FARM 23 - Gateway Centre's S.H.E.D Talks aim to connect farmers, improve mental health
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
For over a decade, the Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health has been working towards researching and addressing health concerns in rural Ontario; its new S.H.E.D. Talks project is directly focusing on farmers.
S.H.E.D. stands for “Sustaining Healthy Farms Through Empowerment and Dedication” and the roots of the project come from work done by the Men’s Shed Association of Manitoba, a peer-run group that provides a safe and welcoming place for men to work on meaningful projects.
Gateway launched S.H.E.D. Talks in Huron on Nov. 4, 2022 with its first event. Now, the centre hopes to host subsequent S.H.E.D. Talk events in Grey, Bruce and Perth Counties later this spring, in addition to hosting another event in Huron.
“No one knows the farm better than the farmer themselves, which makes it difficult for them to try to explain to others what it’s like being on the farm 24/7. This is why it’s so important that we try to create this farmer-to-farmer connection, so that they are able to lean on each other for support and conversation, which is exactly what we are trying to do with S.H.E.D. Talks,” said Becky Higgs, Gateway research assistant and an active Master’s of Counselling Psychology student, in a press release issued late last year.
Higgs spoke to The Citizen about the project, which is near and dear to her heart, and the early success the centre has found with local farmers, politicians and farm organizations. She said the November event is only the beginning of what the centre hopes will be a continued and sustained effort to keep farmers meeting on a regular basis going forward, hosting S.H.E.D. Talks among themselves.
The concept, Higgs said, is that Gateway would host initial S.H.E.D. Talks and connect local farmers and farm organizations with one another in the hopes that some of the participants themselves would then take the baton and run with it, working to host the next monthly S.H.E.D. Talk, subsequently passing it along to another participant and so on.
Higgs says she became a part of the project in the summer of 2022 when she took on an active role in the research and planning for what would eventually become the S.H.E.D. Talks project. She conducted some of the foundational research and then reached out to local farmers and farm organizations to set the groundwork for the project.
A cornerstone of that research, she said, was to establish the main stressors facing farmers in Huron County. The top concern, of course, was financial, with farmers always being concerned about the viability of their operation. Also on the list was interpersonal relationships with family members and the isolation of farming, followed by the stress and anxiety of being so dependent on the weather and the sheer workload of the job and the labour shortages being experienced not just in the farm industry, but across the country right now.
Once the path forward was clear, Higgs and the centre worked on pulling the event together. Higgs said there were about 25 farmers in attendance for the launch, which was held at the centre’s headquarters in Goderich and included a breakfast for those who attended. Gateway President Gwen Devereaux, Huron-Bruce MP Ben Lobb, Huron County Warden Glen McNeil, Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn, Huron County Director of Economic Development Vicki Lass and Margaret Vincent from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture were all in attendance for the launch event.
After the dignitaries brought greetings, it was Higgs who provided an introduction to the project, stressing the importance of building connections and empowering the agricultural community, while reducing social isolation and lessening the daily stressors experienced by farmers.
The guest speaker, Tom Melady, really opened up the event for those in attendance. Melady, who is a retired Huron County dairy farmer, spoke about his own experiences on the farm and dealing with the challenges associated with a life in agriculture
Higgs said it brings tears to her eyes to think back to Melady’s presentation and how it was received by those in attendance. For him to have the courage to detail the challenges he has faced and endured and for farmers in attendance to hear him and realize that they are not alone was a real pivotal moment in the whole process that gave Higgs a lot of hope for the future of S.H.E.D. Talks.
The event concluded with an address by Josh Groot, who spoke about succession planning, which is another great stressor in the lives of many area farmers, and Margaret Vincent from the OFA, who spoke about the Farmers’ Wellness Initiative, the Guardian Network and the In The Know program.
As someone who has been involved with the project since its inception, really, Higgs said she was so pleased to see it come to fruition and has been impressed with how well received it has been by farmers. She said that Melady’s address really gave farmers permission to share their stories and discuss their own struggles.
In the months that have followed, a number of farmers and representatives from farm organizations have reached out to Gateway, asking about the next event or perhaps hosting one of their own.
The next steps, Higgs said, is to roll out the program in Grey, Bruce and Perth Counties in the coming months, hosting launch events there in the hopes that others will then step up and want to host their own S.H.E.D. Talks, on a regular basis, in the months that follow. She says she has discussed options with those who have expressed an interest in hosting events themselves, with the size of the group ranging from between 10 and 20 people to an event for up to 50 people.
“Our farmers are the most important business people driving the local, rural economy here and feeding our community,” said Devereaux in a press release issued after the November, 2022 launch event. “Keeping farmers healthy should be the number-one priority for our community.”
As the project moves ahead, Higgs said it has been gratifying to see its success and to see farmers opening up and connecting with one another. She grew up on a farm and saw firsthand how isolating some of the work can be, so she’s happy to be helping break down those walls through the Gateway Centre and the S.H.E.D. Talks project.