NZ farmer who beat debt and depression is on a mission to help

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The following article by Johann Tasker first appeared in the Farmers Weekly.

A New Zealand farmer who battled an eight-year drought and mental health issues to become a top beef and sheep producer is to share his story on a UK tour.

After years of spiralling debts and depression, Doug Avery turned his family-run farm into one of New Zealand’s most successful agricultural enterprises.

It has been a long struggle, but he has since received widespread acclaim for his approach to farming, the environment and mental wellbeing.

Mr Avery’s family have farmed at Bonavaree, near Marlborough – one of the driest parts of New Zealand’s South Island.

This year, the farm business is celebrating its centenary and, in total, encompasses some 2,650ha, peaking at about 21,000 livestock units.

But the business was not always as successful as it is today.

For as long as he can remember, Mr Avery says he had a vision that he would be good at farming – but that all changed in 1998 when the farm was in the middle of an eight-year drought.

“The first year, we fed nearly everything we had to our stock,” he says.

“The second year, we used a lot of the cash we had to buy feed for those cattle, in the expectation that the drought was going to end, and the third year we ran out of money.”

The drought was to continue for a further five years – leaving no market for livestock.

“I had to give them away. I decided the only way to beat it was by working harder.

“I laid off my staff and stopped spending money – but for the first time in my life, I was in a situation where I couldn’t work harder to solve a problem.”

Shutting himself away from family and friends, Mr Avery says he started drinking more than was good for him.

“The only job I really passionately wanted to do was to be a farmer – to give my wife and family a decent home and life – and, all of a sudden, I was failing completely.”

It was only when a junior rep from a livestock company paid a visit that Mr Avery reluctantly agree to get off the farm – to attend a field day about dry climate farming and using drought resistant lucerne, rather than grass to feed livestock.

It was a visit, he says, which saved his life.

“He called in and I don’t know to this day how he summoned the courage to ask me because he was only a young fella – but I said I was too busy.

He just said: “‘Doug – it would just do you good to get off the farm. I will pick you up at 6.30am.’”

The field day introduced Mr Avery to a different way of farming – restoring his hope he could do things differently.

But the next four years were the “hardest of my life” as he switched to the new way of farming as the drought continued. Eventually, though, his efforts paid off.

Having done a lot of debating when younger, Mr Avery started giving talks, hosting farm visits and encouraging other farmers to take similar steps.

“At that stage, I still didn’t realise I had been suffering depression,” he says. “All I knew was that I was seeing results.”

It was only after he heard a statistic on rural suicide that it started to dawn on him.

Mr Avery’s wife Wendy persuaded him to complete a questionnaire – out of 25 questions indicating he might have had depression, he answered yes to 24.

“I made the conscious decision on that day that I was going to ‘fess up’ to my own journey – and I did it on the local radio station.

“It got the biggest response from listeners than anything else they had ever done.”

From talking to farmers only about farming, Mr Avery starting talking about his own experience too – setting the Resilient Farmer initiative to help others make a similar journey to a better future and improving their own wellbeing, whatever their farming system.

“My reason for being depressed was that I had no skills to cope with my own shame and failure,” he explains, adding that people suffering from depression need encouragement to achieve their goals, rather than being told to reduce their ambitions.

“When people see someone who is depressed, they often say ‘that guy is trying to farm, but he would be better off packing groceries in a supermarket’.

They fail to realise that person often still has ambition and goals they want to reach.”

Mr Avery says he is now enjoying his life, although he still worries his depression could return.

That said, he remains upbeat, enjoys talking to other growers and livestock producers, and has written a best-selling book – also called the Resilient Farmer.

“I absolutely love my work,” he says.

“One of the reasons I had a breakdown was because I didn’t have an enterprise that was properly rounded or properly run.

“Resilience isn’t something you build from isolating yourself from reality, it is something you build from confronting it.”

Come and meet Doug

UK farmers are being invited to attend a series of talks by Doug Avery this autumn, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Called “Shift Happens! An Audience with the Resilient Farmer”, the tour has been organised by the Farming Community Network and Rural Support Northern Ireland.

It will be held at 12 locations from 30 September to 18 October.

Following our #Fit2Farm mental health and wellbeing campaign last year, Farmers Weekly is pleased to be the media partner for the Resilient Farmer tour dates in England and Wales; with Farming Life for Northern Ireland partnering the events in Northern Ireland.

During the talks, Mr Avery will share details of his experiences and the journey to where he is now.

He plans to inspire UK farmers who are looking or needing to change their approach to their farming business or personal life.

The talks follow a successful tour of Scotland last year – and come as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.

Mr Avery said: “British farming is facing many challenges, with environmental issues, the power of market forces and, of course, Brexit.

“With this tour, I am hoping that I will be able to help those members of the farming community think their way through the situations they might find themselves in and become resilient farmers themselves.”

FCN chief executive Charles Smith said: “As a charity, our workload is constantly rising, mainly due to farmers experiencing severe financial hardship, outbreaks of animal disease and the impact of adverse weather conditions.

“We are delighted that Doug has agreed to return to our shores and impart his wisdom on those who are concerned about what the future might hold for their farming business and how it might have an impact on their wellbeing.”

Resilient Farmer tour dates

30 September East of England Arena & Events Centre, Peterborough

1 October Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

2 October Royal Cornwall Events Centre, Wadebridge, Cornwall

3 October Stradey Park Hotel, Llanelli, Carmarthenshire

7 October Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone

8 October Mourne Country Hotel, Newry, Co. Down

9 October Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh

10 October Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena, Co. Antrim

15 October Harper Adams University, Newport, Shropshire

16 October Rheged Centre, Penrith, Cumbria

17 October Pavilions of Harrogate, Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate

18 October South of England Events Centre, Ardingly, West Sussex

Tickets cost £10 per person and include a light supper. All talks start at 6.30pm, except in Northern Ireland where they start at 7pm.

For full details and booking, visit resilientfarmertour.co.uk.