Farmers face elevated health risks

Sixty per cent of 2500 farmers participating in a Dairy Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Programme have elevated blood pressure and the majority are overweight.

Don Jolly has his blood pressure taken by Gytha Lancaster of the New Zealand Institute of Rural Health, at the Farmers’ Forum conference.

New Zealand Institute of Rural Health’s business manager Brent Nielsen says the programme, Funded by DairyNZ and the Primary Growth Partnership, has been running for four years.

It aims to gauge physical and emotional wellbeing of farmers throughout NZ by hosting a series of tests at DairyNZ discussion group days, industry training events and conferences, including last month’s DairyNZ Farmers’ Forum at Mystery Creek.

There the Health Check Pit Stops measure body mass index, based on weight and waist measurement, and check blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol.

“We do have concerns about cardiovascular disease among farmers and measure both Body Mass Index and waists because the problem is not just the amount of weight carried, but where it is carried,” says Brent.

“The majority of farmers we measured have a reading above the World Health Organisation recommendation.”

While the percentage of those with health risk factors is high, what’s pleasing is the number prepared to do something about it.

“When we identify farmers we believe to be at risk, we ask if we can follow up with them and of those who agree, 46 per cent have gone to their GP, engaged in active weight loss programmes or made conscious decisions to improve their diet and exercise regime,” says Brent.

Less exercise
Brent says the role of farm owners is changing from hands-on to administration, farms are getting bigger; and there’s more mechanisation, seeing farmers becoming less active than they used to be.

“Farmers owners are getting older and also have ready access to red meat and milk, which are good foods, but in moderation.”

Farmers are also asked questions to assess their attention to health and safety on-farm and their emotional wellbeing.

Assessing stress levels among farmers is important, says Brent, given suicide rates are 60 per cent higher in rural than in urban areas. “We had wondered if farmers would be prepared to discuss their stress levels but most are happy to do so.

“Many say the farmer social networks are not as strong as they used to be and there is also less social interaction.”

Brent says it is normally a combination of factors that raise stress levels.

“Typically, it’s not just one factor but may be relationships with staff combined with tough climatic conditions – like drought or wet weather. It could be worries about feed shortages, animal health issues, and financial pressures.

“Farmers are not as good as they should be at seeking help when under stress, which is why it is good to see rural support networks being established and more willingness to talk about issues.”

Wearing helmets when operating farm bikes is increasing but farmers are not so good at protecting themselves from the sun, by wearing sun hats, covering up and using sunscreen – nor are they diligent in having regular skin checks.

Brent says when the programme was being designed, there were concerns farmers might be worried about privacy, given tests are not carried out in clinics.

“However, it seems most farmers are quite happy to share their results with others at the same events,” says Brent.

“Farmers are used to knowing the numbers relating to their cows’ health – but they don’t typically know their own numbers. We found they like having their own numbers.

“I really admire DairyNZ for running this programme and seeking long-term results in looking after dairy farmers.”

Brent says for decades the industry has focused on animal and pasture health and now it’s time to improve the wellbeing of farmers’ biggest asset – themselves.


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