Farmers are starting to take a greater interest in looking after themselves and their health, amid concerns the dairy crisis is taking a huge toll on farming families.
The National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH) has been fielding additional calls at its Hamilton centre.
It has also been hosting special forums in farming districts in Victoria affected by the cut in dairy prices, as well as undertaking awareness programs at agricultural shows.
“We’ll be seeing a couple of hundred farmers over a couple of days and there’s a genuine interest in their health, wellbeing and safety,” NCFH director Professor Susan Brumby said.
“I don’t think we would have seen that 10 to 15 years ago.”
According to NCFH research, 60 per cent of farmers suffer from hearing loss and 40 per cent suffer “moderate to severe body pain, yet describe themselves as really well”, Ms Brumby said.
Since 2002, the NCFH has been working to change farmer attitudes.
It works with Deakin University and the Western District Health Service to educate farmers, as well as giving health professionals the tools they need to deal with rural-specific issues.
Together they also undertake research into the physical and mental health hazards farmers face, such as dealing with chemicals, potentially dangerous and loud equipment, injuries, poor diet and isolation.
All of the staff at the NCFH have a rural background, either having grown up on a farm or having experienced working in regional areas.
Nurse Tam Phillips leads the centre’s Agrisafe clinic, which takes a hands-on approach to monitoring farmers’ ongoing health and advising on safety and risk prevention.
Farmers get on board research project
The calloused hands of Peter McInnes sometimes prove tough going for Ms Phillips as she tries to prick the skin on his fingers to draw blood that will be used for a range of tests, including testing for chemical exposure.
“They are interested in knowing what agrichemicals are actually doing to their system and what effect they’re doing on their health,” she said.
“So it wasn’t hard to encourage them to come along and be part of the research project.
“But what we have noticed is as the research project has developed they’ve become really keen.”
Every month Mr McInnes visits the temporary clinic set up in Lake Bolac to take part in the program, which also tests his lung capacity and other factors that might contribute to ill-health.
“So for this test would you say for the majority of time you haven’t worn the respirator at the air seeder level, so you’ve been exposed to dust?” Ms Phillips asked.
“Yeah, and I’ve been filling the truck as well,” Mr McInnes explained.
He uses chemicals to treat his lambs as well as pesticides, insecticides and herbicides for the crops he grows.
The blood test readings indicated he had had a “high exposure” to chemical dust, so Ms Phillips talked him through using additional protective equipment.
Health problems can become isolating for farmers
The clinics ensure the farmers are thinking about their health on a regular basis, but it is also a chance for the farmers to interact with each other, and exchange tales from the farm and their health.
Bridie Tierney, 25, is new to the Agrisafe program. She works full-time as an agronomist with rural services company Elders, as well as running sheep on a 400-acre property near Nareen with her sister.
“Eye opening,” she said of her first session with Ms Phillips.
“When you’re getting the drench ready we probably should know that we need to use masks, but we really need to use masks.”
One of the key research projects revealed hearing loss sometimes affected mental health, because of a tendency by hearing-affected farmers to isolate themselves.
Often partners were also affected by hearing loss and did not know it.
“In that social context of working together, living together — an economic and emotional relationship — both people having hearing loss had quite a profound effect on withdrawal in social situations,” Ms Brumby said.
“Because when they both had the hearing loss, they didn’t realise how loud their machinery was or that radio in the car, so sometimes the damage was being exacerbated.”
‘We’d look silly if we didn’t take more care’
The centre’s future was under a cloud, but a $4-million boost in the recent Victorian Government budget has secured the current programs.
By reducing further risk and highlighting the isolation issues, Ms Brumby said the centre was able to improve both the physical and mental health of some farmers.
Young farmers like Ms Tierney, who has been around farming her whole life, were part of the shift in attitudes.
“There’s so much awareness now compared to what our parents and our grandparents had before us – they would not have even known what they were doing was not safe,” Ms Tierney said.
“Whereas we do now, so we we’d probably be a little bit silly if we didn’t take a lot more care.”