Marlborough’s Doug Avery is known as The Resilient Farmer. Having pulled himself and his farm back from the brink by changing the way he managed his land to deal with drought, he truly lives up to the name. These days he wears his heart on his sleeve and many, many hats, but quite unintentionally has become a counsellor to those also going through severe depression.
You’ve turned your recovery from depression into an experience that’s benefitted thousands of others and toured the world talking about your journey. What does resilience mean to you?
For me, resilience means coping with personal shame and vulnerability and learning to manage fear and anxiety. In contrast, these days – having changed my mindset – I don’t expect to win all the time, I deal very happily with losing. My youngest son taught me ‘you win or you learn – you only lose if you don’t learn.’ It’s my fear of returning to depression that drives me to learn about how to not go to that place again.
What was the lowest point for you?
Our farm, Bonavaree, was in drought for eight years. I was at my very lowest in 1998 and it took five years before I found hope. I used to drink myself to sleep.
I don’t know how my wife Wendy stayed with me. I’m glad she did, because if she’d gone that would have been the end of me, I think. It was in 2004 that the recovery finally started and it wasn’t until nearly ten years later, with Wendy’s help, I realised that what I’d suffered from was severe depression.
What sparked the journey of recovery for you and led to the creation of The Resilient Farmer?
I attended a lecture by a plant scientist called Derrick Moot, who’d researched climate change and talked of fostering resilience in dryland farms through the use of lucerne, with its deep tap root and ability to withstand drought. It gave me hope, which is one of the four things us human beings need for wellbeing, along with love, connection and purpose. A person who’s depressed will have lost some of those. I lost hope during the drought, as well as the ability to connect with even the people closest to me. I accepted that I needed to change, and although the process wasn’t easy, to this day the farm is really flying because of it.
Were you able to help others change by sharing your knowledge and speaking publicly about this success?
I hoped my story would inspire others, but I realised that for people to change their farming practises they needed to believe they actually could. That’s when I decided to open up about the crisis I’d been in – to demonstrate that if I could do it, anyone could. As a couple, Wendy and I feel strongly about being as open as we can so that others feel it’s okay to say ‘I’m not okay.’
Later, I also talked about the tragedy of rural suicide statistics and people sought me out to tell me their own stories. I’m not a trained counsellor, but I recognise the brokenness of people who have lost their vision for the future. Instead of trying to talk to them about pastures, I asked about their past story, current story, what they wanted their future story to look like, and what they believed they were capable of – helping them set a new direction. It was unbelievably successful. Three years after the ‘Resilient Farmer’ banner came about I launched my book. That was in 2017 and it changed my world again. I still get emails and messages most days from people who want to tell me how it helped their family or a loved one.
You decided to try something new called Woolshed Workshops to help others become more resilient.
I had this intense desire to offer people the things that would have saved me from my five years of hell, rather than intervening after their crisis. It started out as a rural initiative but these days it’s increasingly attracting urban people. People say it’s life-changing.
What are the biggest challenges for farmers these days?
They’re basically still the same: isolation, debt, not talking about problems, dealing with Mother Nature. These days though there’s another element – public perception. A lot of people are struggling because we feel like we’ve done so much and yet we get condemned as though we’ve done nothing. It’s like telling the captain of the All Blacks after the team’s won a world cup ‘it’s a shame you weren’t better on the day.’
What keeps you busy now?
Wendy and I still own 50% of the farm business and are on the Board of Directors. I’m still speaking to endless groups about management of resilience and mindset, mental wellbeing or the ‘Top Paddock’ as I call it. I’m still talking about dryland farming and pasture species, too, and running Woolshed Workshops. Helping people improve their resilience is the best work I’ve ever done.
I never imagined my career in farming would take me on this journey. It is intense and I feel blessed to be doing it. I live a life of immense gratitude for the fact that I survived.
Reported by Fiona Terry for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue