Suzanne Lewis and her husband Evan have run a mixed farming enterprise at Werneth, an hour south of Ballarat, for the past 21 years. Mr Lewis looks after the cropping side of things, while Ms Lewis oversees the running of the prime lamb operation. She also runs a business presenting workshops and guest speaking on mental health and wellbeing in the agricultural sector.
Q: Suzanne, can you tell us about the business?
A: My work is more focused on community service rather than a business, as much of what I do is on a voluntary basis. I'm motivated by helping people within the industry improve their health. If I come away from a presentation where I have made a positive impact for change I am happy. I offer a variety of topics, my presentations are usually tailored to the audience, whether that be a local agriculture contracting business or a group of ag students.
Q: What's your philosophy when it comes to farming?
A: At the heart of what we are trying to do is farm ethically. What that means for us is taking care of our soils and at the same time ethically producing lamb. I practise low-stress sheep management, and am striving to produce a happy, healthy and heavy lamb, with the welfare and health of the animal at the forefront of everything I do. Although in its infancy, we are hoping to eventually market our lamb under the label "Calm ya farm" to local restaurants. As a farmer I am passionate about healthy soils, healthy animals and healthy farmers. I'd like to think it's all connected in some way.
Q: Where did your concern and interest in farmer health and wellbeing originate from?
A: I believe as farmers we are a very important bunch. We feed and clothe the world. So it saddens me that according to research, us farmers don't fare too well. It is well understood that rural and remote dwellers have poorer health outcomes than their urban counterparts, but when we look at farmers as a subset we see even poorer health outcomes than the rural average in some state-based studies. I have a strong interest in health, as besides farming I also hold a Bachelor of Health Sciences and I later completed an Honours degree where I investigated the health differentials between rural and urban populations. I feel I can hopefully help the farming community by combining both my farmer's 'hat' and health 'hat' to bring a relevant, relatable and evidence-based message.
Q: Is the mental health of farmers a growing issue?
A: It is an issue that I guess there is more media attention presently, given the devastating drought conditions in various parts of the country, coupled with some catastrophic floods throughout the top end. But even more locally there were terrible frosts that wiped out many crops and a tough spring and autumn to boot. Farming is a damn challenging game to be in. These challenges, although managed, will continue to present themselves. So it's important for farmers to have the right tools to help empower them and those around them to improve their health and wellbeing, including mental health, especially in these difficult times.
Q: Are men or women more susceptible to mental health or wellbeing issues on the land?
A: The statistics tells us that male farmers are more likely to commit suicide. However, I feel, both male and female farmers can suffer poor mental health as they are often presented with the same challenges. As a female farmer you can face some challenging stereotypes. I have definitely faced a few challenges over the years, but thankfully there is change.
Q: What specific issues do farmers face?
A: The mechanisation of farming, particularly broadacre cropping can result in too much sitting and a lack of physical activity, both of which are detrimental to our health. Many rural areas also have a lack of services. It is also often difficult to access recreational facilities, eg heated swimming pools. The access and availability of healthy food options is also challenging, making the healthy choice a difficult one in many areas. Isolation for many is also common as many farmers are often working alone and may have limited social interaction. There are also social norms and cultural tendencies that can act as barriers to positive change. For example, bagging out your mate when he's trying to eat healthy or getting off the tractor to exercise. It's important these barriers are reduced so farmers can support one another to make positive change.
Q: What do you recommend farmers do to maintain their health and wellbeing?
A: I am passionate about preaching the importance of a healthy diet and plenty of physical activity to maintain health, in particular mental health. Both a healthy diet and physical activity are two of nature's very powerful antidepressants and I feel don't get enough credit. It's also important to find ways to relax - this may be different for everyone; some people love sport and social interaction, others may appreciate a quiet walk to the dam with the dogs, or maybe practising mindfulness during the day, it is just whatever works for you. Social interaction is also important, that is why local sporting groups are so important to rural areas, they are usually the hub of the community. Field days and farming groups with like-minded people can also be most valuable.
Q: What should they do if they feel like they need help?
A: For mental health it is so important to tell someone how you are feeling. That conversation may be with family and friends, your GP, your stock agent, agronomist or Lifeline - just have that conversation. Upon having that conversation you can then have support to seeking help and getting on the road to recovery. There are also some great resources, including Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute, and specific to farmers are the many resources from the National Centre for Farmer Health. I am also of course most happy to help point people in the right direction.
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636