The Short Straw

Lisa Castleman, Agronomist, Riverina Local Land Services

While I would have preferred to be out on a hillside striding through the green grass with wet soil underneath my boots, I spent most of yesterday on the phone to landholders. However, life is a little different at the moment.

A chat with one of our local farmers yesterday reminded me that we are 12 months on from the first lockdown and that there is somewhat more uncertainty among us, heightened especially when we have loved ones living overseas or concern about unwell family members of any age.

I woke up this morning with the sun streaming through my window and the honeyeaters and ravens preening in the red ironbark tree just outside. I resolved to try and find an article to share on health, well-being or resilience. Here are a few snippets from what I found.

A study found that ‘people in rural areas regularly score better than their major cities counterparts on indicators of life satisfaction and feelings of wellbeing’ (NHRA, 2017). I would second that and think that many of us could easily list a dozen reasons why living in the country has its advantages.

My own reasons for choosing country life would include not wanting to spend hours in peak traffic driving to work, being jostled on a crowded pedestrian crossing or feeling anonymous in a city without friendly greetings. I would miss the sweet smell of freshly cut hay or of soil after a rain, and I could go on. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a brief visit to the city to do something cultural, but I’m always happy to go back home to the Riverina and our green or golden paddocks.

This feeling of life satisfaction and wellbeing among rural people was attributed to ‘the positive aspects of rural life, and the interconnectedness of people living there’ (NHRA, 2017). They noted the importance of participating in your rural community, in volunteering and the importance of ‘informal support networks between neighbours, friends and the community’ (NHRA, 2017).

Some of these aspects of our life are on hold. But don’t stop making plans for when we resume the activities we enjoy and keeping in touch with people we value within our networks.

I found this definition as well on resilience. ‘Resilience is your ability to cope with tough times by applying your inner strength and engaging support networks. Resilience can enable you to face difficult situations and maintain good mental health’ (CRANAplus, 2021).

I don’t think there is any doubt that we are enduring a difficult situation. I did have a laugh at the dinner table last night, as one of my older children wants to defer university in these uncertain times and was pondering taking up an enterprise in sheep production. She was quite amazed that ewes in lamb with twins had just made over $1200 each at the Wagga saleyards. We know that there are lots of swings and roundabouts or peaks and troughs in agriculture. But if anyone can tell her when sheep will be affordable to buy back into, then please let me know.

I have a lot of faith in the resilience of country people. Perhaps we all know someone who is a little more vulnerable. I make a resolve to ring a friend tomorrow who I haven’t spoken to for a month or so.  But as I write this on my birthday and a year older but not necessarily wiser, we cannot always tell who is vulnerable. There are many contacts for support to be found on this website  https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/resilience

Apparently, we can all build resilience,

‘Building resilience is like building a muscle; it takes time and intentionality through focusing on the 4 elements of:

  • Connection
  • Wellness
  • Healthy thinking
  • Making meaning of events’ (CRANAplus, 2021).

The first element of connection is going to take a bit more conscious effort and care than usual to stay connected. But I like how it’s first. For the second element, wellness… I can only say that if you have ever resolved to go for a walk or drink more water or eat healthier foods, start small and it’s amazing how quickly you feel good about it. I have been contemplating more exercise in my life for way too long. Then three weeks ago it just took my daughter’s encouragement to go with her, and she chose a very steep hill for my first walk. It didn’t kill me and now I am walking nearly every day. I admit that I have avoided the same hill for a repeat visit, but will return when I have built my fitness. Healthy thinking… I will leave that one to you, my healthy thinking is usually about healthy soils. Don’t get me started on the benefits to plant production by lifting soil pH, and achieving good soil fertility through the use of inorganic and organic fertilisers. Healthy thinking will mean something different to each of us, but I think it’s about striving for achievable goals and yet still being happy with where we are at.

In regards to ‘making meaning of events’, the author of the article I read talks about being psychologically prepared for adverse events ‘remember to reflect on what strengths you already have and can draw on in times of stress’ (CRANAplus, 2021).

As I am an agronomist with three decades of seasons behind me to reflect on, we always remember the droughts and dust-storms, the floods, the mouse plagues, a locust plague, bushfires, frosts before harvest, etc. I know that other countries experience them too and yet, they seem uniquely Australian when they occur. More than that, these experiences of adversity seem incredibly personal. Our memories of traumatic events can be very intense, very visual. I remember vividly being evacuated to the cellar of a bluestone homestead during the Macedon bushfires as a child. Somehow, those massive bluestone bricks in the musty cellar are now associated with safety in my mind.

I now know that ‘the average season’ doesn’t really exist and that every new season is unique with it’s own challenges or surprises. However, I don’t think I have ever reflected on a season and said ‘well, that was boring”.

I also remember the feeling of anticipation when the header pulls into a the first paddock after a bumper season, or the sick feeling in the stomach when smoke comes out of the back of the header and all of the trucks are in town delivering grain. We look forward to the successes and we get through the other stuff.

I think that however we make meaning of events which challenge us, they weren’t meant to break us. It is important to reflect on what strengths we have, and to nurture these strengths in the younger generation who have not yet seen it all.

If you are struggling to make meaning of recent events, or just not feeling that sense of wellbeing and health, then there are support services on offer for individuals and rural communities to help you look after your mental health or that of your family. There are some useful contacts listed below.

Did you know there is even a National Centre for Farmer Health https://farmerhealth.org.au

dedicated just to the support of farmer’s health? They acknowledge that while farmers are generous at providing help to others, they are often reluctant to ask for help themselves.

This National Centre for Farmer Health offers a number of programs. One of them is a free program you can do in the privacy of your own home or farm office called ifarmwell. It is an online tool kit with 5 modules to help farmers cope with life’s challenges and get the most out of every day. It was designed to provide what Australian farmers have said they need and is supported by research in health services. Farmers need to have a mobile phone, which is in range at least once a week. That sounds like they know some of the rural frustrations we live with. ifarmwell - Growing Farmer's Wellbeing

As for me, I am looking ahead to the warmth of spring with sunshine and blue skies, with clouds just over the hill and not too far away for when we need a top up. Happy days!

Lisa Castleman, Agronomist, Riverina Local Land Services, Wagga Wagga (0427 201 963 or lisa.castleman@lls.nsw.gov.au)

References

CRANAplus. (2021). Resilience Hints & Tips for Health Professionals. CRANAplus_MHT-Tips-Tricks_Resilience_FEB21.pdf

healthdirect. (2019). Building resilience. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/resilience

National Centre for Farmer Health. (2021). ifarmwell.ifarmwell - Growing Farmer's Wellbeing

National Rural Health Alliance Inc. (2017). Factsheet-Mental Health in Rural and Remote Australia. nrha-mental-health-factsheet-dec-2017.pdf (ruralhealth.org.au)

Where to get help

If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. Make contact with your GP (during business hours). Not feeling OK is a matter of health even when there is no broken bone or someone else can’t see anything or doesn’t understand. How we are feeling about things is a very private matter and not everyone wants to share their innermost thoughts with others. If you’d like to find out more or talk to someone privately, here are some organisations that can help:

  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling stressed or down – 24 hours per day, 7 days per week) - call 1300 224 636 or chat online at www.beyondblue.org.au from 3pm to 12am (AEST)
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by mood disorders) — online help
  • Contact Emergency Services phone 000 or 112 from satellite/GSM phones or present at the Emergency department of your local hospital
  • Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) — call 13 11 14 (open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week) or chat online www.lifeline.org.au Calls from mobiles are free. Anonymous access to trained counsellors.
  • SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) — call 1800 18 7263
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467 for counselling for anyone affected by or considering suicide including support and a call back service. Counselling is also available at www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
  • What do in a crisis What to do in a crisis – ifarmwell

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