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Corrigan Sowman 2019 Nuffield Scholar – Global Insights: Food producers in pressure cooker

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WE ARE not alone as New Zealand farmers, feeling the weight of change bearing down on us.

It is a global trend.

It has many different, complex drivers but two stand out – consumers’ willingness to pay for sustainability and farmers ability to capture it.

The resulting pressure is evident in a recent survey of Canadian farmers that found 45% have high levels of perceived stress, 58% met the criteria for anxiety classification and 35% met the criteria for depression.

A United States survey found 30% of farmers say mental health is a major problem for them, 48% of rural residents have more mental health challenges than a year ago, younger people are the most vulnerable and 91% of farmers/farm staff say financial issues and fear of losing their farms affect their mental health.

Recently in New Zealand a Ministry of Health Report presented to MPs showed suicide is up 20% in rural areas.

Across the world this year while doing my Nuffield Scholarship, I have seen incredible technical mastery in agriculture with yield increases, novel genetics, automation and precision and regenerative soil practices on a massive scale.

But the stats don’t lie. Farmers are under increasing pressure like never before.

To understand pressure I think there is no better place to start than with excellent Kiwi author and psychologist Dr Ceri Evans.  In Evans’ book, ‘Perform Under Pressure’, he talks about pressure as high stakes, uncertainty, small margins, fast changes and judgment.

And after my travels I’ve added a sixth, ‘losing one’s identity’.

I would like to highlight the last three because I think that is what is different right now and not just in New Zealand. Farmers are feeling overwhelmed by the pace of expected change and we are feeling judged like never before. It all contributes to questioning our identity as farmers.

Evans talks about the red and blue parts of our mind in his book. He describes our red mind as the emotions side that helps us make quick decisions in the blink of an eye, the fight, flight or freeze skills we are conditioned with from birth. Our blue mind is the logical, systematic slower-thinking part. It helps us solve complex problems and communicate them to others.

The problem with pressure, like the situations we now face with freshwater and climate regulations is we feel the weight of expectations, scrutiny and consequences building up and it triggers our red brain. 

We want to fight, we want to get out or just stop because we can’t see a future any more.

However, the focus needs on what we can control, not what we can’t. 

As farmers we are well versed in managing around aspects we can’t control like the weather, trade distortions and currency and we have built robust systems to help influence the outcomes of this uncertainty the best we can.

How we think, however, is something psychologists agree we can control.

Twelve years ago New Zealand rugby realised it didn’t understand pressure either.

Today, I suggest our primary sector could take a lead from our ABs. We might have lost in the semi but even South African coach Rassie Erasmus recognises the All Blacks’ consistency makes them the team to benchmark off. Why? They have learned how they think is as important as their technical efficiency.

Our challenge individually and as a sector is to build on the great work started by FarmStrong and endorsed by the examples in Evans’ book. Can we build our ability to be more comfortable with the uncomfortable?

We have trained our All Blacks to become masters of better decision-making under pressure. Can we train ourselves?

The regulation coming at agriculture is the gap we must overcome. Considering the information that I have heard presented during my travels it’s not unrealistic given the demands of our customers and certainly tomorrow’s customers. 

A good place to start and something every one of us can control is how we think under pressure.  If you haven’t visited FarmStrong or seen Evans’ book, I recommend them.