Farmers catching waves in Gisborne

A Netflix documentary about the healing powers of salt water was the catalyst for a hugely successful programme to get Gisborne farmers off the farm and onto surfboards.
Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Surfing for Farmers is the brainchild of Gisborne-based AgFirst farm consultant Stephen Thomson who was inspired to launch the programme after watching the documentary “Resurface”. The documentary showed how surfing helped heal American war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Stephen says the one line in the documentary that particularly resonated with him was when the war vet described how he used to wake up every day wanting to shoot himself – now he wakes up wanting to go surfing.

A keen surfer himself – Stephen knew how much better he always felt after being in the salt water and was determined to give local farmers the opportunity to get off-farm once a week and experience that same feeling of well-being.

Last spring, he rang around local businesses seeking financial support and within three days had $11,000 with which to set the ball rolling.

The word was spread and on the first night, 25 farmers and supporters turned up to either try their hand at surfing- or offer support and enjoy the barbeque and refreshments at the end of session.

Since then they have had at least 40 farmers, farm staff and farming families turn up every Tuesday to try their hand at catching waves.

Stephen gives much of the credit to the local Gisborne Boardriders Club who have provided boards, wetsuits and coaching at a minimal cost to allow farmers to experience the joy of surfing.

Stephen says while there is a lot of conversation about mental health in the rural sector, this is not being matched by actions-programmes that actually took farmers away from the farm and putting them in a completely different yet supportive environment.

He says at discussion groups or community events the conversation invariably turns to farming, but after surfing the conversation is about catching-or not-catching waves and rides are re-lived.

Surfing for Farmers has attracted people from all ages- from school leavers to people in their sixties and is a good mix of men and women, farmers, farm staff and farm support professionals.

Stephen says the focus of his group is on hands-on farmers, but he also has people who just turn up for the barbeque and camaraderie at the end of the surfing session.

He will run the Tuesday night sessions until the end of March- which is when the funding will run out- but is keen to run the programme next summer- and maybe expand it to other regions. 

Stephen says he has been very grateful from the support of local companies and organisations who have made Surfing for Farmers possible.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand gave money to the programme and Eastern North Island Extension Manager Mark Harris says the initiative fits with the organisations values and strategy about supporting vibrant farming communities and looking after farmers through Health and safety.

Mark says 'Surfing for Farmers' gets farmers off the farm for a couple of hours over summer when typically, they are under a lot of pressure.

“It’s really important that they take a couple of hours off-farm to chill out – and don’t get too insular.

“It doesn’t matter whether it is surfing or playing golf so long as they just get outside the farmgate.”

Other sponsors of Surfing for Farmers are Chrisp and Davidson,PGG Wrightson,Williams Transport, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, Rural support Trust, Whangara Angus, Bayleys, Paringahau Station, Rabobank, Ballance Agri Nutrients, and ABC Design.