Impact beyond the farm

Growing up on a farm, Michael Gooden knows what it’s like when things get tough on the land.

Seeing paddocks at his family farm being blown away by wind during the Millennium drought, Michael realised he needed to find new ways of managing the land.

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“In 2006, the drought really highlighted that all the planning in the world, and all the management in the world, and all the hard work in the world couldn't give you the outcome that you'd planned for. I started seeing the chinks in the armour of a high input, high output system.”

Having friends with holistic land management experience set the wheels in motion. Michael started using regenerative land management practices as part of his operation and the holistic approach has had an impact on more than just the farm.

“Something that sits very well with me is managing our land for more than one outcome. With the Holistic Management Framework there are three things: the environment, the financial business, and then there's the social business, and that entails you as an individual being able to get up every morning and look yourself in the eye. I think that's why you want to create an environment that's fulfilling and rewarding, because it's extremely hard to pull on your boots every morning when you’re doing work and you're not comfortable doing.

“It’s about acknowledging that our landscape functions as a whole. You can't do something over here without expecting an outcome to be affected over there. Once you acknowledge that principle, then you can also really understand that if you're not physically healthy and mentally strong that will affect other parts of your body.

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“I know I didn’t deal with the last drought as well as I could have. I was competitive. It was about how much I could work. I had a marriage breakdown in that period and while there's always more than one factor that goes into something like that, the workload certainly didn't help. I also think the whole mental health space just wasn't as evolved as it is now.”

Vital support

As Regional Ag Landcare Facilitator with Riverina Local Land Services, Michael promotes sustainable land management across the Riverina Catchment, dealing mostly with farmers and community groups. He also runs Old Man Creek Grass Fed Bulls, an enterprise he started with wife Ellie in 2017.

He believes taking a ‘competitive’ approach to a relentless workload is common in Australian farming and can sometimes be tied to tragic outcomes.

“There’s this saying in agriculture, ‘change happens one funeral at a time’. It’s an extremely traditional industry but I'd like to think that changing our approach doesn't need to happen one funeral at a time. I've experienced people close to me make the decision to take their own life, and it's an horrific outcome. But until you've walked a mile in someone shoes, you don't really understand.

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“I had a situation like that last year. Things weren't going well in our business. I wasn't managing the season as well as I could. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘I can't do this’.

“I just spoke with my wife Ellie then and there, at three o'clock in the morning and I've got her to thank for my life.

“Flowing on from that there's also support I've had from some close friends since. The reality is that you need the support network around you. It's really hard, but you've just got to deal with it as well as you can. It's just the simple act of seeking advice, then you’re probably three quarters of the way there, because you acknowledge that there's an issue. Then you'll do the best that you can do, get the right advice, and act on that.”

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Words of advice

Michael has some advice for others experiencing the effects of the drought.

  1. Acknowledge that you've got a problem. If you break your leg, you go to the doctor. It's the same thing with a mental health. Because it's not bleeding, it doesn't really hurt, then we tend not to seek help. I think that if you really understood the damage that it was doing, you would.

  2. Address the root of the problem. That’s the mantra of Regenerative Agriculture.  You've got to make the decisions that are going to address what is causing your stress, rather than ignore it. If you're in a relationship that's toxic, deal with that, and either get out of it or fix it. Ignoring it gets you nowhere.

  3. Learn to let go of the situation. Don't drag your crappy day back into the house, especially when you have young children around, because they will pick up on your anxiety and think they're the problem, a lot of the time, needing to make a decision on the farm is the actual problem.

  4. Don't dwell on things outside your control. Personally, I stopped looking at the weather. Unless I can see it on the horizon, it doesn't bother me. If there's rain at the bottom of my gauge, then I acknowledge that we've had some rain. I can control how many livestock we've got on our place. I can control whether we feed them or not, but I can't control the weather.

  5. Have the courage to ask people how they're feeling. That can be a family member, or a neighbour or friend. The second part of that is having the confidence to deal with the answer. You've got to be able to listen to what they've got to say and steer them in the direction of help. We're pretty fortunate in that we've got services around to be able to do that.

  6. Share your experiences. Hearing someone else's personal story is really powerful. Most people have some type of issues going on, but do we talk about it? My motivation for sharing my story is, if you can help someone who is struggling like I have, then it’s worth it.

The Australian Government resource Head to Health has digital mental health and wellbeing resources, for yourself or for someone you care about – visit headtohealth.gov.au.

 Anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency (themselves or others) should call Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Lifeline 13 11 14 or call 000.

Monica McInnes