Farmer Bill Hobbs stands in front of a cane field, trees and other paddocks are visible in the background

Heartbreaking harvests that damage the mental health of farmers

For 60 years, sugar cane farmer Bill Hobbs has gotten up at dawn, put on his work boots and got the job done – but this year the boots feel heavier, the first starts are harder and the work never ends. don’t. Finished.

The smile on his face is a mask, covering the deep wound of the most heartbreaking season he has ever known.

Wet weather and a lack of workers made what was already a difficult harvest even more difficult.

“I’ve lived a long time, I’ve spent 60 years growing sugarcane…I think in all that time, this year would probably be the most demoralizing year for sugarcane growers,” Mr. Hobbs said.

And he feared many other farmers would feel the same way.

“They’re talking about the black dog; the black dog is everywhere, because the farmer is just making a strong front,” he said.

Despite their natural resilience, in a year when so much went wrong outside of their control, Mr Hobbs said staying positive pushed them to the limit.

“You can’t be negative or you’ll drown,” he said.

“If you’re stressed about it, it will kill you.”

A year of missed opportunities

Sugar cane growers understand the difficulties. There have been many failed harvests, low prices and difficult weather seasons to overcome.

But this year it’s different.

A field of large sugarcane crop in a field with a sunset in the background.
Despite a good cane harvest this year, growers fear they will not be able to take advantage of high sugar prices.(ABC Tropical North: Melissa Maddison)

Watching a large, healthy crop sit in a paddock unable to be harvested as high sugar prices begged caused many to call it the ‘year of missed opportunities’.

Canegrowers Mackay President Kevin Borg says wet weather, mill performance and labor shortages have all contributed to the difficult season.

“The real gem of this year has been the sugar prices we’ve seen over the past 12 months, it’s a real shining light in the difficulties we’ve had this year,” he said.

“But growers are really concerned about the harvest, [getting] this income.”

With futures prices through 2023 recently hitting between $570 and $660 a tonne, the highest since at least 2019 and from a low of $354 in 2020, Borg says producers can’t take advantage .

“Even though we have a bigger crop and a higher price, I think the cash flow for growers is worse than it was,” he said.

With bills piling up and no income, Mr. Hobbs worries what the financial strain will mean for the mental health of his fellow producers.

“I’ve been farming for a long time, so I always planned to make sure there’s a bit in the lower part of my pocket that I can’t reach and you’ll have to dip in to try and get out,” he said.

“If you’re a young farmer starting out, you’re going to have to talk to your bank manager very friendly, very kindly, because he’s a guy who’s going to have to help you.”

tractor harvesting sugar cane.
Growers say a range of factors beyond their control all contributed to a difficult harvest.(Landline: Courtney Wilson)

Facing disappointment

Dealing with mired paddocks and overwhelmed feelings is part of Mary O’Brien’s daily job.

The founder and CEO of mental health service Are you Bogged Mate? helps rural men manage their well-being.

She said it’s important for farmers who feel discouraged to connect with others, especially those who may be in similar positions.

“We are certainly not alone in this when we go through a difficult time, even if sometimes it feels like it,” she said.

“[It’s helpful to be] spend time with people you feel comfortable complaining to and who can relate to what you are going through and perhaps going through themselves.

“Just getting together in industry groups, just with a few friends, is always a good thing to share those stories and talk about what’s going on.”

Mary O'Brien, are you a bogged down mate?
Mary O’Brien says spending time with farmers in similar circumstances is an effective strategy in difficult times.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

For Mr Hobbs, he says it has been particularly difficult to deal with issues over which he feels he has no control.

“I’m a forward-looking person and I plan ahead all the time…I have to stop this now,” he said.

“I have to take it day by day because what you plan won’t happen.”

Ms O’Brien said that for producers who feel a loss of control, it’s important to focus on what they could influence.

“There are a lot of things in our lives, whether it’s weather or other factors, that we can’t control,” she said.

“One of the things we can control is looking for those good things and the positive things in your life, rather than constantly focusing on the things we can’t.”

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