A bunch of farmers jumping off their headers and hurling themselves onto pushbikes is proof enough that the Active Farmers program – with its roots in the NSW Riverina – is still kicking mental health goals in the rural sector.
Bushies roaming around town in muddy utes laden with bags of dog food, drums of chemicals, old tyres and flash road bikes is a sight now familiar in country towns throughout the state.
Come March 24-26, the communities of Northern Tasmania will be greeting a few of these lycra-clad lads with open arms and a few stubbies of beer as they play host to the upcoming Ride for Resilience.
Ride for Resilience is a major fundraiser for the Active Farmers charity – the brainchild of 30-year-old Ginny Stevens of Mangoplah, south of Wagga Wagga.
Active Farmers is a not-for-profit organisation that coordinates group exercise classes for farmers and regional families across NSW.
The idea for the program came to Ginny in 2015.
“I was out for a run and I thought, why don’t I combine my interest in health and fitness with my interest in supporting farmers in regional communities?,” she said.
“I began locally, teaching an exercise class around my full-time job.”
Ginny’s goal was to improve the physical and mental health of regional Australians, one fitness class at a time.
But it wasn’t just about getting people moving – it was also about forging connections between individuals and their community.
“If someone doesn’t turn up to training, there’s someone to notice,” Ginny explains.
Nearly six years later, there are now Active Farmers groups in 22 towns and counting, including Grenfell, Wirrinya, Wallendbeen, Stockinbingal, Jugiong, Adelong, across to Crookwell and Collector.
Having grown up on a farm in Tasmania, completing an agricultural science degree and working as a jillaroo in the Northern Territory, Ginny says she can understand why farmers sometimes struggle to keep on top of their physical and mental health.
“They’re often running their operations with as little labour as possible to cut down on costs. They’re often single or two-person operators, and the wife may have a career.
“Mix that in with landholdings that are getting bigger, communities that are getting smaller, new technologies that mean farmers are less active, commodity price risks, seasonal risks… and there’s a lot of things snowballing to cause poor mental health outside of the major cities”.
The goal of Active Farmers is to provide an antidote to some of the stress.
“It’s sort of replacing social tennis because they don’t really do that anymore. We’re not training for the Olympics – the aim is just to exercise, have fun, get off the farm, feel better and drive people to think – oh, and that means my mental health’s improved.”
The result of that has been stronger and more resilient farming communities.
Ginny explains that while communities are keen for mental health support, she’s had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get Active Farmers up and running.
She said finding fitness trainers in regional areas is the biggest challenge of the whole program and they are the key to its success.
The nature of agriculture also means group attendance can fluctuate.
Convincing men to join can also be tricky.
“It’s just physically getting off the farm that’s the problem”, she said.
“They tell me ‘I’m too busy’ and some have never been into fitness in that way – they may have played footy and that’s it, so it’s a bit foreign to them.
“I usually tell them one to two hours per week for yourself is not going to cause your business to fail.
It’s caught on splendidly, staying on course during the COVID pandemic as fitness went online through Zoom classes and the expanded repertoire involving six-week challenges for individual groups, major events such as the Ride for Resilience, Run for Resilience and even Olympic-style games events.
Ginny also offers farming communities workshops on topics like nutrition, first aid, financial management and mindfulness.
One of the keys to her future success, she believes, is her commitment to taking help to where people need it.
“You need to bring it out to smaller communities. People really value it when someone brings a service to them. There may only be 10 or 15 people who attend a workshop, but that doesn’t matter. Those 10 people count.”
People wanting to know more about Active Farmers, their classes and 2022 events should visit their website.