With mounting pressures facing farmers compounding issues around poor mental health, New Zealand dairy farmer, Marc Gascoigne, hopes to strengthen farmers’ resilience, during a Scotland-wide tour, commencing next week.

Over the coming weeks, the New Zealander will be touring the country, sparking much needed conversations around mental health by sharing his own struggles and how he has built up the tools and coping mechanisms to overcome his own battle with anxiety and depression.

Following in the footsteps of fellow New Zealander, Doug Avery – who shared his own experience five years ago to audience of more than 2000 in total – Marc’s tour, supported by the Farmstrong initiative, comes at a crucial time in Scotland, with pressures escalating across multiple fronts.

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The SF caught up with Marc, to give us a teaser of what farmers can expect to hear during his visits, but also to discuss some of the challenges that New Zealanders have faced in past decades and how Scottish farmers could look to draw hope from these experiences.

Marc’s story

Marc farms in Cambridge, in the north of New Zealand (NZ) milking 480 cattle – all of which are spring calvers. His farm was purchased by his grandfather in 1931 and Marc himself has been farming for 30 years, but he explained that 20 of those years were marred by his battle with depression and anxiety.

“For more than 20 years, I struggled with poor mental health, but it always came in waves – spring was always my trigger,” said Marc. “It is a very challenging time on the farm, with all cows calving at once and the long hours and stress would lead to me feeling very low and anxious, although at the time I wouldn’t have admitted it.

"About seven years ago, I finally cracked under the pressure and decided I needed to take action and visited my local GP. He supported me with medication but also advised me to look into the Farmstrong programme, which had launched the year prior and was offering support to farmers who were struggling.

“Farmstrong helped me to change my outlook on farming and mental health and gave me the tools and strategies to try and get better. There is no silver bullet to becoming well, but a number of small changes made a big impact and got me back on track.”

Marc will be sharing more about his story and what actions he took to support his recovery, during his tour, addressing the importance of ‘Living well to farm and croft well’.

Scotland tour

One of the big drivers for Marc to take part in this Scotland-wide tour to launch Farmstrong in Scotland, was to encourage farmers to open up about their own struggles, but also to let them know that they weren’t the only ones struggling.

“It is said that one in four people have mental health issues, but when I was struggling, I honestly thought I was the only one going through this,” he continued. “When I spoke about it to more people and they said they felt the same, it made it much easier for me to process.

"That is my hope for the tour, if people are struggling, they can come along and realise the more we normalise it and talk about it, the easier it gets. There will be those who are coping just fine, but I reckon mental fitness is like physical fitness – it is something you need to keep working on, or you are at risk of slipping.

“The most important piece of machinery you have on the farm is your brain. We are all very good at looking after animals or growing crops but it is important to look after our own mental and physical health. Hopefully, on the tour farmers might pick up one or two strategies that worked for me and it could help with their own situation.”

Marc’s tour is being organised by Farmstrong Scotland, as part of a programme of events to launch the initiative here in Scotland.

Getting men talking

Reflecting on addressing issues around mental health in NZ, he explained that they had come a long way in the past few years.

“If we look back 15 years, no one was talking about mental health, but Farmstrong has now been going for eight years and continues to destigmatise conversations around mental health and has supported thousands of farmers," he said.

“In NZ, 75% of suicides are amongst males and I think this is largely due to men not being good at talking, where women are often better and confiding in others – which is so important. We need to get more men talking.”

Subsidy removal in NZ

Many Scottish farmers are anxious about subsidies being reduced in the coming years, as we transition towards a new agricultural policy and Marc shared what impact a similar move had on farmers in NZ.

“I was at university in 1984 when subsidies were removed, but my dad went through the transition,” he said. “There was a lot of anxiety at the time and talk of farmers having to leave their farms for economic reasons and around 1% of farms closed.

"However, a lot of older farmers who went through this will tell you that after this happened, it ended up being a good thing, as previously there had been a lot of production geared towards subsidies. It made farmers focus on their business and look more closely at what they were producing and what the market was demanding.

“In the end, it wasn’t as bad as people imagined, but the anxiety of worrying about the process had an adverse impact on mental health. We often get so worried about what is in the future and a lot of the time it is not as bad as people think, but I can understand the uncertainty right now must be really hard for farmers in Scotland but, hopefully, I can reassure some when I meet them, that things may not be as bad as they think.”

Trade deal anxiety

Turning to some of the wider concerns Scottish farmers are feeling about trade negotiations with new markets, he shared another example where NZ came out the other side.

“The year the UK joined the EU, suddenly we were locked out of the UK market, which was a huge change, as almost all our products went to the UK," he pointed out.

"There was huge anxiety at the time, as we had to look at developing new markets, but that is what happened, and we adapted to a new trading arena. Farmers are just that, adaptable, and resilient. They will bounce back, like we have done for many generations.”

Scots humour

As the SF rounded up the interview, Marc was preparing to set off for Scotland in just less than 24 hours and he finished by sharing what he was most looking forward to.

“I understand our sense of humour is quite closely aligned with the Scots, so I hope there will be lots of laughs and good conversations on my travels and I look forward to meeting with lots of people from a range of background sand sectors," he said.

"I’ve heard from Doug Avery all about the warm hospitality of the Scots, but I have to admit I am not a big whisky drinker,” he laughed. “Mostly, I hope this trip will inspire people to open up more easily about how they are feeling and for me, personally, I find it really helps sharing my story and knowing it can support others who are going through their own journey.”

• To find out more about Marc’s story, he will speaking at 12 evening events Scotland-wide and you can register for free to attend via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/farmstrong-scotland-59177401273

Farmstrong Scotland Tour 2023

• Tue, Jan 31 – Border Union Showground, Kelso

• Thu, Feb 2 – GG’s Yard, Laggan, D and G

• Fri, Feb 3 – Western House Hotel, Ayr

• Mon, Feb 6 – Dewars Centre, Perth

• Tue, Feb 7 – Thainstone Mart, Aberdeen

• Thu, Feb 9 – NFUS Conference, Glasgow

• Sat, Feb 11 – Orkney (venue tbc)

• Mon, Feb 13 – Pentland Hotel, Thurso

• Tue, Feb 14 – Dingwall Mart

• Wed, Feb 15 – Oban (venue tbc)

• Thu, Feb 16 – Stirling Court Hotel, Stirling