Growing up on his parent’s farm south of Gisborne, Stephen spent summer holidays with his family living in and on the water.
“Whether it was fishing, diving, surfing, waterskiing, we were into it,” he says. Before reaching his teens, Stephen remembers enjoying the concept of catching a wave, the feeling of getting away from everything, and having a bit of time out. He calls it the perfect break.
Stephen’s love for the ocean, and particularly surfing, has stuck with him ever since.
Influenced by his upbringing on a sheep, beef, and citrus farm, Stephen says he has always enjoyed agriculture and wanted to be part of the sector.
Now an established country sales specialist with Bayleys Real Estate, his involvement in and around the industry has given him a first-hand understanding of how the demands of a farming lifestyle take their toll on mental health.
It was the Netflix documentary Resurface that inspired Stephen to start the Surfing for Farmers (SFF) programme.
The film follows a surfing initiative in America that supports the healing journeys of soldiers suffering from PTSD; time spent in the ocean helped clear the mental clouds these soldiers couldn’t see through and ultimately improved their lives. Seeing people around him struggling mentally, Stephen felt compelled to create change.
“I saw the documentary and thought, ‘well there’s no reason why we couldn’t replicate that here’, to use it as a way to get farmers off the farm and doing something different.”
Stephen founded SFF in Gisborne back in 2018 to encourage the locals off their land for an evening.
Over four summers, the initiative has grown exponentially from one beach to 24 locations across the North and South Island.
“As we’ve grown, we have seen more people reaching out saying ‘we need this in our town’,” Stephen says. For one night each week through the summer, from December until late March, anyone and everyone in the industry is invited to join the initiative and find some solace in the sea.
Time to talk about it
For Stephen, the key purpose Surfing for Farmers serves is to help farmers step away from the day-to-day grind of working by creating a reason for them to get off farm.
“Farming is a job where you can be quite isolated, either working by yourself all day or by making the farm a priority seven days a week. The statistics for poor mental health and suicide in the rural community are really bad (relative to already bad suicide rates across New Zealand).”
He says there’s no better excuse for farmers to leave work behind than for an evening surf, a barbeque dinner, and some good yarns.
“It’s important to regularly do something different, meet up with other people and add something new into your week.”
Carving out time to have deeper conversations about how we’re really doing has always been important, but Stephen says these days we’re better at doing something about it.
“In these past few years, more farmers have been putting their hands up and saying, ‘I’m having issues, I need help’. With SFF, we’ve created an opportunity for them to come down, have a good time and – if they want to – start an honest conversation.”
A typical summer surf
Stephen says a typical Surfing for Farmers evening is a pretty hard case because you turn up at the beach to find a whole bunch of dirty utes with full trailers and dog boxes, fence posts, or motorbikes on the back. Then there’s a large group of people on the beach wearing boots, dirty rugby shorts and muddy jerseys.
“It’s a bloody good sight.”
Each farmer is given a board and a wetsuit (if they haven’t got their own), and the option to be coached by SFF tutors. Surfing sessions can be up to two hours long, depending on how everyone is going.
“It’s a huge mix of everyone having a go at their different levels. Some on short boards, some on long. Everyone’s giving it a good nudge just trying to learn and improve every time.”
Out of the water, sausages are hot off the BBQ and people can chat about anything and everything.
“It’s a good chance for everyone to catch up and debrief. Could be about surfing or farming, or if they’re having some issues on the farm, they can ask other people what their thoughts are. If they do want to chat about anything mental, then there’s a chance to do that with someone there they trust or feel comfortable to confide in.”
“In the current environment, we’ve got political issues around farming, it’s harder to get good quality staff, we’ve got environmental issues, more compliance than ever – there’s so much happening on the farm now that people are worse than ever at getting away. They’re working harder than they ever have to keep up with daily demands,” Stephen says.
It’s easy to have speakers walk into a workplace and tell employees what they need to do to improve their mental health, but rarely is this advice demonstrated in action and regularly enacted to become real change.
Farmers are told they need to ‘get off farm and do some stuff’, but this can be difficult without organised time set aside or an activity to look forward to.
“What inspired me [to start SFF] was to create that space for the ‘doing’ part of improving farmer’s health.”
For fun and mental freedom
Simple, fun, easy: Each meetup consists of a laid-back surf lesson and surf session, followed by a yarn and a BBQ. Photos: Supplied
Stephen says that, at the end of the day, he hopes to keep people attending so he wants to keep the programme fresh and fun – ‘humble and grassroots’.
“If people are keen and want it in their town, we’ll continue to look at new locations to keep it growing. I’m hoping that next year we can expand into other areas too.
“Afternoons of mountain biking or fishing might appeal more to other farmers. That way we can capture more and encourage them to make a bit more time for themselves [off the farm].”
Without any government funding, the programme is able to run completely free of charge, thanks to the generosity of Surfing for Farmer’s many sponsors.
This year their six premium sponsors are Bayleys Real Estate, Ballance Agri-Nutrients, Meridian Energy, Jarden, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, and Rabobank.
The programme is also supported by more than 200 small and family-owned businesses around the country.
Stephen says it doesn’t matter if you’re riding a bike, going for a run, or surfing – it’s a different type of release to digging fence posts and chasing stock all day.
He believes the key is to do something regularly to improve your wellbeing and, if you’re a farm owner, encourage your staff to do the same.
“If your staff are good, then your farm is good, and your business is better. There’s a massive flow-on effect just by getting off the farm and doing something for yourself. You’re actually doing something for so many other people. That’s the beauty of Surfing for Farmers.”
Keen to drop in?
Check out the website SurfingForFarmers.com to get involved or simply learn more about the initiative. You’ll also find the dates and times of the next meeting nearest to you.
Surfing for Farmers is now a Charitable Trust, run by Stephen and two other trustees.
“A massive thanks must be made to all the volunteers all around New Zealand who have taken the time to help run the programme in their towns. Without the volunteers, we wouldn’t have what we have created today,” says Stephen.