Over recent years the farming industry has focused on how we address the high suicide rate among our fellow farmers.

Regardless of our situations we all have our ups and downs, some of the down periods can be debilitating for many farmers with a feeling of no way out.

I have been fortunate to have the sport of surfing as a way of getting off the farm and into a completely different environment to reinvigorate myself.

A Netflix documentary about the healing powers of salt water was the catalyst for a hugely successful programme to get Gisborne farmers off the farm and on to surfboards.


Surfing for Farmers is the brainchild of Gisborne-based AgFirst farm consultant Stephen Thomson who was inspired to launch the programme after watching the documentary titled Resurface.

The documentary showed how surfing helped heal American war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Stephen said the one line in the documentary that particularly resonated with him was when the war vet described how he used to wake up every day wanting to shoot himself — now he wakes up wanting to go surfing.

Stephen Thomson is a keen surfer. He knew how much better he always felt after being in the salt water and was determined to give local farmers the opportunity to get off-farm once a week and experience that same feeling of well-being.

Last spring, he rang around local businesses seeking financial support and within three days had $11,000 with which to set the ball rolling.

The word was spread and on the first night, 25 farmers and supporters turned up to either try their hand at surfing — or offer support and enjoy the barbecue and refreshments at the end of session. Since then they have had at least 40 farmers, farm staff and farming families turn up every Tuesday to try their hand at catching waves.

Stephen gives much of the credit to the local Gisborne Boardriders Club who have provided boards, wetsuits and coaching at a minimal cost to allow farmers to experience the joy of surfing.

Stephen said while there is a lot of conversation about mental health in the rural sector, this is not being matched by actions-programmes that actually took farmers away from the farm and put them in a completely different, yet supportive environment.


He said at discussion groups or community events the conversation invariably turned to farming, but after surfing the conversation was about catching-or not-catching waves and rides were re-lived.

Surfing for Farmers has attracted people from all ages — from school leavers to people in their 60s and is a good mix of men and women, farmers, farm staff and farm support professionals.

Stephen said the focus of his group is on hands-on farmers, but he also has people who just turn up for the barbecue and camaraderie at the end of the surfing session.

He plans to run the Tuesday night sessions until the end of March — which is when the funding will run out — but is keen to run the programme next summer and maybe expand it to other regions.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand gave money to the programme and Eastern North Island extension manager Mark Harris said the initiative fits with the organisation's values and strategy about supporting vibrant farming communities and looking after farmers.

"Surfing for Farmers gets farmers off the farm for a couple of hours over summer when typically, they are under a lot of pressure," he said.

"It doesn't matter whether it is surfing or playing golf, so long as they just get outside the farmgate."

Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.