People heading to Fieldays 2020 could find it to be a life-saving experience.

The first to turn up are the women. They come back later, with their men. The males are reluctant, some "dragged by the ear" – but the women insist they get their health checked out.

So where are we? A clinic? A GP's surgery? A hospital?
No…Fieldays. Known as the Southern Hemisphere's largest agricultural event, complete with tractor racing and fencing competitions, it has however grown to encompass all aspects of community life, including health and wellbeing.

At its heart, Fieldays is built on advancing primary industry through promoting education, fostering innovation and providing an environment for local and global connectedness – but it turns out Fieldays is also not bad at saving lives.

Last year, a staggering 25,000 people went through Fieldays' Health & Wellbeing Hub at Mystery Creek to have all manner of health checks – from moles to blood sugar levels to prostate and bowel cancer checks or education…and more.

Fieldays, Photo/Supplied
Fieldays, Photo/Supplied

Ten malignant melanomas were detected in 2018, 11 last year, and one young woman discovered she had type 1 diabetes after a pin prick test. All were conditions potentially fatal had they been allowed to grow.

But it is generally males – especially rural males – who end up being the prime focus of the hub, once their wives and partners have checked it out and, as hub curator (and CEO of Mobile Health) Mark Eager puts it, "dragged them there by the ear".

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Fieldays' CEO Peter Nation says the hub's function and popularity means the event has grown beyond its agricultural roots to a true community presence: "We're known for our technology and innovations – our contribution to the economy saw $549 million generated in sales revenue for New Zealand firms and $247m for the New Zealand economy last year.

"But what we are seeing with the Health & Wellbeing Hub and other services is that we are making much more of a social contribution these days."

Fieldays CEO Peter Nation/supplied
Fieldays CEO Peter Nation/supplied

The role of the event is more important than ever in providing the rural community with a positive environment where people can come together to learn and support each other.

Rural isolation and the effects of depression are well known among the farming community – which is not to say those subject to it always take steps to combat it. That same isolation can act as a barrier and many farmers and other rural residents are either too busy, forgetful or stubbornly reluctant to keep abreast of their health.

Eager says the hub, which will have its fourth year at the June event at Mystery Creek, has seen some recurring trends: "What usually happens is that women come through first. They have a good look at everything, have a chat with our people in the hub – and then come back later, dragging their husbands by the ear.

"You also see people hanging round the mental health tent, often for quite a long time, before going in. Lately we have also seen some men staying longer, having chats with various people in the hub. Then they leave but come back with a group of mates."

Fieldays, Photo/Supplied
Fieldays, Photo/Supplied

The hub's list of health providers and educators reads like a list of dangers that can affect Kiwis – mental health, Mole Map (melanoma), bowel, prostate and breast cancers, NZ Sepsis, the Waikato DHB cardiology units, Bay Audiology (hearing), Age Concern and many more. "Barter Barber" Sam Dowdall is also there – the man who tours New Zealand in his van, helping to combat depression and other mental ills by giving haircuts and allowing those in remote rural areas to vent or simply have a meaningful conversation.

Eager's Mobile Health (characterised by its big blue bus fitted out as a mobile surgical hospital) has operated on 23,500 patients in 16 years, with the bus defeating the tyranny of distance and isolation, roaming from the tip of the North Island to the toe of the South.

That's given them a telling insight into rural psyches and Eager says Fieldays provides a new opportunity: "Most of these people are here to buy their new tractors or gumboots or whatever," he says. "What we didn't want to do was what I call 'bucket shaking' – exhibitors trying to sell something or with buckets trying to raise money.

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CEO Mobile Health Mark Eager and team/supplied
CEO Mobile Health Mark Eager and team/supplied

"If you take prostate cancer as an example, there used to be two middle-aged women trying to talk to farmers about their prostates. What we have tried to do – across the health spectrum – is change the narrative and make it more relevant and more interesting [to this audience].

"So with prostate, we now have a service with a fake backside; farmers can experience what a healthy prostate feels like and what a cancerous one feels like. Those who decide to have an examination can have one done where the only part they see of the doctor is hands coming through a hole in the curtain."

While that kind of anonymity can help with awkwardness and privacy, melanoma requires a different approach: "If you tell people what to look out for and to use sunscreen, they all say, 'yes, yes, yes – we know about that'," says Eager. "But set up a UV camera and show them the damage done to their skin, that's different."

Nation says making the health hub "funkier" and more interactive has increased traffic and interest in the hub: "People have grown more comfortable and know there are resources they can't access elsewhere.

"For some, it's the one and only time they can do that. So, while we are known for our agricultural technology and products, we have also developed this real social contribution – helping the operators of those products and technologies stay healthy enough to keep operating them."