Rural Mental Health

For New Zealand farmers, the Covid 19 virus, while dangerous and forcing grim national security measures, is just another pressure atop a whole stack impacting their mental health, say rural sector watchers.

The contagion joins drought, soaring costs, strangling red tape, biosecurity breaches, a bank lending squeeze, public perception of farmers and farming, commodity price convulsions and radical environmental compliance reform as a stressor on the mental wellbeing of rural people, they say.

"Many farmers are tired," says ASB senior rural economist Nathan Penny.

"They feel like they're running to stand still in the last few years and there doesn't appear to be any light at the end of the tunnel for some."

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Federated Farmers national vice-president and dairy farmer Andrew Hoggard says the relentless march onto farms of new red tape and rules "can feel like the world is closing in on you at times and how are you going to do it all?"

On a brighter note, there's a general feeling mental health awareness is improving in the farming community and that Covid-19 is sheeting home the value of agriculture and agribusiness to the economy and by extension, its farmers.

"It's really interesting right now with Covid-19 how it is highlighting the strength and absolute necessity of food and agriculture to the economy of this country and the contribution it makes," says Rabobank chief executive Todd Charteris.

"It's times like this you look at it and think we are lucky to have such a capable food production system ..."

Charteris says the virus is the latest concern for farmers who, particularly in the North Island, have had a rough time with drought in recent months.

He cites environmental compliance costs, bank capital requirement changes and publicity about what farmers "supposedly are and aren't doing in the local environment" as pressures on farming businesses.

ASB's Penny says the pressure has been ramping up in general for 10 years.

"The pace of change has increased and that is where farming business and communities have really felt the pinch. There have been alot of things going on.

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"Policy shifts over freshwater and greenhouse gas are quite a challenge for farmers in the way they run their businesses.

"By itself that's maybe not such a big deal but because of the general complexity they are facing when you bring in once-in-a-generation change in those policies, it really is quite intimidating for some farmer owners and businesses."

Asked about the pressure effect of tightened bank lending to the rural sector, Perry says it was the result of a wider regulatory push.

The Reserve Bank had tightened financial regulations which had flowed through to banks.

"Banks are having to look at managing risk more tightly and that means in some areas like farming or agriculture, small business and first home buyers, who are generally higher risks than other sectors, banks are having to look harder at how they account for that risk and how they pass on the costs to their customers."

Rabobank chief executive Todd Charteris. Photo / Supplied
Rabobank chief executive Todd Charteris. Photo / Supplied

The dairy sector, which accounts for two-thirds of agriculture's nearly $64 billion of debt (about 14 per cent of total financial system lending), has been most affected by banks' backing away from more rural exposure.

Penny says a particular challenge for that sector has been reaching maturity after doubled growth between 2000 and 2014. It has had to look for growth in new ways - for example, finding new efficiencies to improve cashflows other than straight out growth.

"That requires a different business model and it requires farmers to adapt. And again it comes on top of all these other things going on."

Many dairy farmers are nearing the age when they'd like to retire or step back - and that's become another pressure, says Penny.

"It's much harder to find family members who are interested (in taking over), who have the capital required to succeed their parents.

"And the farm business needs to be ready as well - in a position of strength to make that transition possible and in some cases, that's not possible."

ASB senior rural economist Nathan Penny. Photo / Supplied
ASB senior rural economist Nathan Penny. Photo / Supplied

Penny says he's not qualified to comment on the status of rural mental health but he can pass on what he's learned through his job and travelling the country.

"Rural communities are isolated and farming is quite a small business and intertwined with families very closely. So when it comes to mental health, they face unique challenges as opposed to other communities where there is a lot more support and access to support if needed."

But he says it's encouraging rural mental health is getting a lot more airplay and people are speaking up about the need to seek support.

Federated Farmers' Hoggard says a big stress point for farmers has been their perception of how the rest of society sees them.

"From survey results a lot of farmers feel that everything in the media is negative about farming.

"But when you do the analysis you find the vast bulk of media stories are neutral with a large proportion positive. But your mind is drawn to the negative and I think it depends on what your read social media-wise and if you have a lot of idiots in your feed."

Red tape and rules are stressors, Hoggard says.

"The rules and regulations around supplying product...and this isn't just from government, it's from end customers and their processors.

"When I started farming, shed inspections were all about the shed being absolutely spotless. It was all about hygiene. Now you get downgraded if you haven't mown the tanker track or if the soap in the cowshed isn't MPI-approved brands, then the boot's in.

"Perhaps it's well-meaning but you scratch your head and wonder what the practical rationale is."

Federated Farmers vice president Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers vice president Andrew Hoggard. Photo / Supplied

Hoggard says red tape is often the motivator to quit farming.

"Lay on top of it all the regional and national potential rules which are sometimes well-meaning and in the right direction, but it can feel like the world is closing in on you at times..."

But some stressors are easing.

Five years ago official inspections of dairy farms were finding the bulk weren't recording work hours properly and minimum wages and holiday pay weren't being calculated properly, Hoggard says.

Trying to do these tasks on paper just wasn't working. Technology to deal with those jobs and tax filing has taken away that stress, he says.

Environmental regulation reform and compliance costs topped farmer concerns at a conference early this year but Covid-19 and drought have knocked them down the list, Hoggard says.

While the virus will cause farmers the same infection angst as urban people and could present a staff gap or two, their businesses won't shutdown, they pretty much have an assured food supply and their isolation should prove a blessing.

The agriculture economy's virus outlook is better too.

"We've seen big demand for food and if you look at the supply chain (markets) they are prioritising imports for nutrition. Dairy is up there," says Hoggard.

"Farms are probably the most resilient part of the chain to keep producing...."

Rabobank is commonly mentioned by farmers as a bank which hasn't been adding to the stress load.

Hoggard is one who has "jumped" to the global cooperative bank.

Chief executive Charteris rejects the suggestion the bank's friendly face is about growing customers.

"It's about doing the right thing. I have no doubt people are talking favourably about us but if you do the right thing you get the right outcome."

Pre-virus, Rabobank staff were out in farming communities and on farm, to understand was concerning farmers, Charteris says.

Rural communities are isolated and farming can be a lonely job. Photo / Mark Price (ODT)
Rural communities are isolated and farming can be a lonely job. Photo / Mark Price (ODT)

That's happening now by phone and video but the upside is communication is quicker.

The bank provides farmers with access to the latest industry and global research on markets and supply chains - it has more than 80 analysts across key global markets - and has been a voice in regulatory processes, making submissions on environmental policy proposals "to make sure our clients' views are heard".

It runs "client councils". They number five now and ensure regular conversations with farmers over issues important to them.

One of the council focus' is rural health, including mental health.

The bank sponsors "surfing for farmers" which debuted in Gisborne to get farmers out and mixing, and it partners the rural StayWell Trust, a regular at fieldays and rural events.

Charteris says he's not qualified to say if rural mental health is improving.

"But I can say I'm very confident awareness is improving."

Last word to Hoggard, who says rural mental health is "a challenge that's not going away".

"More people are talking about it and sharing stories certainly helps reduce the stigma there might have been.

"Farmers are able to look for help and speak to others rather than sit there and be quiet any more."