By Ted O’Kane, Goulburn
As featured in The Country Web 2017 Annual
To a casual observer, southern NSW beef and lamb producer, Michael Shannon, would seem to be riding high on a-once-in-a-lifetime wave of good seasons, high prices and great opportunities beyond the farm gate.
Add the recent birth of his first child, the opportunity to take part in a MLA Young Food Innovators program study tour of China in 2016 and an impressive list of personal and career achievements in a few short years, the picture looks even brighter.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. While Michael had successfully sorted through some challenging family issues to take over the reins of the farm business; was well advanced on a comprehensive farm development plan; and was busy exploring the potential of value chain beef marketing, underneath it all he was bearing an increasingly heavy burden.
He says that burden has been significantly lifted since taking part in a workshop for male farmers, organised though DPI in May this year. But he knows to remain effective in business and relationships, he needs to stay attuned to the stressors around him and his emotional responses to them.
‘I am still dealing with things that have gone on but I’m slowly but surely pulling myself out of the hole.’
At 31, he has achieved a great deal to be running a 1600 ha beef and lamb enterprise, Lowanna Properties, in the idyllic Cathcart district, a rich soiled, high rainfall grazing region between Bombala and the South Coast. In partnership with his mother Lyn and wife Alice, Michael takes pride in securing the future of a land aggregation that includes the original homestead block of his much admired grandfather, Laurie Platts, who as a descendant of the early pioneers of the south-east region, had established the highly acclaimed Lowanna Hereford stud in 1959.
But while families can be a great source of pride and inspiration, they can equally bring frustration and heartache, particularly when it involves family farms. Having returned to the farm business in 2007, Michael seized the opportunity with gusto, embarking on an ambitious redevelopment program after 12 years of drought. The partnership sold some land, bought extra blocks and had invested heavily in subdivision fencing and pasture reclamation of otherwise productive country over-run with tussock.
Michael was energised by the challenge ahead but, as is often the case, life became both more rewarding and more complicated. In 2013, Alice moved from Canberra to be with Michael and they were married in 2014.
‘That was the good part but things became more complex when my parents separated in 2015,’ he recalled. ‘We had built up some debt developing and buying more land and because of a few other expenses, we were feeling a bit of financial pressure.’
Relationship breakdowns also require property settlements and after a predictably difficult negotiation and divorce process, Michael’s father left the business in 2016. In the meantime, Michael and Alice had welcomed Sophie into the business in early 2015.
‘And just for good measure, we decided to renovate the house we had bought on a new farm block, which was probably not the best timing,’ he observed wryly.
‘It was all a bit too much. I was exhausted and not effectively managing the business with so much other stuff happening.’
The combination of family stress and baby induced sleep deprivation was taking its toll on Michael personally and his relationship with Alice.
Within the emotional fog, Michael felt both anger with the circumstances around him and disappointment with himself as a husband.
‘I really struggled before, and going to the Tune Up For Farmers (TUFF) workshop, but once I was there it was a weight off my shoulders.
‘In Alice’s last trimester of pregnancy, I should’ve been a supportive husband. But I wasn’t supportive. I wasn’t really there as a husband.
‘Emotionally, I was drained after all the stuff with my parents. I just felt: ‘When is it going to end’. Alice just said: ‘You need to work things out’. So I decided to see a doctor.’
For Michael, this was a turning point but even with professional help and the conclusion of the property settlement in late 2016, the emotional legacy of the family dispute and on-going farm responsibilities were still affecting his health and wellbeing.
So earlier this year when he was invited to take part in a Tune Up For Farmers (TUFF) pilot workshop for rural men at Bega, Michael felt the timing was right for him and, despite some reservations, it was an opportunity he shouldn’t miss.
While justifying his participation as a way to develop a stronger relationship with the South Coast Farmers Network, a group working to develop a beef producers’ cooperative that also helped organise the TUFF workshop, Michael sensed the experience would help him on a much deeper level.
‘I really struggled before, and going to the TUFF workshop. I was going through a pretty difficult time so I had to take a deep breath and just give it a go,’ he recalled.
‘Once I was there, it was a weight off my shoulders. It was great to sit around with the other blokes and hear their stories. I think it was the openness, to see tough-looking blokes and realise they were a bit broken too. And being able to get some things off my chest in a different domain, that was really powerful.’
While conceding to being ‘really exhausted’ after the first of the two-day workshop, Michael was convinced of its value and returned the next day enthusiastically relating the great discussion it had generated with his wife Alice overnight.
‘I think where TUFF really helped me was giving me an opportunity to compartmentalise my life and put things in perspective. That simple life-wheel exercise showed me where I was putting my time and how I was prioritising my energy and efforts between farm, family and fitness; they all run in parallel,’ he said.
‘It really showed me what I was neglecting and these were the things that were most important to me.’
Having Alice also do his life-wheel for him, and accurately identifying the same gaps, helped him recognise what he had to do to realign his life and who could best provide that support.
‘I’ve started running again and working in the gym we have in the garage—also cutting back on the cigarettes. Alice can come and do this with me sometimes so we are able to do things together and that’s better for our relationship.
‘The TUFF workshop really resolved a lot of things in my mind that I probably would’ve needed to get some help about, and while I wouldn’t rule out getting professional help if I need it, I feel like I am in a much better place now.’
Timely life changes necessary and welcome
For Alice Shannon, the changes her stressed and over-worked husband, Michael, has made since attending the Tune Up For Farmers (TUFF) workshop have been both significant and welcome.
Working full-time as a teacher in nearby Bombala and well aware of the complexities of modern ‘fast-paced’ life, Alice was increasingly concerned at the toll difficult family and farm business challenges were taking on her husband’s health and general wellbeing.
‘After a few emotionally charged years on the farm, succession planning, the divorce of Michael’s parents, coupled with a renovation, both in full-time work and a baby on the way it was a bit too much to handle,’ Alice recalled.
‘Michael really felt all the pressures and was struggling to find the right work-life balance, which is so often a problem among farming families.’
‘Michael was more willing to give up on hobbies, exercise, friends and family time before he would give up on anything farm related. Hearing from your wife that you need to make times for hobbies, friends, exercise doesn’t always work. I felt he needed to hear it from someone else,’ said Alice.
‘The TUFF program really gave Michael the opportunity to hear from other like- minded people about their situations and how they dealt with all the ups and downs one experiences through life.
‘With the current statistics on mental health issues in farmers at an all time high we really need to promote the value of programs based around sharing our stories. I was always taught ‘a problem shared, is a problem halved’ and I believe the TUFF program really valued this philosophy while also having some reflective activities to help equip the participants with strategies to ensure they are mentally at their best.’
The clarity TUFF provided for Michael on how stressed and unbalanced his life had become has given him the motivation to make some relatively simple and effective changes, Alice said.
‘Since the program he has been actively working on ensuring that his work life isn’t consuming his personal life. We have days where it’s ‘tools down’ and off we go to explore a new place or catch up with friends. Having the ability to compartmentalise our lives is so important for keeping up in today’s fast paced environment.’
Tune Up For Farmers (TUFF)
Ted O’Kane, DPI Rural Resilience Officer
m: 0427 781 514