Maddison Smith wanted to appear in the calendar as she’s been personally affected by mental health issues and is a big supporter of the Naked Farmer as a result. Picture: Emma Jayne Industry
Maddison Smith wanted to appear in the calendar as she’s been personally affected by mental health issues and is a big supporter of the Naked Farmer as a result. Picture: Emma Jayne Industry

Farmers strip down to help rural mental health

MADDISON Smith is a fourth generation sugar cane farmer from the Mackay region.

She's normally found working hard on the farm, but she'll soon appear in a calendar as a nude model.

She's one of many farmers who have agreed to strip off as part of a push to promote mental health issues and prevent suicide in rural and regional Australia.

The movement was started by Ben Brooksby, a fifth generation farmer. Most days, the 25-year-old can be found working alongside his father and grandfather on the family farm in regional Victoria.

But he's just returned home from a trip across Australia collecting photographs of nearly naked farmers.

Mr Brooksby is the founder of The Naked Farmer, a project which uses photographs of scantily-clad, everyday farmers to highlight mental health issues in the agriculture industry.

The project is based on the belief that in the same way that it takes courage to take your clothes off, it takes courage to talk about mental health.

These women are farmers from Mullewa in Western Australia who worked together for their image. Picture: Emma Jayne Industry
These women are farmers from Mullewa in Western Australia who worked together for their image. Picture: Emma Jayne Industry

The idea for the project followed a harvest shoot in December 2016. Emma Cross, of Emma Jane Industry, had been photographing the family's harvest for years and suggested something different. The result was a shot of Mr Brooksby in a grain truck wearing nothing but his boots, his hat and some strategically-placed lentils.

Mr Brooksby's light bulb moment followed a few months later when he was sowing those same lentils for the next season. "Long hours on the tractor means plenty of thinking time" he told news.com.au.

"I thought I'd start an Instagram page dedicated to 'naked farmers', to educate people in non-rural areas about where their food and fibre comes from," he said.

To Mr Brooksby's surprise, The Naked Farmer quickly generated a significant following with numerous farmers willing to be photographed in nothing but their boots and hats. "I had so many farmers at my fingertips," he said.

"I really wanted to give back and do something good with it. That's when we decided to put together a 2018 Calendar to raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service's mental health unit."

 

It is a cause close to Mr Brooksby's heart. His family has been impacted by suicide and he lived with anxiety himself as a child and teenager.

"Even the simple things, like going into a clothes shop or to a concert I could never do," he recalled. "When I was 18, I remember having to do the grocery shopping on my own. Every time I tried to go through the checkout, I would freak out and start having an attack. I had to head down the dog food aisle, ditch the trolley and run out."

He was forced to deal with his anxiety after his family lost their home in a fire in August 2015. "My family gave me the task of being in charge of the rebuild, something I knew I couldn't do," he said.

"No way could I make phone calls or go into shops."

But not wanting to let his family down, he took on the challenge and surprised himself with what he achieved. "I know from personal experience that your state of mental health can be turned around through positive change, even when the worst happens," Mr Brooksby said.

This is certainly an issue which needs attention.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service released a research paper in 2017 which revealed that remote Australians die from suicide, on average, at twice the rate of those living in cities.

However, these Australians were only able to access mental health services at a fifth of the rate of city people - and farmers are among those most at risk.

New Zealander Thomas Gray who is currently working on Kalyeeda cattle station in northern Western Australia wanted to lend his support to the project. Picture: Emma Jayne Industry
New Zealander Thomas Gray who is currently working on Kalyeeda cattle station in northern Western Australia wanted to lend his support to the project. Picture: Emma Jayne Industry

"People living in rural and remote communities can suffer similar mental health concerns to those living in the city," Tessa Caton, program manager at the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, told news.com.au.

"However, they often endure much longer periods of stress, particularly in times of adversity such as drought, bushfires and floods, which increases their likelihood of developing mood disorders like anxiety or depression."

Access is a major factor. Unlike city residents, remote Australians aren't able to access clinical services like GPs, psychologists and emergency facilities quickly when needed.

Mr Brooksby views the work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service as vital and considered it a "no-brainer" to support them as they try to address this issue of access by providing mental health teams to rural and remote residents across Australia.

"RFDS works with local health providers and communities to develop solutions that are appropriate to the communities and the issues they face," Scott Chapman, chief executive of RFDS Victoria, said. "We also partner with government and other organisations to deliver mental health programs in times of crisis."

Photographer Emma Cross and Ben Brooksby have travelled around Australia for the project. They’re hoping to raise a lot of money and awareness of mental health issues in rural Australia.
Photographer Emma Cross and Ben Brooksby have travelled around Australia for the project. They’re hoping to raise a lot of money and awareness of mental health issues in rural Australia.

The awareness raised by the Naked Farmer is equally important. Mr Chapman believes this awareness is critical to increasing the community's ability to respond when someone was in need, ensuring people know how and where to access support.

And awareness goes a long way to overcoming stigma which may be of particular concern in small communities where everyone knows each other.

However, these communities also have much to offer. "Rural communities are known for their ability to pull together and support each other, particularly through tough times," said Ms Caton. "Mental illness should be no different."

The Naked Farmer's goal of getting people talking is key. "It's okay to talk about your mental health and it's important to reach out for help because while mental health problems are common, they are also very treatable," she said.

Mr Brooksby is hopeful that the tide is turning. "I believe this stigma around talking about mental health can change and I think it is changing slowly," he said.

And he is quick to share the credit. "The people out there liking, sharing, and sending in photos - they are the ones making the difference. They are the naked farmers."

 

• To support The Naked Farmer, see their website, where you can buy products or simply donate to the cause.


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