Last month Gail Harris spent a night with her sons watching movies, cooking dinner, and listening to them play video games while she dozed on the couch.

As her youngest, Colby Harris, left the Hamilton home for the Huntly farm he worked on, she said a sleepy goodbye. Opening her eyes shortly afterward she realised Colby was still there, watching her.

"I said, 'Are you okay, Son?' And he said, 'Yup'."

It was the last conversation they had. The only inkling of something amiss.

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The next morning she was frantically searching for the aspiring young farmer, who the night before was excitedly planning Christmas and looking forward to his new job, but hadn't shown up for work the next day.

"I just had a horrible feeling right then and there," Harris told the Herald on Sunday.

Colby Harris grew up in Hamilton and attended Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre before working on several beef and dairy farms. He was working on a farm in Huntly when he died suddenly some time between December 10 and 11, aged 21.

Colby wanted to be a farmer "right from the get go", despite his mum's warnings it was tough work. And it was - long days and lots of responsibility for a young man barely out of his teens, Harris said.

Colby went jetskiing with friends before that last dinner with his mum, his first bit of time off in a month filled with long days - up to 16 hours - as a farmhand. He was involved in Mixed Martial Arts, but his training was whittled away as work took over.

Huntly young farmer Colby Harris,21, who died suddenly of a suspected suicide. His mother Gail Harris says the farming industry needs to change how it treats young workers.
Huntly young farmer Colby Harris,21, who died suddenly of a suspected suicide. His mother Gail Harris says the farming industry needs to change how it treats young workers.

His year had involved ups and downs, including break-ups and losing money, but his goal for the future remained - managing his own farm.

He'd just won the regional Young Farmer of the Year award for North Waikato and was looking forward to starting a tutoring job with Taratahi in the New Year.

He accepted the job despite initial reluctance to derail his management aspirations.

"He said, 'It might put me off track with my goals'." Harris said.

She told him to enjoy being young and pick up on his goals in the future. She advised him go "just take some time and relax", she said.

Colby was due to start in January on a Monday to Friday roster, and looked forward to getting back into hobbies and friends.

"As a mother I thought, 'Yay'," Harris said.

"I was so relieved for him. He was really excited and talking 10 to the dozen. He was saying, 'I can take up surfing. I can have a go at snowboarding'."

Searching for Colby on December 11, his mum found a note in his car detailing the black hole he was in. Having had absolutely no idea of the depression Colby wrote of, she was shocked.

"He was fiercely independent. He wasn't a complainer. Obviously he was very unwell and didn't share that with anybody.

"He left so many people in his wake, and we're all going why ... couldn't you share this with us?"

His body was found by colleagues shortly after and his suspected suicide is now before Coroner Michael Robb.

Harris has a message she hopes will make a difference. She bears no grudge against Colby's employers - he never complained about work - but believes the industry is hard on its young.

"What needs to change is expectations of these young people. They need to be able to have a life outside of what they're doing. In the last year he had given up all the things he liked to do because the hours were too long. He was absolutely exhausted," she said.

"He was a beautiful boy, inside and out, and he had so much potential and so much going for him.

"He had had a really crap year, there's no getting around that, but ... he was about to step into a great future."

Harris' calls for a change comes after a desperate plea from Federated Farmers' president Katie Milne for struggling workers to talk about their mental health.

Last month Milne repeated the plea and said it was important to have "off-farm interests". Single men living alone could be forgotten about and it was important farm bosses checked on them, she said.

In recent years Federated Farmers had launched initiatives to better support young workers and their employers, including Workplace Action Plan that promotes quality management practices.

New Zealand Young Farmers chief Terry Copeland said farm owners needed to consider health and safety in terms of mental wellbeing, as well as physical.

"There are lots of young farmers out there who do assume responsibility early and aren't necessarily given the support or resources," he said.
"One of the big things we can talk about is really making farmers aware of the stress their workers are under. Farming is a high-stress industry and young workers are taking on the farmers' stress as well."

He encouraged farm owners to show appreciation for their staff.

"It's saying, 'It's a tough time of year but come around to my house for a barbecue for a bit of light-hearted relief, even though we'll still be up working at 5am tomorrow.'

"These things make a massive difference."

Where to get help

Rural support have 14 hubs across the country. Most have facilitators trained in mental wellness support, or you can ring 0800 787 254 to talk to someone.

New Zealand Young Farmers offer leadership opportunities, scholarships and exchanges. Members can access for free the Generate programme focusing on developing attitude, character, principles and people skills.

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234