Farmer mental health is understood to be an international issue and a significant challenge for rural communities. Many factors influence mental health in any environment. In rural environments, uncontrollable events such as weather, disease, and increasingly complex technical and compliance issues, seasonal and peak workloads can add to the stress load. Financial and physical strains as well as isolation can increase the pressure.
The Rural Support Trust in New Zealand is a national network doing great work across the rural sector. With 14 rural branches around the country, regional coordinators stay in touch with local farming communities, raising the profile of mental health and wellbeing, and providing touchpoints for people facing pressures of life on the farm. Those pressures might be immediate during severe adverse events, such as floods or blizzards, or more everyday issues. Employment, financial and regulatory challenges, succession planning or human relationships – can compound and seem insurmountable.
In New Zealand, studies by ACC (the NZ Accident Compensation Corporation) and Farmstrong (a nationwide wellbeing programme for the rural sector in NZ) show that farmers often experience competing demands and perceive forced choices between managing their own health and wellbeing and the health and wellbeing of their stock, or others on the farm. Fatigue, lack of sleep, feeling overloaded, complex relationships of farm ownership, management and family, and little time away from the farm compound existing challenges.
Lindsay Wright, Southland’s regional coordinator, says that whatever stress a farmer is going through, if they have the courage to reach out, they can ring the Rural Support Trust 0800 number. But more often, the first connection between a person in need and the Trust starts via a referral from a rural professional. Farm advisors, rural bankers, land agents, or sales professionals like Datamars representatives who are driving down farm driveways, are in the position to spot something on farm that doesn’t quite feel right and can call the Rural Support Trust for help.
“Regional coordinators are not mental health experts. We are rurally-connected people, often farmers or ex-farmers with an empathy and understanding for what happens on a farm. We build trust by sitting face-to-face over cups of coffee at kitchen tables— and we chat. Then, one by one, we tease out problems. We try to identify what the best source of support would be to help someone through,” says Lindsay.
The Rural Support Trust also creates opportunities such as the recently launched nationwide Time out Tour co-sponsored by Datamars. The Tour kicked off in June this year, a few weeks prior to the usual commencement of calving season, which is a particularly stressful time on the farming calendar.
TV presenter and sheep and beef farmer, and the inaugural Ambassador for Rural Support Trust, Matt Chisholm is the guest speaker on Tour, sharing his own struggles with mental illness and how he found a way through. The aim is to destigmatise the subject of mental health and offer a chance for people to reflect on their own wellbeing, talk, share and to provide support at a local level.
Lindsay says “The whole thing about mental illness is that we take it upon ourselves to hide it away from everybody. Rural people are especially good at that because every farmer pretty much works on their own. It’s not to say that other areas of the community don’t have problems. It’s more that farmers have the added factor of isolation. When you are isolated, problems get pretty big.”
“The purpose of the Time Out Tour is to get people off their properties and to provide a social gathering where they can hear someone else’s story which might resonate with what might be happening in their own life.”
At each event, Datamars Livestock provide one of its Tru-Test stick readers to be auctioned to raise funds for the local Rural Support Trust area. To date farmers have dug deep into their own pockets to support the programme.
Matt Cashmore, General Manager of Datamars Australasia says the Time Out Tour initiative connects with Datamars’ global objectives on supporting rural community health and gives the company, and its team members, a chance to contribute in an area that we know first-hand is important.
“The work helps raise awareness of some of the specific situations and pressures our rural customers and partners can experience, with mental health and well-being as part of that. It also mirrors the internal focus we have on educating and supporting Datamars staff in New Zealand and Australia on the topic of mental wellbeing through the “I Am Here” work programme.”
“We want to connect with communities and customers to make a difference when and where it is needed. Many of our agritech solutions, like our Tru-Test weighing and activity monitoring products, are based on keeping track of the ups and downs of an individual animal, the mob, and the herd. Our solutions weigh up the variables. Our data insights signal where things are steady, improving or take a drop, so that farmers can reflect, look a bit deeper and take action if required. If we can play a role in any small way to help farmers in a similar way at a personal well-being level, we’re keen to do so”
At a local level, Datamars Livestock Area Managers are connecting with Rural Support Trust coordinators in each area. These grassroots relationships help Datamars staff become more aware of the signs of distress to look for as they go up and down farm driveways and they become part of the rich network of rural professionals helping to raise concerns and make connections with the Rural Support Trust. Equally, the Trust’s regional coordinators are more aware of the value and practical assistance that Datamars can provide to our customers when times get tough.
“Farmers will need different support depending on their individual circumstances, the time of the year and the needs of the farming operation. Helping farmers to get their records in shape to be NAIT compliant is one example of support that has been offered in the past through our team at Agtrac. This administrative task has financial implications if not completed properly.”
“Another key part of Datamars’ involvement with the Rural Support Trust is the opportunity to create greater understanding within our company of our customers’ work and the rural sector in general. To best serve our customers, we need to really understand them and their world. The more of our team who get a chance to do so, the better” says Matt.
While Datamars Livestock has signed for three years, this is a long-term partnership,” says Matt.