Plenty of positives to go with the negative

Wairarapa sheep and beef farmer James Bruce reckons farmers are better placed than most to cope with the Covid-19 lockdown but still need to look after themselves and stay connected.  

Top of mind at the moment for James is not the coronavirus, but the drought. He says 170 mls of rain last week brought some very welcome relief.

“Farmers round here have been comparing how much rain they got on Facebook messenger. I think it has really lifted everyone’s spirits. With luck, it should be enough to get us through the next month.”

On farm, it’s pretty much business as usual for James, except he has a few extra helpers – his three girls are all home and keen to lend a hand.

“Thankfully the works are still going, so we can get rid of stock. We’re about to start drenching in the middle of next week and I’ve finished feeding out my ewes, they’re all in good order and there’s more feed growing ahead of them.”

James has always loved sheep and beef farming. He left school, and after 10 years managing, shepherding and taking some good opportunities, ‘bought a block of bare land’ which he ran at night and on the weekends and just got stuck in. He now manages 6,500 stock units on 450 ha owned in the Wairarapa, with another 250 ha leased. Not bad for a lad who ‘only went to school to play rugby.’

“Obviously there were hard years. Farming’s not all easy, but I’ve learnt that a lot of farming is a mindset thing. My favourite part of the job is still shifting stock, working with the dogs, watching the stock go from one paddock to the other heads down and content with what’s in front of them,” he says.

Over the years, James has always been careful to manage his workload, so he can enjoy his farming, his family and his other great passion – rugby. James used to play for years, now he coaches. “I was still playing when I bought this land. The odd person used to say, “What are you doing? You should be focusing on your farm.” They didn’t see that rugby is what keeps you normal. You go to training and you forget about the farm for an hour or two. It’s a really good outlet.”

With the lockdown in place, the rugby and the fitness sessions he runs at a local gym are suddenly off the agenda. The answer he says is to use technology.

“We’re so lucky to have social media that connects us all like Facebook and Facebook messenger. I’m not really an expert on that stuff, but I can send a message and that’s all you need to do. It keeps us connected and keeps us together.”

So his rugby team is having ‘virtual practices’. “We’ve started a Facebook group to keep practicing our starter moves and plays. I’ve also started a Facebook group for my fitness sessions.

James reckons the biggest risk during lockdown is the potential for farmers to just keep working in the absence of normal off-farm activities.

“Rugby training and my fitness classes have meant I’ve always had a reason to stop work at 5pm. So the temptation is there now for me to just keep working and I’m as guilty as anyone of this. The lockdown has been a bit of an eye opener for me in terms of reverting to what I used to be like.

“You definitely need to know when to pull pin each day. Don’t get bogged down in that one job. I know what it’s like, I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. I’ve woken up at 2 in the morning and what hasn’t been done goes around in circles in my mind. It’s a real trap.”

“I think in farming we often expect too much of ourselves. We’re expecting to win like the All Blacks, and then when we don’t, it’s like the wheels have fallen off. But farming shouldn’t be like that. It’s all about taking it a step at a time and actually appreciating the small steps.”

In keeping with his ‘small steps’ philosophy, James was in the middle of a major fencing project and was getting a lot of satisfaction from doing a couple of gates at the end of each day. That’s all stopped due to the lockdown. So, he’s given himself another simple, easy to achieve job to signal the end of each day – he’s started cleaning out his shed.

I just do half an hour at the end of each day but it gives me that little fist-pump moment – ‘Hey I got that sorted. All the tractor stuff is finally in one place.’ It’s a smaller task than fencing, but it’s still got that awesome, feel good factor.”

James’ discussion group with 6-8 young local farm managers also continues to meet on Facebook. We made a page eight months ago, there’s still plenty going on and you know what everyone’s up to. Everyone’s pretty busy so keeping it simple is good.”

Most of all, James is convinced people need to maintain perspective. Just like the drought, Covid-19 and its challenges will eventually pass.

“In farming, and in life, you need to realise that there’s always an end to everything. We’ve had a very dry summer here, but like my dad always said, ‘no matter how dry it is, you’re always one day closer to rain.’ And he was right. Last weekend it rained. This lockdown might go on for four weeks or maybe longer, but eventually things will get back to normal.”

“In the meantime, use technology to connect with your mates or if you don’t use social media or you have a neighbour who doesn’t, just pick up the phone and ring. Now’s the time to call.”

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