Help urged for stress of eco-farming

Neels Botha
Neels Botha
Farmers are coming under greater pressure from policy makers to reduce their environmental impact, and AgResearch scientists warn that pressure will only heighten.

Neels Botha, a science leader with AgResearch's social research team, said as regional councils moved to improve the quality of water and the Government to address climate change, the pressure and stress on farmers would only increase.

Councils were responding to community concerns, but Dr Botha said policy makers needed to realise farmers reacted like all humans when under pressure, and rural support infrastructure was inadequate to help farmers.

There was often nowhere for them to turn for advice on how to meet new standards demanded of them, and there was a lack of counselling for those struggling to cope with the pressure, he said.

"Farmers are getting all these signals that they are failing the system, they are letting society down because they are polluting waterways or abusing resources.

"We need a mechanism for them to cope," he said.

"What we've got is insufficient to deal with it."

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry looked at farmer stress levels about a decade ago.

Dr Botha believed the problem had worsened since then.

Dr Botha's research team looked at pressure on farmers in Taupo, Rotorua Lakes and Manawatu-Wanganui from new land management and decision-making policy changes proposed by the respective regional councils.

These were mapped against five stages of behaviour - shock and denial, fear and anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

The bulk of the reaction was fear and anger and bargaining, a response Dr Botha said did not surprise him and was not peculiar to farmers.

"Most people have the same concerns about imminent change when there are serious consequences to their business or livelihood.

"It was not too surprising," he said.

Additional stress came from low product prices, and in the case of some dairy farmers high debt and a low initial forecast payout over winter.

That had been somewhat alleviated by higher forecasts.

Dr Botha said while policies were setting higher environmental standards, farmers were not helped by an inconsistent approach by regional councils.

Some were helpful, some performed policing roles and in other regions the relationship with farmers had deteriorated to a standoff.

There was a view among farmers that while councils set the rules, they would not advise farmers how to meet those rules.

Dr Botha planned to extend the study to look at the effect on farmers who had not complied with dairy effluent disposal rules.

He said often those who were prosecuted had no idea how to fix their problem.

The experience in Australia was that increased stress levels led to more suicides.

Dr Botha said New Zealand's existing rural support network was manned by volunteers and was under-resourced.

"I think it's seriously under-resourced, and that is not blaming anyone, it is just one of those things that falls through the cracks."


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