Sam and wife Jo are fifth-generation farmers in Swannanoa near Rangiora, north Canterbury. They converted their 1400ha sheep, beef and cropping family farm to dairying 11 years ago, now running 3000 Kiwi-Cross across three dairy units.

That’s a big undertaking, and so was Sam’s journey back to wellbeing.

“About eight years ago, I stopped being able to function,” says Sam. “I just wanted to withdraw from people. I struggled to get going every day. Jo was starting to say, ‘things are not great here; you’re not much fun to be around’.”

Workload pressures and his own “over-active inner critic” had slowly been dragging him down. Finally, with his wife’s support, Sam talked to his doctor.

Off-farm, Sam, Jo, Chloe (10) and Ruby (7) enjoy school and sports activities, and water-skiing near Jo’s family bach at Wanaka.

“You say to yourself, ‘that’s not me, that’s for somebody else, I’ll be fine’. But then one day I Googled ‘depression’ and Sir John Kirwan’s name came up. As I read through the symptoms, I thought, ‘that’s probably what’s happening here’.”

These days it’s farming’s increased complexity, regulatory compliance and social issues that can get Sam down.

However, now he knows the warning signs to look for, how to keep on an even keel, and how to support his team’s wellbeing, including focused rostering and time off-farm.

“It’s the sheer intensity of it: having to justify and record everything, sometimes across multiple recording platforms and with different requirements from different regulators.

“We always wanted to farm well and do the right thing, but when you’re so worried about the paper trail, you lose focus on being innovative and it gets in the way of doing things better.”

With better-managed wellbeing, Sam’s reconnected with what he loved about farming in the first place.

“It’s in the family, in the blood: growing things, looking after cows and a patch of land, bringing our family up, and enjoying what working on the farm can offer.

“As for managing depression, you’re not on your own. Don’t be scared to talk to others about it. It’s surprising how many other people are feeling the same way. There’s plenty of help out there – you’ve just got to ask for it.”

Sam's tips

  • Be honest about what’s going on in your head: talk to friends and family about it.
  • Try to concentrate on what you can control.
  • Focus on diet, exercise, sleep, social interactions and breaks.

Talking Dairy podcast 51: Mental health: 'Don't be afraid to open up'

Overwhelmed by workload pressure, self-doubt and a fear of what others expected of him, fifth-generation farmer Sam Spencer-Bower stopped being able to function. It took six months before his wife – and Sir John Kirwan – helped convince him to get help. Sam joins us to share his mental health journey: the underlying causes, learning to talk about it, and the skills he’s developed to cope with the stresses of the job.

Visit dairynz.co.nz/wellbeing for more farmer stories, tools, podcasts, and contact info to get help if you need it.

Page last updated:

22 Jun 2023