At first glance Doug Avery appears your everyday farmer. He’s made of tough stuff and has a boundless energy – as is quickly evident when he’s enthusiastically showing people around his farm, an idyllic piece of land tucked away near Seddon in Marlborough.
But Doug is different. He wears his heart on his sleeve, telling his stories as his eyes well with tears, and is very forthcoming about his battles with depression. He’s just published his first book on the subject – The Resilient Farmer – and is desperate to get this conversation going.
Doug is like many farmers who battle the elements, isolation, the bank manager and, ultimately, their minds as they struggle to stay afloat.
Doug and his wife Wendy’s enormous family estate Bonavaree has grown from 206 to 2400ha under Doug’s stewardship – a testament to the couple’s determination and hard work.
They have three adult children, Fraser (38), Alice (35) and Richard (31), and four grandchildren, Oliver (9), Quinn (7), Georgie (5) and Eddie (5) – several of whom live with them on the sprawling estate.
But Doug and Wendy, now in their early 60s, have done it tough. Between them, they’ve survived a few cruel twists by Mother Nature – including two recent earthquakes and severe droughts – plus Wendy’s fight with breast cancer.
Her encounter in the early ‘90s was blessedly relatively short but she says she got through it thanks to Doug’s unwavering support.
“After her diagnosis, we thought we’d go to Hanmer for a weekend and try to take our minds off it, but when we got there and opened our suitcase, the utter sadness of what was happening washed over us and we just cried,” recalls Doug.
“Luckily, Wendy is strong and she made the choice to have a total mastectomy, which was necessary for her survival.”
As Wendy slowly recovered, another blow was about to hit them in the form of a severe drought in 1996. Quickly it took hold and the soil dried up.
As Doug desperately tried to keep stock and pastures alive, severe depression closed in on him and it remained untreated for a number of years.
He didn’t realise what it was and he drank heavily, becoming closed off and reclusive.
“I just didn’t want anything to do with anyone and only realised relatively recently that what I’d had was depression. Wendy persuaded me to do an online test and I realised, oh boy, yes, I’d had all the signs!”
Wendy says that at the time of Doug’s dark years, she was “quietly desperate and utterly isolated. Here was this man I loved, worn down by the constant challenge of trying to run a farm when the rain just wouldn’t come – year after year after year. In his darkest days I thought I might lose him. He was so completely down and nothing seemed to make him happy any more.”
Eventually, though, new hope materialised in the form of a talk he was persuaded to attend – albeit reluctantly – about lucerne.
This perennial legume with its extended taproot traps moisture from deep within the soil, making it ideal for dry country farming. Doug had a eureka moment and threw all of his energy into this exciting new project.
Introducing lucerne to Bonavaree wasn’t without its difficulties and dramas – the first year dozens of sheep died of bloat, unable to digest the unfamiliar feed – but eventually Doug managed to make it work and in doing so, ushered in a new era of farming.
“To put it simply, lucerne was a game-changer and it’s fair to say it probably saved my life,” he says.
Nowadays the “black dog” is one that Doug has finally pretty much kicked into touch, but he never takes for granted his current endlessly busy but happy and contented way of life.
Every single day he works on consciously developing and nurturing his resilience and adaptability – attributes that have become his life’s passion – and imparting them to others who are wrestling with similar demons.
“Once I had recovered and the farm had recovered, I realised that I had an important message to share, so Wendy and I went out on the road, talking to farmers’ groups all around New Zealand.
“Mental illness is common among farmers, but many just can’t bring themselves to talk about it, so that’s where my message comes in.
“I’m a man and I’m not afraid to share my story. I even cry when I talk about it sometimes. It makes other men feel more empowered,” says Doug.
These days the Averys’ eldest son Fraser runs the farm with a number of staff, allowing Doug to take a backseat and concentrate on his crusade to bring knowledge, understanding and support to rural communities.
And he has a famous face in his corner, with Sir John Kirwan backing his cause. The former All Black has written the foreword to Doug’s book, praising him for shining a spotlight on the issue and bringing farming families out of isolation.
“Doug tears up pretty easily when he’s talking about his tough times – not something you often see in any man, particularly a weather-beaten farmer,” says John.
“But I’ve rarely met a stronger person. I’m a city boy; Doug’s a country boy. Our lives have been very different, yet we both got tackled and brought down. He’s put it into terms that other rural people can understand. Doug Avery literally saves lives.”
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