Farmers have an “amazing opportunity” despite the challenges that lie ahead, as long as they forge a truly resilient mindset to embrace change, according to the author of a best-selling book about positive mental health.
New Zealand farmer Doug Avery, whose book The Resilient Farmer documents his own journey from debt-heaped depression to one of his country’s biggest agricultural success stories, wants to use his current UK tour to help smash the taboo that stops both farmers, and the wider public, from talking about poor mental health.
A farmer who is empowered by positive mental health can see through their worries and capitalise on opportunities, the 64-year-old told Country Week ahead of a public speaking appearance in Harrogate in 12 days’ time.
“The main reason I am here is to develop what we have developed in New Zealand, permission to talk about the untalkable. It’s okay to say ‘I’m not okay’,” he said.
“Mental health, as opposed to say having a broken leg... everyone can see your legs, everyone knows how long it is going to take to fix, the whole thing is understandable for the human brain. Mental health is a mystery and it’s a chronic situation in New Zealand and Australia, and, as I’m finding out, here.”
The farmer overcame five years of depression – which befell him because of an eight-year drought that wrecked his farm finances – by engaging in a sustainable farming programme that linked him with his peers. The project helped him to transform his farm into an award-winning operation that has gone on to increase its income ten-fold.
He said his path had taught him about happiness.
“If you want happiness, work on your life,” Mr Avery said. “One of the things that prevents people from getting on with their lives is fear of change. But when you live in a world which is only about change, if you have that fear, you will be putting your wellbeing at risk.”
Uncertainty over the future of farm support payments and international trade, among other issues, are dogging the UK farming sector but Mr Avery believes farmers should focus only on what is within their control.
“Everyone has two circles in life,” he said. “There is a great big circle of concern – worrying about Brexit, about Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, whatever you are concerned about. You can’t change any of those things as an individual, but when you start concentrating on the tiny pinhead inside the circle; your circle of influence, your world will start to grow. You start to think ‘how can I improve the outcomes for myself?’
“We haven’t been trained to think like that but it is a much better way of thinking. A strong person can have a much more positive influence in the world than someone who is tearing round the place worrying.”
The farmer said he wanted to help people “grow their minds”. He explained: “My talk is all about developing a human being to have a resilient mindset. When things go wrong, a resistant mindset will say ‘this is a problem’. When things go wrong for a resilient mindset, they will just immediately go ‘where’s the opportunity?’”
The New Zealand government ended farm subsidies in the mid-80s, exposing the industry to world market forces. It was a situation that tested Mr Avery’s own mindset.
“New Zealand woke up one morning and subsidies were gone and I thought the world had opened up on me,” he said. “But I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time with anxiety at that time because the reality is that people still need food, so if you are still producing something that is really good, somehow that still has to happen.”
A beneficiary of peer support as he took back control of his own farm’s destiny, he said he wanted to encourage farmers to embrace opportunities to share ideas.
Any farmers still working in siloed secrecy need “to pull their heads out of where they are”, he said, and “focus on their own contributions to this amazing opportunity which is called food production”.
As he prepares to speak in Yorkshire, he described being an in-demand international speaker as “the best job I have ever had”, adding: “I’ve grown sheep, beef, wool, crops but growing people is much more fun.”
Mr Avery’s tour, Shift Happens! An Audience with the Resilient Farmer, is organised by The Farming Community Network and Rural Support Northern Ireland.
Charles Smith, FCN’s chief executive, said: “As a charity, our workload is constantly rising, mainly due to farmers experiencing severe financial hardship, outbreaks of animal disease and the impact of adverse weather conditions.
“We are anticipating a significant increase in our workload after Brexit, so the timing of this tour could not be better.”