It’s the big dry, but farmers are getting wet
It’s the summer of 2020 and as concern over the impact of Coronavirus related issues on exports grows higher, the levels of water supplies around the country are getting worryingly lower. There is always something to put pressure on those working in the rural sector, says Stephen Thomson, so anything that helps release the stress has got to be good.
That is why Thomson in 2018 founded Surfing For Farmers, an organisation that over the summer months brings farmers together to go for a surf – coaching and gear provided – followed by a barbecue for a bit of social relief.
That was in Gisborne and that founding branch is still going strong. Meanwhile, SFF has sprung up in four other regions, broadening their reach and bringing more rural folk – including horticulturists – into the mix.
Thomson, himself the son of a farmer and orchardist, is a former rural consultant and now real estate agent to the sector, so he says he understands the pressures on all sectors of the community.
“That’s why we’re so stoked to see Surfing For Farmers expand and evolve… we see all farmers as growers of food so we’re there for anyone, whether they are involved in arable farming, sheep and beef, or whatever,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter what part of the rural sector farmers work in, they’re all under pressure and they can all get a bit socially or geographically isolated.”
The idea for Surfing For Farmers was germinated in the winter of 2018, when Thomson was watching a Netflix documentary about an injured and traumatised United States Marine Corps veteran who used surfing as lifesaving therapy.
As a keen surfer,thomson knew how much better he always felt after being in the salt water, and was determined to share that sense of well-being with local farmers.
“I was aware of the stress they come under and wondered if it could work for them,” he says,“so I put out a few feelers and we soon had a dozen sponsors on board.”
Thomson says he was pleasantly surprised at how quickly sponsors came on board, and even more delighted to see a strong turn-out of between 25 and 50 rural surfers every week from day one.
“Some had experience but most had never surfed, so getting that support from local surf clubs – Gisborne Boardriders, in our case – has been vital.
“All the sponsors could see what I was trying to achieve and jumped on without hesitation. And not only did they contribute financially, they also turned up, helped out, spread the word (and even dabbled in a bit of surfing themselves).
“Watching the excitement levels week-in, week-out, has been a blast.the farmers have proved to themselves that they can actually step off the farm and do something for themselves, and that’s an amazing outcome.”
A year after it was founded, Surfing For Farmers (Gisborne) had its post-winter relaunch in late November 2019 to catch the summer waves, and within a couple of weeks the Mt Maunganui branch kicked off.
In early January another branch was started in Christchurch, quickly followed by another bunch of rural surfers – this time based at South Canterbury’s Gore Bay.
By the third week of February a fourth branch had been set up in Waihi, again with boards and wetsuits provided, and with
qualified surf coaches from Katikati College supplying the expertise.
And Thomson says the wave is building… there are hopes of setting up new branches for the summer of 2020–2021 to make sure farmers around the country get to experience the cleansing benefits of the ocean.
As all branches are supported by local boardriders’ groups that provide gear and coaching, this means surfers of all ages and levels of experience (or the lack thereof) can take part – while the organisers take charge of organising post-surf barbecues.
“Our reward comes in that the farmers keep coming back and they love it,” Thomson says. “They might go into the water feeling a bit under the pump, but they always come out smiling.”
And right now that’s a big win, he adds.
“I’m out there every day so I see first-hand the stress farmers are under; there’s not a lot of rain, and the impact of the Coronavirus on exports means many freezing works aren’t taking any stock, and that’s something horticulturists are going to have to face as their crops come on stream.
“Farmers need to be able to cope with all that, and that’s where we think we can help.”
That aim is why Jack Dustin, who was raised in Papamoa, was involved as a coach when he was living on the East Coast.
Employed by Leaderbrand while he was in Gisborne, Dustin last year moved back to the Bay of Plenty, where he was keen to see a branch started for farmers in his home region.
“After I’d settled in, I rang Stephen and said I’d love to start Surfing For Farmers over here, and he suggested we do it under the same umbrella so there is consistency across the board,” he says.
“Then we heard that Zespri was keen to build on their work around mental health for their growers and they jumped on board as sponsors, so we’ve had this great support from the get-go.”
For his part, Zespri International head of communication and external relations, Michael Fox, says he had seen the success of the Gisborne branch on social media, and upon hearing there was to be a branch based at Mount Maunganui, was keen to get behind it.
“Overall, we’re really proud to be involved with growers, but we are aware that those across the whole primary sector have plenty of stressors in their lives,” adds Zespri communications lead Yannis Naumann. “That’s why we really wanted to be involved in supporting the establishment of Surfing For Farmers here in the Bay of Plenty.”
A lover of watersports since he was a kid, Jack Dustin says he gets a special thrill out of coaching farmers who previously believed themselves to be landlubbers.
“We have farmers coming from nowhere near the sea – one comes from Matamata, for example – just to take some time out for themselves and get into the water,” he says.“the ocean has always been my happy place and to be able to share that and see people get so much value out of it, that’s next level.”
All involved say the worst case scenario is that farmers will go home feeling refreshed after a couple of hours in the surf, followed by a barbecue dinner and maybe even a couple of beers.
The best case scenario? It could help farmers get over challenging humps in their lives and, as Gisborne Boardriders say, enjoy “an awesome opportunity to experience the stoke”.
Meanwhile, as he geared up for yet another fun night at the beach in Gisborne,stephenthomson says he loves how Surfing For Farmers combines a beloved pastime with a powerful support system, and a casual opportunity for networking – for younger farmers, for example, to talk to older hands about how to manage drought or other challenges.
“But to be honest, they mostly talk about the waves they’ve just ridden,” he says, “the surf gets them on this really great buzz.”