By Trish Smith
I found myself without employment when the pandemic hit in early 2020, and sensing that the likelihood of finding work in my local area was decreasing by the day, I took the opportunity to start my own business.
Thinking increasingly about what we were eating, where our food came from and how it was grown, I started an urban farming business, Farmsmith, in my own front yard, with the aim of growing organic leafy greens for my community and local cafes. My business is currently in a pre-revenue start-up phase.
I chose to establish an urban farm, as I think in the face of climate change, food security and biodiversity loss, local fresh and nutritious food is a pivotal part of creating a happy and secure future for us all. To grow a meaningful amount of food in a small area, I am really thinking about efficient growing techniques and reducing my inputs. By improving the soil over time, we hope to reliably grow healthy plants that are provided with all the nutrients they need from the soil. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy food and healthy people.
Regenerative agriculture is about utilising natural processes to do the majority of the farm work for us. Farming is a really complex job, by trusting in natural processes I think we can actually remove some of the complexity, work and stress. I have been really fortunate to have access to mentors and training that has helped me to develop confidence and clarity in my purpose. Understanding my ‘why’ is really helpful in business and in life.
Small business and mental health
In February 2020, I attended the NSW DPI Young Farmer Business Conference in Dubbo. Held just before COVID-19, it was a great event, with inspiring speakers and networking with like-minded individuals. In the conference showbag, deep down mixed in with all the other materials, was The Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health’s ‘How are you going?’ checklist. I’d driven past a blue tree coming into Dubbo, which is a part of The Blue Tree project to encourage people to talk freely about mental health, and seeing this and the CRRMH checklist, I thought, wow, this is empowering! I put it on our fridge, shared it on social media and use it regularly. Having a tool that I can scan each week and check how I’m tracking with my mental health is invaluable.
We spend a significant portion of our lives at work. Thus, it makes sense that workplaces, both big and small, have a role in creating mentally healthy workplaces that reduce stigma and improve wellbeing. For me, building a psychologically safe workplace is the right thing to do for my business, myself and future employees. It also supports my legal obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. All employers have a responsibility to protect the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees.
My current focus is on creating value and establishing the processes and systems that will provide a strong foundation for my business to grow from. Having experienced work-related anxiety in the past, I am actively working towards how I can meaningfully create a workplace culture that maintains and improves my mental health and wellbeing, and protects the wellbeing of others.
In doing good, I see myself as a collaborator with other growers rather than a competitor. I want to create a work culture where individuals are valued, and it is a safe place to express yourself, raise concerns and contribute.
Understanding my mental health
Psychological skills are great when things are going well, and essential during a crisis. I feel really grateful that I have access to education and support to understand my mental health better, and it’s been empowering in the chaos that has been the last year, to be able to stop, bring awareness to my experience and then take steps to ensure I look after myself.
Who would have thought that starting a farming business in COVID-19 times after an extended period of drought and the black summer bushfires has actually given me a newfound sense of purpose, focus, hope and wellbeing?
It has been a very difficult time for so many of us; lots of intense emotions, uncertainty and trauma. For me, it has also been empowering to realise that I have, with patience, persistence and lots of practice, developed skills that help me to recognise when my flight, fight or freeze response has been activated. This is a natural human response; it is my mind and body’s way of protecting me from a real or perceived threat.
I have been inspired by Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, especially this quote:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.
To me this means that even though a situation is stressful and really difficult, with mindfulness, I can make decisions from a place of calm. It is within my power to choose this response.
Mental health is for everyone; not just those with a diagnosed mental illness. Every day, we all go to work somewhere along the spectrum of being mentally well to unwell. By incorporating the “How you are going?” checklist into my business culture, I am intentionally creating an opportunity for myself, and future employees to be able to ‘measure’ how we are going and give each individual the ability to take steps to maintain good mental health.
We all want to do good things, and feel calm, connected and happy. From a business perspective, being intentional about creating a workplace that builds mental wellbeing, and supports individuals to seek support early if they are experiencing poor mental health, makes sense. Both the business and I will be more resilient, and we will be able to innovate when faced with challenges such as drought, changing market demands and climate change.
I’m only just starting in my first growing season. My plan is to focus on what is within my control. Observe, monitor and plan. Make decisions based on my context and values. Use risk management across all aspects of the business to increase resilience. And most importantly, look after myself!
Now to put the theory into practice.