up inside. The turning point came when I spoke up and asked for help.

Since you shared your story what’s been the reaction?
Very positive. I was a typical Kiwi bloke. Prior to the head injury I didn’t talk about my feelings or mental health. People find the story of how I recovered and got on top of things helpful. From my point of view, if just one person reaches out and asks for help as a result of my story, it’s been all worthwhile.
You showed real determination in overcoming your injury. How important is it to have a sense of purpose when you’re managing challenges?

It’s really important to know your ‘why’ – why you’re doing what you’re doing on farm. That definitely helps to you get through tough times. What’s your ‘why’?
My ‘why’ is being back home and helping out on my parents’ farm. They’re older now and they’ve worked on farm all their life. We wanted to ease that load for Mum and Dad by taking over the day-to-day running of the farm.

What about the workload on yourself?
It’s about spreading the load. Tackling a couple of things well each day rather than getting bogged down in t20 things, ‘eating the elephant’ in small pieces. Little and often rather than lots at once.
What about those days when everything seems to go wrong?
For me, it’s about staying in the moment and just dealing with what’s in front of you at the time. Mentally it’s about taking a step back to see the big picture and then tackling the thing that’s the highest priority, rather than five things. Tackle one thing first and then move on to the next thing.

Any other tips?
What I find really helps is writing stuff down in a notebook or putting notes or reminders on your phone. That means it doesn’t take up headspace. That relieves stress and worry.

What about enjoying your farming? It’s easy in such a busy job to let the wins slide past unnoticed, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. I think it comes down to having a good work-life balance. I’m fortunate I work for family and have some cover if we take short breaks off farm. We took a couple of days off with kids and friends over New Year’s. It is about taking those short breaks away, because if you’re there at the ‘coalface’ 365 days a year, farming becomes very isolating. The boundary of your farm almost becomes like a prison cell.

What’s the benefit of taking breaks when you’re so busy?
It gives you perspective. Say you’re short of grass, well as soon as you drive off farm you see everyone else is short of grass too. They’re in the same boat as you. I think that old saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ is very true. Even a few hours off farm does work wonders. It just gives you that breather mentally.

What else helps in terms of a mental reset?
Staying in contact with neighbours and friends. About three or four times a year my wife Daniella and I have a catch-up with five or six other farming families. We book that time in to make it happen. We all come off farm, even if it’s just for a lunch or a dinner out. It gives you a break for a few hours and gets you talking about what people are going through and ideas for fixing x, y and z on farm.

Why are you involved in Farmstrong?
I put myself out there to get people talking about this stuff. These days I’m open book. People can come up and talk to me about anything and they do. When I had my injury, I didn’t have much in the way of help, so if I can push that message about looking after your mental health then I’m all for it.

How can farmers get behind Farmstrong?
If you’re at a field day, turn up at the Farmstrong marquee and grab some of the Farmstrong tools and resources. They are all free and there’s something in there for everyone. Even just coming in for a cuppa and a chat lightens the load if you’re having a tough time. I’m getting along to the Southern Field Days and helping out at the Farmstrong tent.
There are also Farmstrong events that are a lot of fun. We’ve got a charity cricket game in Mossburn coming up this month between farmers and growers. We’re all getting along to that.

As an award-winning dairy manager, how important do you think mental skills are to the success of an operation?
I think they’re hugely important. They give you the ability to differentiate between what’s pressing and what’s not. They help you achieve work-life and home-life balance and keep the balance in check. They provide little strategies for keeping well. For example, I use my five-minute drive home from the cowshed to go through the mental switch of getting out of work mode and going into home mode. I try my best not to talk about farm life and farming at home. I keep the two separate.

What does being Farmstrong mean to you?
I think being Farmstrong is just about putting your best foot forward on farm every day. That means being in the best shape mentally, physically and emotionally. Each of those things are as important as each other.
I’ve been farming 17 years and experience has taught me that everybody goes through low payouts or spells of no grass. It’s about preparing for these things best you can and then not letting them get the better of you. Being Farmstrong means you’re in touch with how you’re feeling and you have the mental skills and resilience to get through.

Looking back at your journey, what have you learnt from your setbacks?
Before I had my head injury I would never talk about my feelings. It just wasn’t how we were raised. It was all ‘toughen up and get on with it’. But going through the ups and downs of my recovery flipped all that on its head. I could suddenly see it was a strength to share your feelings. That if you’re not right in yourself everything else on farm suffers.

This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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