Prospering through change

Golden Bay dairy farmer Corrigan Sowman spent several years studying how farmers can best tackle the changes underway in agriculture. Now he’s applying what he learnt back on farm. 

Whereabouts are you farming?

We’re dairy farming in Golden Bay, milking 700 cows and raising 400 beef stock on 500 hectares. It’s a family farm going back 75 years – my brother and I farm together with our parents. We’ve got three staff, with another due to start shortly.

You’ve done a lot of study about the impact of change on farmers.

Yes, I was looking at how can people prosper through change and how can we do change better as an industry.

What did you discover?

That when it comes to change, many farmers feel ‘under the pump’. For example, there’s a lot of public discussion at present around sustainability. Society’s got a view that we need to do things better in agriculture so people tend to pile into farmers on these issues and what do farmers do? They often go into fight or flight mode in terms of their thinking. They freeze.

Isn’t that understandable?

Yes, but going into ‘survival’ mode isn’t going to help you deal with change. If you think like that, you’re not going to constructively consider what people are trying to say, or how much of that is true or how we could improve their understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing. We need society to appreciate it has taken a while for New Zealand farming to reach this point and it will take time to unwind it, because none of us have endlessly deep pockets.

Fundamentally, farmers have got to become a little more self-aware of the way they’re thinking and more open to change. We’re not going to tackle any of the challenges in front of us unless we can think our way through them.

It sounds as if you’re advocating a different mindset. Some might find that challenging.

I know, because farming is a unique occupation. It’s not just someone’s livelihood, it’s where they live, it’s who they are. Their family and sense of self-worth are often all tied up in how they react to change. But we still have to find a way to keep the industry evolving because life itself will always keep changing.

 I’m a fan of what All Black psychiatrist Dr Ceri Evans said about performing under pressure – sometimes we just have to ‘get comfortable with the uncomfortable’. That’s true for farmers too. There are some realities – water quality, animal welfare, climate issues – which we’re going to have to confront, whether we like it or not. The reality is that if we own these challenges and get to work on them, then we’re going to be way further ahead than burying our heads and ignoring them.

How does a person change the way they think?

These are the so-called ‘soft skills’ that people can learn. I think in agriculture we spend a lot of time talking about the ‘what’, but we need to start to consider the ‘why’ a lot more, which relates to how people think.

My study showed that people are the hardest thing to change and yet people are at the heart of addressing issues like sustainability. If we don’t understand our people and their thinking, nothing is going to be any different. For instance, we might come up with a solution for methane inhibitors, which is an issue stressing out a lot of farmers right now, but how are we going to implement it and make people understand that they need to do it?

Have you applied this approach on your own farm?

My studies have really influenced what I do. Where I’m farming at the moment we’re at the point of a whole lot of regulatory change. As farmers, we’re trying to consolidate and gain wider acceptance in our community about the impact of dairy farming for the environment we farm in. That’s why I put my hand up to be involved in the Fonterra sustainability panel. It’s giving me a greater understanding of the issues and allowing me to contribute.

So, has your own way of thinking changed?

Yes, I’ve gained a much greater awareness that I’m not going to be able to tackle the issues facing this business if I’m not thinking clearly and helpfully. It doesn’t mean I don’t have negative thoughts anymore, but I’m pretty quick nowadays to realise when I’m not in the right headspace.

How has this new attitude helped on farm?

I can think my way clearly through way more things now than I could a few years ago. If you improve your mind’s ability to think, then it definitely helps you to perform under pressure. These days even when things don’t all go to plan, I can come back the next day in the right space to deal with them.

Have you introduced these ideas in your workplace?

Yes. We engaged a coach last year to help us socialise ideas around soft skills like communications that no-one likes talking about, but everyone knows are important. I think it’s about forming deeper relationships with people so you’re not just saying – ‘here’s what I want you to do today.’

Being aware of my thinking has definitely helped me manage my team better. For example, I’m better at communicating how I’m feeling with them. I can say, ‘look yesterday wasn’t that flash, there was a bit going on’. One of the things I’m learning is to manage change you’ve got to keep delegating and growing your team so they can take more responsibility.

You’re a strong supporter of Farmstrong aren’t you?

I think Farmstrong’s ideas around wellbeing are definitely filtering through the industry. Getting through a drought’s not easy, getting through a wet spring’s not easy, dealing with inflation or under-staffing isn’t easy. People are realising that it’s all about looking after your brain and body so you can perform at your best and get through these challenges.

You seem to have a real passion for learning.

Yes, I’m a bit of a geek. I love learning new things. I did a Kelloggs, I did a Nuffield and now I’m involved in a sustainability panel. I joined because I realised I’m just one farmer and I can only influence a few farmers around me and that’s it. Being part of the panel means I can reach 9,000 farmers and get more people thinking about these issues.

How do you find time for it all?

It’s a work in progress [laughs]. It’s tricky to get the balance right, so you still have enough time for family and don’t over-burden your team because you’re off farm doing things which are interesting, but not necessarily building the balance sheet.

But I’m passionate about the industry and I like to give back and get involved in initiatives that are going to be good for our sector. Anything that keeps you learning, helps your thinking.

Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and their families cope with the ups and downs of farming. To find out what works for you, check out

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