Doing Things Differently

Leighton Oats is a veteran of the Kiwifruit industry – 20 years plus. Now he runs his own four and half hectare kiwifruit and avocado orchard near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. He shared what he’s learnt about managing the pressures of a busy, results-driven industry.

Like many in the industry, Leighton went through the lows of the PSA crisis in 2010, and then enjoyed the boom that followed, climbing the corporate ladder into leadership and management roles. Meanwhile, he had a young family, so life was busy on all fronts. He says he reached a point where he felt burnt out.

“I just noticed I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I normally do. I was also getting frustrated with people. They’d come and ask me questions and I’d be grumpy. I soon realised it wasn’t them, it was me. I simply couldn’t come up with the answers that should’ve been there anymore.”

He says the industry itself had changed. “When I first started out there were gaps in the year where you could have a bit of a breather. You’d do your pruning or thinning and then there’d be a gap. But as the industry moved from casual employment to creating permanent jobs, those gaps disappeared. There was less downtime.”

As the pressure mounted, so did his stress levels. “When you work in a large industry you don’t always have control over decisions, but you still have to implement them. For example, there might be another project that needs to be done, but there’s not staff to do that. That sort of situation can be stressful.”

Making lifestyle changes

Leighton remembers it as a tough time. “I had to prioritise my health. I discovered adrenal fatigue was a big part of it. The adrenal gland affects how you perceive and handle stress. Mine were only working at about 45% of where they should’ve been.”

He made a raft of changes to his lifestyle – everything from how he worked to what he ate to how he spent his spare time. “I was told I could do anything outside of work as long I didn’t have to run it. If I played sport, I had to just play for the fun of it.”

He heeded that advice. His Tuesday night twilight cricket team became an important part of his life. “It’s just a really great outlet where you can think about something else other than work and have a good laugh with your mates. That’s my down time, the rest of the time I’m either working or with my family.”

He also decided to step back from the corporate world and develop his own orchard block. “My goal was to do as much as I could myself, so I could control my workload and pressure. So, I’ve done all the post work and vine work here. I love the Kiwifruit industry and now I’ve got back to doing what I love. The orchard I’m developing is an organic orchard so it’s not just a job to me. I’m exploring whether we can we do things as an industry that are less invasive in terms of chemical use. I like the fact I’m free to try anything here.”

Achieving a better balance

He admits managing his workload is still a ‘work in progress’. He still feels frustrated if he’s not ‘ticking off’ his to-do list. However, these days he’s more mindful of the ‘big picture’ – why he’s working in the first place.

“It’s been pretty full-on for the last year and half, but I’m definitely achieving a better balance. My block is 40 minutes’ drive away from home, but recently I’ve been leaving at six in the morning and then knocking off at 2-3pm so I can spend more time with my family.”

He says his experience has made him more aware of the impact of stress on others. “Once I left my role, I started noticing how knackered some of the other people managing properties looked. When you’re in a situation, sometimes it’s very hard to recognise what’s happening. But once you take a step back, you can see so clearly that people might not be coping with things.”

He’s sharing his story now, so others won’t have to learn the hard way. “I think attitudes are slowly changing and these sorts of conversations about work are starting to happen. Programmes like Farmstrong help.”

Which is why Leighton recently took part in Farmstrong’s annual ‘growers versus farmers’ cricket match in Te Puke to raise awareness about rural mental health. (For the record, the growers beat the farmers by 40 runs.)

“Getting involved in community activities like this is so good for you. It was a fun day for a good cause.”

Looking back on his career, which at one point involved managing 50 staff and up to 200 contract workers, Leighton reflects on what helps manage pressure.

“It’s important to step back from stressful situations and not just react to them. Once you give yourself space, you often realise you’re not seeing the full picture. For instance, if you have staff working on orchard and things haven’t gone the way you wanted, is it because they’re doing it wrong or is it because you haven’t given them the right instructions or training or supervision or they haven’t got the right tools?”

Being able to enjoy what you do

“It’s also important to retain a sense of humour – to be able have a laugh with your mates. Even if you’re in a serious role, you’ve got to be able to enjoy what you do. Otherwise, work is always going to be a drag and you’re not going to end up in a good headspace.”

“I think as an industry, many of us get so caught up in the doing that we forget about the why. There’s always another job on an orchard. For example, I’ve been putting in irrigation here and I told myself, ‘I’ve got to get this done before I go on holiday’. I kept pushing myself, doing 12-hour days. Then I stopped and thought, ‘Hold on, I can just water all these plants and go away for a week. They’re not going to die. Then I’ll come back and finish the irrigation.’”

“That’s the key, telling yourself, ‘I can do this in a different way … and that’s ok.’”

Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme that helps people manage the ups and downs of farming and growing. To find out what works for you and lock it in, visit

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