Cork farmer Peter Hynes has experienced the darkness of depression firsthand, speaking to Tracey Donaghey he discusses his personal journey, suicide awareness and the need to stop climate shaming farmers.
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Dairy farmer Peter Hynes
Dairy farmer Peter Hynes

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Dairy farmer Peter Hynes from Co. Cork is a well-known advocate for mental health in the agriculture industry, commonly sharing his own struggles to help those who are suffering.

Approximately 20 years ago, before Peter was working full-time in farming, he was clocking “ridiculously long hours” as he puts it, he had no social life and started to disconnect from home life. All of which had a severe impact on his wellbeing.

“I think life just got on top of me without me realising it. I got to the stage where I wasn’t sleeping well. I was worrying about everything which was really nothing. I wasn’t eating properly and literally just went from bed to work, home to bed. I lost all control of my feelings at the time and would end up crying for absolutely no reason,” says Peter.

In the beginning, Peter hid his deteriorating mental health from wife Paula, who he farms in partnership with, as well as those around him, but as things worsened, his struggles became harder to suppress.

“It got to the stage where I would cry in front of her (Paula) and I couldn’t explain why. She persuaded me to go to our GP with her. I ended up breaking down crying in front of him. I had zero control over what I was thinking and untimely was struggling from depression.”

The GP put Peter in contact with a counsellor, and while it was hugely daunting to go, he labelled the relief from doing so as phenomenal.

“The first day I went to see her, after one hour session it was just like a huge relief that I had found someone that I could talk to, who understood me and could help me figure out things. Coming out the door that day it was like how fast can I go back.”

Living life

Rediscovering the importance of living life rather than living to work, Peter reached a good place mentally. Life on the farm always bring its challenges but he has learned to manage his mental health when the going gets tough.

“There are times on the farm when you have to work extremely hard. We’re milking 180 cows on a spring calving grass-based system and February gets extremely busy, but I put myself in a good position where I enjoy December and the first half of January. The farm is organised ready for calving, I get out and enjoy life and then I know once the first cow calves, I have four busy weeks ahead of me and the end is in sight the day we start.”

Peter and Paula plan a few days away to recharge and enjoy quality time together in April, providing a focus when things are busy. However, communication is key all year round.

“If I’m not in a good place now I say to Paula straight away. We chat about it and turn it around. You need to realise you’re going to face tough times, but you need to deal with them up front real quick.

“If you’re struggling with yourself in a farming environment, you can really hide yourself away from the world if you want. I think one of the key things for us too is that the farm is run by a team. I can’t solve all the problems myself. I need to turn to other people.”

Ag Mental Health Week

Peter is the founder of the annual event, Ag Mental Health Week, taking place later this October (dates to be confirmed), to raise awareness of mental wellbeing in the industry. His work with this initiative highlighted how important it is to open up the conversation about suicide.

“We as an agriculture community, we need to speak about suicide. It’s a really tough conversation but we can’t shy away from it because if we do, someone who is feeling suicidal is not going to feel comfortable to say that they are thinking of ending their life. That’s a horrible place to be in. To be that alone you feel life has gone that bad for you that you need to contemplate ending it, but you don’t feel that you can say to someone ‘I need help’.”

Impact of the media

Farmers are at the forefront of extreme weather events and as environmental caretakers, they are eager to do all they can to combat climate change, but it hasn’t always been portrayed in the media this way.

“The public need to understand that we need to stop climate shaming farmers. There is an absolutely disgusting war happening in the media and on social media, with the environmentalists being pitched against the agriculture sector and farmers.

“The media need to realise it’s not about how many listeners you can get on your radio show, that climate shaming has a mental impact on farmers, on people that are working hard everyday of the week to put quality food on the tables. It’s not us as farmers not willing to reduce emissions, its policy holding us back.

“Farming has evolved over decades. We embrace research, we embrace technology, we adapt to what challenges we face. Each and everyone of us has always done that.

“We would rise to any challenge in reducing emissions on farm. Whether it’s an Irish, a Northern Irish or UK farmer, we are among the best in the world at doing what we do to produce food.”

Oceania Dairy wanted to install a packaging machine purchased from Spain during the pandemic lockdowns in 2021. But due to New Zealand’s travel restrictions, no one from abroad could assist with the installation.

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