‘Rolling’ with the punches


As a fifth-generation farmer and the founder of paddock to plate business Outback Lamb, I was recently asked if we had to pivot our business during Covid. It got me thinking about how rural people react when under pressure or faced with a crisis. More importantly, it also got me thinking about the cumulative effect of stress, and its impact on people over time.

Pivot. Wasn’t that the catch cry of business during covid lockdowns? It (almost) became one of those irritating phrases – like “put a pin in that” or “it was a game of two halves.” Aspiring entrepreneurs will do well to remember that if it takes a buzzword or phrase to express your idea, then maybe it’s not that good of an idea!

Outback Lamb began as many ideas do – a conversation around the kitchen table. Our local school was going to drop from three to two teachers, and it got us trying to imagine what farming in our district might look like in the future. At the same time, there seemed to be a lot of negative press about farmers and agriculture. Social media, particularly, seemed to believe farmers were all water-wasting, tree-pushing environmental vandals who, as climate change deniers, were hellbent on inflicting misery on their animals. An exaggeration for sure, but it felt very ‘them and us’. The old sandstone curtain between city and country had never felt more impenetrable.

On our property, the farming model was all about getting more acres, running more stock, increasing yield, and improving productivity. Farmers like to wax lyrical about the lifestyle and our quality of life, but as mixed farmers, we found ourselves working harder and harder to stay where we were. It simply wasn’t quite as much fun as it used to be.

We decided to create a business that was built up rather than out. We started a separate company that could employ people – including family. Our focus was on succession opportunities for our children – and hopefully not just creating jobs but also building in an element of drought-proofing to assist with an income not entirely reliant on rainfall.

And so, it began. In 2017, we started our side hustle called Outback Lamb – a paddock-to-plate supply of boxed lamb delivered straight to consumers. The business quickly grew, and we decided to pivot for the first time and moved exclusively to wholesale, supplying our lamb to Sydney and Wollongong based butchers.

Instagram provided a gateway to connecting with people and sharing our farming story. Opportunities abounded, courses, training, interviews, podcasts, tv appearances and awards. It was a groundswell, but we were aiming for that sweet spot where the planet, profits and community could all be winners. I wasn’t just building a brand but also advocating for an industry I was proud to be a part of. By taking control of our social license, we could tell our own story rather than letting others with a different agenda try to say it on our behalf.

Mid-drought we pivoted again, focusing on developing a value-add product, a gourmet lamb sausage roll. Things happened quickly, and I promise you, much more by accident than by design. I think our strength lay in – and here’s another cracker of a covid cliché for you – being nimble. I feel proud of how we parlayed the opportunities that landed in our laps into something more concrete.

Overlaid on all the growth and change around Outback Lamb was the root cause for pivoting, which was what was occurring in the world around us and helping determine the path we chose.

Severe drought. Personal loss. Worldwide pandemic. Bushfires. Mouse plague. Flood. Climate change. War in Europe. The genuine possibility of an emerging economic crisis. Here begins the impact of cumulative stress.

Bandied about by politicians and media alike, the word ‘resilience’ is overused to describe farmers when faced with adversity. However, the fact remains that we have a certain tenacity to keep moving forward. It’s linked to our learned history and our life experiences – combined with an innate curiosity that gives regional people their capacity to focus on the positive and eschew the negative. We can lean into the harsh reality imposed by drought or flood, see humour in the ordinary and deal with difficult circumstances with determination. All of this is done under extreme duress, deeply burdened by the heavy obligation of land stewardship and animal husbandry.

The characteristic of resilience is the buoy farmers grasp during distressing situations. But moving from drought straight into covid and lockdown extended that period into the realm of chronically stressful.

Like in the drought, we adapted to the restrictions imposed by covid. As our status quo changed, we moved with the times, and society quickly progressed to a new normal. Eventually, vaccines and then a cautious, blinking emergence back into familiar territory.

But will things ever be the same again? I recently was told that the agricultural industry has never changed as fast as it is now – and that it will never change this slowly again. Accurate or not, this is a very poignant concept. A significant aspect of nurturing good mental health is our ability to have an orientation where we can eagerly look to the future. Lockdown thwarted our ability to make plans and savour the anticipation. We were genuinely isolated, disconnected from people and events – and deathly afraid for the most vulnerable in our communities.

In this changing world, what does the future hold? More importantly, can we keep relying on an intangible skill like resilience to keep existing? What can we do to flourish? In a changing climate, we are told to expect more extreme weather events more often. Will resilience be sufficient in a rapidly changing world? I have many questions and not many answers, but we can look around and get clues as to what is working. Resilience has worked for a long time and is a good tool for managing the usual ebb and flow of farming. In the future, I think we need to upsize our arsenal of tools to best cope in a modern and stressful world.

There are obvious solutions that shore up your capacity for good mental health and hold you in good stead for difficult times. Sleep, good nutrition, exercise, laughter. Most important is the concept of recovery. This is the time you allocate that allows your body to rejuvenate, and one that we often push to the side in the chaos of getting through our life commitments of work, family, friends and community.

The younger generation has a few hacks that we can adopt. Millennials and Gen Z get a lot of bad publicity from the Boomers and even my cohort – Gen X. Millennials and Gen Z though, are masterful at turning off their work phones after 5 PM. They have this excellent sense of their own time and how they use it. They work during the times they are paid and then switch off. Weekdays are for work, but these clever, switched-on young adults also take the time to fill their mental health reservoir with good food and exercise. Weekends can be used for recreation or food cheat days, but you fill your physical and psychological health bucket Monday to Thursday. Creating clear delineation between work and play will help counter the effects of cumulative stress.

Yoga, meditation, and stretching are not just the domain of nimby hippies or the semi-skim-half-soy-latte-drinking urbanite living behind the quinoa curtain. These are capabilities we can all implement into our lives. You may not have previously required these skills, but we cannot continue to do what we’ve always done to survive when the world around us changes. Upskill yourself and move (literally!) with the times.

Hobbies are also beautiful ways to engage in an activity that doesn’t add stress to your life. Reading, gardening, and knitting all have meditative qualities that can enhance recovery from stressful situations. It is vital to allocate even a small amount of time to doing something you love.

None of this information is new, even if you’ve been living under a rock. But what is new is the impact of cumulative stress on our bodies and mental health. Happiness is a formidable foe of stress. Suppose we can change how we deal with the pressures of a changing environment? In that case, if we create the capacity for gratitude, forgiveness, anticipation, love, planning and hope – then we provide our bodies with all the essential ingredients for happiness.