Comment: Hope. It's fundamental to our psychology to have something to look forward to, writes Nikki Verbeet.
It would be fair to say that hope hasn't been in abundance in our rural sector of late.
There is no doubt the sector is experiencing rising costs, environmental pressures, public perception issues, shrinking price margins, cash flow challenges and pressure to meet compliance obligations – all of which impact confidence.
Research around mental health indicates that to have hope we need three things:
• Something to look forward to
• To believe that we are in control of our fate enough to achieve that something
• A community to achieve it with us
Research also indicates that as a group people are much more likely to set and achieve their goals when they have these three things.
So what motivates people in the rural sector today?
Let's look at how farming was, say 30 years ago:
• We had one weekend off a month and although we didn't milk the cows, we often moved fences – but the absolute luxury was having a sleep in!
• We worked with equipment that by today's standards would be a definite health and safety risk such as tractors with no brakes or even permanently missing a back mudguard, reminiscent of a water wheel. The 'self-steering tractors' of the 60s, 70s and 80s whilst the farmer pitch forked the silage, could prove rather inaccurate!
• Training? This usually consisted of a series of expletives. We tried to learn from these by not repeating the same mistake twice.
• Generally, we spent our time trying to minimise the stuff ups and breakages and avoid the consequences of too much cost cutting.
In spite of all these challenges we didn't feel hopeless. We were hopeful because we had our eyes on the prize – the proven pathway from farm worker to farm owner was alive and well.
Sharing and comparing stories like this with our farming mates at dinners gave us something to laugh about. It was always reassuring to hear someone else's story.
We had something to look forward to. We believed we were in control of our fate to achieve that goal, which for many was farm ownership. We had a community around us that we regularly connected face to face with.
We had the cooperative spirit – we all worked and played together as a community. There were days when we went to help the neighbour haymaking.
Other mornings we helped each other 'dry cow' and then hosted a massive cooked breakfast for everyone. Then there were the local games of touch rugby and do's at the local country hall.
Things have changed for the better in a lot of ways. But some of the change hasn't been for the better and we need to recognise that.
We have different challenges now. For example, technology has made farming easier, but it has also enabled farms to grow to a size where people management and the foresight to avoid burnout and keep people safe have become important issues.
Social media can be great for gathering information, but some research has shown it increases loneliness and anxiety. We've been "too busy" to go to those local barbecues.
It's even been a struggle to turn up to school events with one partner often saying, "You go, and I'll do the XXX here on the farm."
In the same way that wetland areas on farms used to be viewed as "unproductive" (but are now recognised as being hard working and highly productive in the way they filter nutrients), so called "unproductive time" spent connecting with friends and neighbours is highly productive.
It enables us to filter all the experiences we've had and process them into something we can learn and grow from.
Previously we watched the tanker pick up our milk and waved goodbye to it – end of story.
Now we have the consumer virtually on our doorstep asking questions about how we farm and how their food is being produced. For years we farmed under the mantra of "produce more" and the banks, the market, all vigorously pushed the sector in that direction. Now the focus is sustainability – financially, environmentally and personally.
The sector is re-inventing itself. It's been a massive shift for us, and we are transitioning to a new future. We are re-setting and re-inventing ourselves. We are having to rebuild our aeroplane mid-flight. Change can be daunting but it can also be very rewarding. More sustainable farming practices can prove less labour-intensive as an example.
Are the traditional pathways to ownership still there? Or do we need to consider alternative vehicles to reach our goals? Syndex, for example, offers opportunities at various levels that are more affordable in different industries including land.
There are now alternatives where you don't have to borrow millions. Diversification has also provided some good opportunities.
Can you help yourself and those around you find something to look forward to? Can you ensure your goal is controllable and achievable? Can you find your people?
The end of the year can provide a time of reflection and future planning.
This could involve sitting around the table with farm owners, farm managers and collectively growing each other. People staying longer in an area on a farm has to be better for the both the farm and the community.
Work without hope is as bad as hope without work. We need both the shovel and the inspiration.
- Nikki Verbeet is an NZME commercial manager.