Behind the curtain.

The agricultural industry in New Zealand is the largest sector of our tradable economy, contributing to approximately two-thirds of exported goods every year.

Valued at over $14.8 billion, as New Zealanders we all play a part in how this industry is shaped.

Many of us, myself included, underestimate the agricultural sector on a daily basis. Much of what farmers work so hard for is determined so heavily by how well the economy is trading. This leads to a flow on effect which hits farmers and their livelihoods directly in their back pockets. 

On 10 December last year, the dairy giant Fonterra dropped its payout forecast for 2014-15 to an eight-year low of $4.70 a kilogram of milk solids.

That’s nearly half the $8.40 paid in the 2013-14 season and is estimated to mean an income drop for farmers of $6.6 billion.

This gives you an idea of the harsh realities farmers face when they wake up everyday.

Couple this with the high levels of rural debt merely increases this stress and leaves many with no way out. A light at the end of the tunnel becomes impossible.

New figures released in October showed there were 564 suicide related deaths in New Zealand in 2014/15 – the highest since records began in 2007/08.

In 2013 there were 22 farmer suicides in New Zealand which is a rate of 20 per cent higher than in any other working sector. Of those deaths, 15 were men and 6 were under the age of 24.

And in total, 14 farmers have taken their lives in the past six months this year.

The state of a farmer’s mental health and stability can never really be determined or questioned because of the stigma associated with it.

A life of farming brings with it particular and unique stressors that contributes to severe mental illnesses and depression. The physical and psychological isolation often experienced by farmers coupled with the long days and nights makes seeking help more difficult.

Farmers don’t take their lives because they are going through a tough time. It comes with the territory. They take their lives because those tough times bear a burden and can trigger depression which left untreated can be life-threatening.

Having no steady income and fluctuating payouts signals a life sentence for these families.

Farmers are under-represented as an occupation. Aside from being the largest trader in New Zealand’s economy, competing with such uncertainty to still provide us with our dairy, beef and lamb needs, let alone the rest of the world, is quite phenomenal.

Most of us know that life on a farm isn’t easy. It paints a lovely picture as you drive past one without thinking much of it. But long hours, dry summers, cold winters, and falling prices gives you some idea of how tough it can be.

I am a firm believer in that we all play a role in society. Whether that involves collecting rubbish, being lifeguard or a journalist. We all experience stress and testing times in our lives. It should never be underestimated or questioned.

Farmers and the farming communities have a different type of stress from the rest of us. Most of us have the ability to leave our work pressures behind when we walk out of the door at 5 pm. But for most farmers their office is at home. When things aren’t going well it is harder to escape these pressures both physically and mentally. Sleep deprivation, starvation or even dehydration that comes with the job particularly around high pressure seasons such as calving and lambing time only compounds these issues further working as another contributing factor to our farmers poor mental and physical health.

Many farmers are saddled with astronomical debt at young ages, just to ensure their herds keep going, let alone having to think about paying their staff or drawing in some form of an income. Year in, year out, low payments can lead to uncertainty about future security, with no guaranteed upturn in the economy to compensate for the years of lost earnings.

Our stereotypical view of the “average” New Zealand farmer doesn’t help this issue – the stoical “she’ll be right” mentality is often far from accurate. It puts the farmers themselves in a certain box and hides the fact that they don’t need help when really all it is doing is discouraging those suffering from depression to come forward and ask for help. Speak up, don’t harden up.

I’m not a farmer, but I like to be educated and I would hate to see my uncle or my friends head down this road.

Creating awareness is one of the best things you can do and while we all do at times suffer from the case of tall poppy syndrome, it is important to remember that we don’t know what goes on behind the curtain therefore our assumptions should not be based solely on what we want to hear or on one side of the story.

Suicide is never the answer, and is never the right way out of anything. New Zealand is among one of the top places to live in the world but coupled with this has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

It’s not uncommon and it affects a lot of us. Acknowledgement, empathy, education and support will allow many of us to break this vicious cycle. No one’s life should be made to feel inferior, insignificant or pointless no matter how long the day, how stressful the hours, how lonely the minutes, or how depressing the seconds.


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