Kate Gunn wins award for excellence in agricultural research at Farmer of the Year awards

Between homeschooling five children, working on the family farm in Taplan near the Victorian border and running her own business, Peri McIntosh took more time to breathe.

Since taking part in a new community mental health program based in Riverland, South Australia, she has developed new skills for coping with stress on a busy day.

“Because we live a bit out of town and it usually takes a while for everyone to get in the car, we’re usually late,” Ms McIntosh said.

“Once we’re in the car and buckled up, I find my shoulders are very tight, every muscle really hurts and I’m on edge.

Ms McIntosh says this year the family has been blessed with more rain falling on their crop and livestock property.(ABC Riverland: Eliza Berlage)

“So what I like to do is then take some deep breaths… I obviously keep my eyes open but I really consciously think, ‘It’s okay, it won’t be the end of the world if we are late. It is better that we arrive safe and sound and that everyone is calm”.

“And if I’m calm taking some of those breaths, it helps the rest of the family.”

Ms McIntosh was one of 10 participants in a program called Vocal Locals, based on modules from ifarmwell, free online resources to increase farmer wellbeing.

Nine people stand smiling on a green lawn.
Ten residents of Riverland have signed up to participate in the rural wellness program.(Provided: Vocal premises)

The 10-week initiative required participants to complete the modules, attend weekly coaching sessions and share their progress on social media.

Participating in the program during a growing season was a “can’t miss” opportunity for Ms McIntosh, who said it should be piloted in other communities.

“[Vocal Locals] was really important to me, having been through my own mental health journey for the past five years – really taken massively because of the drought and its effects,” she said.

“My real hope is to be able to use what I’ve learned, not only to improve my own mental health and well-being, but also abroad.”

A smiling white man in a plaid shirt has his arm around a smiling blonde white woman in black and a pink blazer in a theater.
Riverland farmer John Gladigau and University of SA researcher Kate Gunn at the Kick off Ya Boots show.(Provided: Vocal premises)

From play to practice

When Kate Gunn created ifarmwell, she didn’t expect it to inspire a play and a movement.

Last year, the University of South Australia senior researcher collaborated with Alawoona grain farmer John Gladigau to develop his stage production on rural resilience called Kick Off Ya Boots.

“I think doing research at a university and publishing papers is one thing, but what really excites me is finding ways to take those lessons to the real world,” Dr. Gunn said.

After the play sold out its first season, Dr. Gunn’s expertise was again called upon to create Vocal Locals, a project supported by funding from the federal government’s Future Drought Fund.

“I think this project has demonstrated the importance of having trusted people in local communities to spread these messages,” Dr Gunn said.

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The second season of Kick Off Ya Boots is almost sold out

Mr. Gladigau, who coordinated Vocal Locals, said it had been great to continue the conversations sparked by his piece.

“While these are not taboo topics, we don’t talk a lot about mental health and wellness,” he said.

“However, people are ready to [share] if they can.”

Mr Gladigau said he and Dr Gunn were impressed with how open the attendees were about their struggles.

“Even some of the really tough times… people bonded over that and jumped on it and talked about their own experiences and encouraged each other.

“I think it’s about normalizing those conversations.”

A blonde woman, Dr. Gunn, stands next to a large green tractor with a gray-haired man wearing glasses, Mr. Gladigau.
Mr. Gladigau said he wanted to work with Dr. Gunn to raise awareness of ifarmwell resources.(Provided: Vocal premises)

stay rural

Growing up on a farm in Streaky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula, Dr Gunn said it had been important to “farmerise” mental health programs to make them accessible to people in rural communities.

“Basically, it just strips away any psychopathic or academic jargon and turns it into language that ordinary farmers would use,” she said.

“An example is in ifarmwell, where we’re talking about sorting your thoughts into different categories…we’re talking about writing your thoughts into different pens the same way you might write sheep.

Kate Gunn, a smiling woman with blonde hair wearing a navy sweater and jeans, sits on a rock with gum trees behind her.
Psychologist Dr. Kate Gunn has been named Researcher of the Year for her work in rural mental health.(Provided: University of South Australia)

After nearly 15 years of work in his field, Dr. Gunn said the recognition of his work was a pleasant surprise.

She received the 2022 Award for Excellence in Agricultural Research, as part of the Farmer of the Year awards, and also received the National LiFE Award for Innovation from Suicide Prevention Australia.

“What’s really rewarding about what we do is the opportunity to get out into the community to work with farmers and help them find ways to improve their well-being,” Dr Gunn said.

“So there are a lot of farmers who also helped us win these awards.”

Lana T. Arthur