With the busiest period in the dairy farming year upon us, it’s more important than ever to look after our mental health.
ental wellbeing is often about eating well, taking time out, making time for family and friends, focusing on the day in hand and getting adequate sleep.
Sleep will be in short supply, but the most important thing is not to push yourself beyond your limit.
If you feel you are hitting a brick wall of exhaustion, ask a friend, a neighbour or a student to do a night watching cows so you can get an unbroken night’s sleep and bounce back ready for action.
It’s encouraging that there seems to be a growing open-ness about mental health issues in the farming sector and in rural communities in general, where in the past the issue would rarely be talked about or acknowledged.
When I gave a talk on mental wellbeing for Drinagh Co-op at recent spring dairy seminar in West Cork — where the farming community has experienced a number of tragedies in the last few years — the room was packed.
I spoke about my own personal experience with mental health and how I had learned that the most important thing is to be honest with myself in how I feel, and to speak to my wife when I am feeling challenged.
I have learned to laugh every day and cry if I need to — it is a release of emotion.
I discussed how we must we must focus on our physical and mental performance to help us through the hectic spring schedule.
I explained that in some ways, farmers are like elite athletes.
The audience understood how a rugby player cannot play a Six Nations series for 12 months of the year — it is about building for the peak season, focusing on the game in hand and also allowing for recovery time when it is all over.
I asked who they consider to be a team-mate on their farm. Various farmers suggested vets, feed nutritionists, agri advisors, accountants, milk quality advisors, neighbours, family.
Things will go wrong on farm — calves will get sick or die, fodder may be scarce, somatic cell counts or TBC may give trouble — but sharing the problem with a team mate will lead to a solution.
Every dairy processor now has a confidential support call line if needed.
Farming faces many challenges but giving farmers the simple tools to look after themselves will leave them in a stronger position in times of crisis.
Talking and listening can make such a difference when it comes to mental health.
So much time is spent discussing sustainable farming, yet the most important part can be overlooked: the future sustainability of the farmer.
Some might say mental wellbeing is a different conversation to climate change. But global weather events have a huge impact on stress levels of farmers; droughts, floods and big freezes can have huge financial implications to farms.
Increased regulation, changes in farming practices and extra paperwork all add to the pressure load on farmers.
I firmly believe that every sustainability scheme, every agricultural climate action plan, every farm walk on sustainability and any document regarding climate change within agriculture should include farmer training on mental wellbeing.
Ultimately the person who must implement all these changes on the farm and reduce emissions is the farmer. If that farmer is in a positive frame of mind, looking after their mental wellbeing, then they will be a lot more productive.
Corporations across the world understand this, which is why they have specific programmes to prioritise employee wellbeing — it leads to a more efficient business.
Policy-makers and politicians appear to have forgotten this. Whether in power, in opposition, urban or rural, all politicians need to ensure farmer wellbeing is at the top of the agenda.
As we race to save the world from global warming, we will have failed as a society if we do so at the expense of farmers’ lives.
The fact that Drinagh Coop are celebrating their centenary year also gives food for thought. The local economy has greatly benefited from what the co-op has provided over 100 years of supporting farmers to market and sell their milk: rural jobs and produce that is now being exported all over the world.
Farms and dairy herds were very different back at the birth of Drinagh. Much expansion has taken place yet every time farmers expanded it was merely to sustain a viable income.
Right across rural Ireland the dairy industry has grown to become a key part of the nation’s economy, with almost 65,000 people employed directly and indirectly; €9bn in exports, and the sector is worth €16bn to the economy.
The founders of Irish co-ops would be extremely proud to see how the dairy industry has grown to become a key player on the global market.
But they would also feel extremely frustrated at how some who oppose livestock farming would portray the dairy industry as the bad boy in Ireland. Irish dairy didn’t just expand in 2015, it has done so for over a century, withstood many recessions, evolved as research and technology evolved and is undoubtedly the most resilient part of our economy.
Our TDs need to ensure we prioritise farmer resilience and protect the heart of rural Ireland, which is being challenged as a community more than ever before.
If we stand together, we will have a better chance of achieving that 25pc reduction in emissions by 2030.
Peter Hynes farms with his wife Paula in Aherla, Co Cork
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