'Resilient Farmer' Doug Avery on drought, depression and God's plant

by Clare de Lore / 10 September, 2017
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Doug Avery on the family farm, Bonavaree, in 2015. Photo/Martin Hunter

Farmer Doug Avery’s eyes were opened to new opportunities in life and on the land.

Marlborough’s “lucerne lunatic”, Doug Avery, is in Northern Ireland as part of a trip he and his wife, Wendy, have looked forward to for a long time. Finally free after a lifetime of being tied to their farm, the Averys are indulging a relatively new-found love of travel. Belfast, hardly a tourist mecca, is a highlight: they’re there to support their ultramarathon-runner son Richard, who is competing in the World 24-Hour Championship in which competitors run as far as they can around Belfast’s Victoria Park circuit.

The 31-year-old has pulled up 10 hours into the event and is on the ground in pain, but his father manages to carry on a telephone interview with one eye on his son, who’s being tended by physiotherapists. He’s confident Richard, no matter how weary, will get back on his feet and put one foot in front of the other for another 14 hours.

 

Avery is no stranger to suffering. Coping with depression, which almost cost him his life and livelihood, helped him discover inner reserves. Now, he’s in demand on both sides of the Tasman as a speaker on the mental-health challenges facing farmers.

He has won awards and honours for his contribution to the field and for his work in assisting with earthquake recovery. His latest achievement is his book, The Resilient Farmer.

Avery’s family have been on Bonavaree, a 2400ha sheep and beef farm near Seddon, for nearly 100 years. It’s one of the driest parts of the country – “a ridiculous place to farm”, Avery admits. An eight-year drought that started in 1997 was followed by devastating winds. Then earthquakes hit in 2014 and 2016.

During the drought, stress made the “black dog” of depression a constant companion. In 1998, at his wits’ end and close to losing the farm and his wife, Avery went to a lecture by a young plant scientist, Derrick Moot. The talk lit a spark of hope when Avery realised Moot’s studies into lucerne and its application for dryland farming might save him and the farm.

Avery with fellow mental-health awareness campaigner John Kirwan. Photo/Avery family collection

What role has Derrick Moot played in your and the farm’s survival?

Mooty is huge in my life. He calls lucerne “God’s plant” and I call him God. We needed to think a whole lot differently about how we integrated with our land. Now, we don’t see any limits to the future of our property. Our family had grown lucerne for 80 years prior to the change – it is the way we use it now that is different. We had used it primarily to make hay and silage in the spring, for some grazing, and we took seed. Today, inspired by Mooty and others and after trial and error, we use it as our primary grazing plant. The key thing about lucerne is that it doubles the value of water. For every millimetre of water that falls on our farm now, we convert that into double the amount of dry matter. But it has a double leveraging in that the stock that eat it will grow twice as fast as well.

Why doesn’t everyone use it, then?

There are some traps. It is a high-intensity business to manage correctly, and bloat can be tricky at some times of the year. A lot of people don’t want to do that – they would prefer to stay in a low-octane system – but it has changed my world. Bonavaree in 1998 was a completely failing enterprise and today it has grown hugely. I started with 206ha and we now have 2400ha. My son Fraser runs the business with five full-time employees.

Is Fraser better equipped for the demands of farming than you were?

One of the tragedies of farming families is fathers not letting their able and capable sons have a crack at the right age. Fraser is in his mid-thirties and it is plenty late enough for him to be taking control. We have whole different systems in place now. It is a very wired property; we use an awful lot of technology and Fraser is basically an HR man. I always thought of myself through the bulk of my farming time as a farmer, but I think if you look at Fraser, you would describe him as a logistics operator. The business is huge now. We don’t look at farming in a one-man way any more. The future is with integration with smart people from outside our industry.

 

Doug Avery. Photo/Martin Hunter

Doug Avery. Photo/Martin Hunter

Lately, you’ve probably done more public speaking than farming. Is the book the result?

In 2015, I did 66 presentations in New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. Countless people asked me for a copy of my book, but I didn’t have one. Penguin Random House rang me one day to say it was looking to follow up the John Kirwan books and my name kept coming up. We signed a contract and the publisher said it would get a ghost writer. Margie Thomson came to meet me and she and I gelled. Margie has dressed my story in saleable clothes. Kirwan also had huge admiration for her skills.

Have you read his books about depression, motivation and teenage troubles, All Blacks Don’t Cry and Stand by Me?

Parts of them, but I don’t read a lot and am a slow reader. I left Seddon School virtually illiterate, and in those days, secondary schools didn’t pick you up. It has been a handicap all my life. Today, I interact with many different people at high levels all over the place. They are my learning tool. Doing my own book was good for me in that it has forced me to read a bit and I am finding I am enjoying it more.

So what are you dabbling in?

I enjoy reading about science, systems, other people and what they have done. I bought Jake Bailey’s book, What Cancer Taught Me, and read that on the plane coming over here. I enjoyed reading about his courageous battle. The other stuff I have read makes you think it’s never too late to do things. In those hard-working earlier days, I barely lifted my head. I was a car wreck waiting to happen with the approach to my business, because I just wanted to get on with the job and do it and there was no change. I look at farming systems out there now and they lack change and vision. I still rate New Zealand farming as being at the top of the world, but we are in two or three different teams now. There are 15% that are progressive and doing really well; there is another body, maybe 20%, not far behind; but quite a big tail is clinging to the past.

Ultramarathoner Richard with Wendy. Photo/Avery family collection

You’re in Belfast – what’s going on with your son and that race as we speak?

It’s like a party, except it’s brutal. There are hundreds of people taking part and supporting. Richard is having a bad day. It’s tough for a father to watch, but he is still capable of recovering. He will carry on. He’s not a white-flag man.

How did he get into it?

Richard was an invited speaker this year at the Platinum Primary Producers Conference in Melbourne, and much to my amazement, he held up a picture of his primer 1 class at Seddon School. He pointed to himself and one other boy and said, “That’s Jack, he was my best mate.” Jack Bristed had come to our place many times for birthday parties and that sort of thing, but once they got to secondary school, they took different paths. Jack died when he was only 17. Richard went on to tell the conference about the profound effect on him of Jack dying. I had no idea until that moment, in March this year. From the day Jack died, Richard decided to challenge himself every year. One of the things he believes is that you win or you learn. You only lose if you don’t learn. He is doing a bit of learning right now. My own life has been a bit the same – up and down, all sorts of things have happened, and as I have got older, I realise it is the tough things in your life that make the great things in your life.

And the great things now, apart from travel?

I don’t do any farming. There is no skin being taken off my hands any more.

Are you psychologically prepared for that?

Hell, yes! I weaned myself ages ago.

The Resilient Farmer is in bookshops now. Richard Avery finished 99th at the World 24-Hour Championship, clocking up 189.793km over 114 laps.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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