Dealing with hard times
Dairy farmer Dylan Ditchfield reflects on what got him through his personal challenge with depression.
"As a young 23-year-old fresh out of Massey University, I got a good job managing a 500-cow farm in Te Puke. My second season on-farm was gold – great weather, good grass growth, everything was going smoothly. For a while it was like I could do no wrong.
My third season was a different story. We had a really hard winter and things got difficult. I didn’t have any experience managing a farm in tough conditions. I took everything on my own shoulders and I was hard on myself for poor decisions that I made.
I’d climbed the ladder to a point where I didn’t want to step down, but I knew I wasn’t doing my job like I should be and I felt really guilty.
I got myself into a hole where I didn’t want to expose any emotion. I didn’t go and talk to people because I felt embarrassed and responsible for what was happening on the farm.
I couldn’t follow a routine anymore, I was all over the show. I was just living day by day. I was extremely anxious, especially when making decisions. I was always tired and lethargic, yet I couldn’t sleep so I’d go to bed late. I would completely nut-off at staff and that was really out of character for me.
My own high standards kept hammering in my head – I like doing something once and doing it well. When my performance wasn’t up to par on the farm, I really struggled to accept that. I’d go out and work twice as hard to try and combat some of the things that weren’t right, which would result in more poor decisions.
It was a vicious cycle and I didn’t know how to get myself out of it – I didn’t know what I was going through at the time.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have got help in the early stages. Sometimes it’s not until you go through depression that you really know what it’s like.
At the end of my third season, my wife Sheree and I decided to go overseas for 18 months. To be on the other side of the world with no responsibility removed a lot of the pressure I was putting on myself.
It took me a good 12 months before I got my confidence back and I started to reflect on what I’d been through. It taught me I’m not bulletproof and there are certain things I can’t control.
When I had depression I should have got more help, but at the time I thought I was pretty tough. I had a supportive partner and a good life – so it wasn’t something that could happen to me right? Wrong.
Depression is not something you have control over, it can happen to anyone for any number of reasons.
Reflection and learning
After returning from our stint overseas, Sheree and I moved to the South Island and continued to grow our farming business. Four years later we were operating a large scale operation, milking 1300 cows and trying to form a farming operation that was sustainable – and we were struggling.
I was running around like a blue ass fly and we decided something had to change. We decided a smaller-scale, 500-cow operation was a more sustainable option for us. We wanted to make dairy farming work, but not at the cost of our health and happiness.
Dylan's resolutions for staying healthy...
Strike the balance
We hired a business advisor and received mentoring. We developed a vision and values for our business – things we wanted to live and work by every day.
Striking that balance is an ongoing challenge. We’re mindful of where we invest our time and plan carefully. It comes down to our life stage, but at the moment it’s split evenly between family, farming and community. It’s about looking at your passions and investing time in what’s important.
We celebrate success and keep health and wellbeing a priority. At the moment we’re trialling an idea for a couple of weeks where we’re ‘unplugged’ from all electronic devices from six-thirty in the evening to seven the next morning. It’s not easy, and it’s fair to say our three teenage children aren’t fans, but it’s a good way to connect and see the result of a good night’s sleep.
Focus on our people
We also made people the focus of our business. If people on our farm are happy and things are working well, it makes a big difference to our own health and wellbeing. In order to employ people we need to be able to support them. To us, this means coaching and mentoring to help them grow, having a vision and values to work by and having systems in place that help them to do their job efficiently.
We put time into training staff to help them get to the spot where they can take the next step in their career if they want to. Each staff member has an area they are in charge of – usually it’s a strength and something they can really own.
Our job descriptions are detailed with clear expectations and we have performance reviews and meetings on a regular basis. Often the big problems stem when no-one’s communicating. If you talk about the hard stuff on a regular basis it becomes normal.
Talk about it with others
Talking about depression is important and it’s going to take an industry-wide effort to recognise it and make sure support systems are in place.
Many farmers will go through this kind of thing. If you do go through it, you need to get help – it’s okay, it’s not a bad thing. You don’t need to feel guilty about it, it just happens. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the pecking order or if you’re tough, it can still happen to you.
The sooner you open up and start talking about it, the sooner you can get support and help. I can tell you from experience, it’s worth getting through the other side.