Finding out how SA farmers cope with tough times

The vast majority of farmers ‘get by’ on the land even during extended periods of drought – now a Flinders University study intends to find out just how farmers and their families manage.

The National Institute of Labour Studies (NILS) is to conduct a two-year project to examine the experience of farming families and how they work and live in an environment heavily influenced by climate variations.

Funded by the Department of Health (SA), the team of researchers will travel around regional areas of the State between March and May to speak to broad-acre and dairy farmers, as well as their partners and spouses.

Dr Debra King, who will lead the two-year project, said that the researchers are looking to interview a total of 100 farmers from the Central Eyre Peninsula, the Mid North, the River Murray and Lower Lakes corridor, and the Upper South East.

“Each of the regions is slightly different in the kinds of agriculture they do and in the kinds of communities they have,” Dr King said.

Some of the areas routinely experience extended drought; others are less familiar with it.

“NILS is very interested in the relationship between work and health, and this study will bring together how people do their work in periods of high stress and what they draw upon to get them through,” Dr King said.

Dr King, who herself lived and worked on a dairy farm for 15 years, said the research would take a positive approach.

“Farmers go through drought often, and go through bushfires and other crises, and most of them come through these things: we want to know how they get through, and how they get by. What is it that works for them in these circumstances?”

Research into rural communities often focused on problems, including depression and suicide. Dr King said that while collecting this information and providing necessary resources is important, it doesn’t provide a full picture and that “unless we understand both sides of the equation, we’re only getting half the story.”

As well as being interviewed, participants will be asked to fill out a short questionnaire covering basic factual data about age, gender, health and the size of the farm. All participants will remain anonymous and the information is confidential.

Dr King said while everyone on the land had distinctive experiences and coped in their own way, she hoped that the study would yield useful thematic information for a report that would help shape future policy and provide appropriate resources to particular areas.

“There will be policy outcomes for the Department of Health, but we also have the Department of Primary Industry and the SA Farmers’ Federation involved, and they are very keen to inform their work as well,” Dr King said.

She said all of the Flinders research team have either direct experience of farming or strong links with rural communities.

“We know how tough it can be in the country, but we know that most of the farmers are going to get by, one way or another – we’re interested in understanding how.”

Anyone interested in being a part of this project should contact Debra King on (08) 8201 3164 or deb.king@flinders.edu.au

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