September 2015

A healthy thinking programme for farmers and growers

Farmstrong is an initiative set up to help any farmer or grower in New Zealand to improve their mental and physical wellbeing. The idea is that Farmstrong takes a different approach to wellbeing in rural communities in that it focuses on wellness and not illness.

Farmstrong is a joint initiative between rural insurer FMG and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF).

Research shows that farmers are great at looking after stock and equipment but often neglect their own personal needs. In a recent online survey, farmers identified wellbeing and quality of life as being top of mind and said they wanted more information on how to look after themselves.

Through the website farmers can access practical tools and resources that will help them take care of themselves, with information on topics such as nutrition, managing fatigue, exercise, the importance of getting off the farm and coping with pressure.

Farmstrong will also help farmers connect with each other and share experiences via its social media channels, through regional farmer ambassadors and by attending local events such as Dr. Tom Mulholland’s Healthy Thinking workshops, and the Farmstrong Fit for Farming Cycle Tour.

Gerard Vaughan from Farmstrong says “In the same way that farmers have a system for milking cows or shearing sheep for example, they need a practical system to keep themselves in good shape too. By having this they’ll likely feel better, improve productivity, and be better prepared to handle the ups and downs of farming”. Making small behaviour changes over a period of time can help support big improvements in our mental and physical wellbeing. He says that every farmer’s performance is affected by their level of health, fitness and happiness. “The initiative acknowledges that we are not born knowing how to maintain these – we need to actively practice strategies that will improve our mental health”.

Farmstrong funding has been provided by FMG and the charity Movember, via the Mental Health Foundation.

Farming is a job with a unique set of challenges. Many are hard to predict or control and include climate events like drought and flood, fluctuations in commodity prices, changing government legislation and new technology.

Added to these external factors are the demands of running any business – financial and production planning, managing cash flow, hiring and managing staff, equipment maintenance, succession planning and more.

The final layer of challenges is personal. Every farmer’s performance is affected by his/her level of health, fitness and happiness.

“These pressures aren’t going to disappear, so as a farmer you need resilience, smart strategies and specific skills to live well and farm well. Research shows many farmers are great at looking after their equipment and stock, but not so good at looking after themselves. If, as an industry, we can better-equip ourselves for the human side of life, farm productivity can only improve. That’s where Farmstrong comes in.”

Farmstrong is an initiative designed to share skills and resources so you can live well, farm well and get the most out of life.

Farmstrong surveyed a number of farmers on the subject of wellbeing and quality of life and came up with some interesting results.

  • Over a third had high cholesterol levels and were referred to a GP
  • 3 out of 10 were carrying too much weight
  • 4 out of 10 had trouble sleeping
  • More than half had issues with high blood pressure
  • Nearly half wanted advice on how to achieve better work-life balance
  • Over a third wanted to know more about managing tiredness and fatigue
  • 4 out of 10 are concerned about the impact of stress and burnout

The initiative shows that taking regular breaks (and getting the help required to achieve this) is an important part of running an enjoyable, sustainable farming business.

Health experts recommend that farmers aim for some downtime in every day, at least one day off a week, more if possible – preferably off the property. They also recommend one decent holiday break every few years if possible.

Kylie and Bryce Baron farm in the Wairarapa on a 420 cow dairy business. They also run a kickboxing gym in Masterton. Bryce is a former representative kickboxer and has a commitment to staying fit and active in his community. He also coaches a local rural rugby team.

He says the Healthy Thinking initiative has been useful in changing his attitude at stressful times, such as the current low payout. Rather than dwelling on the negative impacts he and Kylie have been concentrating on a plan that will help them get through.

Dr. Tom Mulholland is a GP who has been running Healthy Thinking workshops and has teamed up with Farmstrong to offer that service to farmers.

He talks about farmers using systems on the farm to help their business and that by farmers also using healthy thinking tools and techniques on themselves, they can better look after themselves.

Tom says the goal is to be a resilient farmer. Resilience is a compulsory character trait for farmers, because the nature of the job means there will always be knock downs. He says some of the hallmarks of that resilience is the ability to think flexibly, to be optimistic, a creative problem-solver, the ability to see others’ points of view, able to challenge his/her own view and can move on with daily life, despite obstacles.