5 minutes with Neil Bateup

Chair, National Council of the Rural Support Trust

How did you get involved with the Rural Support Trust?
I’m a dairy farmer from North Waikato and I got involved about 15 years ago because a group of us farming leaders were talking and recognised that there were few places for those under pressure to turn to for free and confidential support.

Collectively, we got a wider group together and sought information on what services were available in other parts of New Zealand and using that insight we formed what is now the Waikato Hauraki/Coromandel Rural Support Trust. I was elected to be part of the original Trust and took over as Chair in its second year.

Do you have any figures that show the impact RST is having on rural New Zealand?
There are 14 Trusts across the country, and we have well in excess of 1,000 client contacts each year. That is over 1,000 people who reach out to our teams for support.

On top of that, we are contracted by MPI to provide ongoing welfare support to those farmers affected by Mycoplasma bovis across the country.
We also see a number of referrals, with the client’s approval, to our service from others in the local community such as bankers, dairy company reps, family members, field staff. We are seen as the first port of call for many, which is great.

Of all the issues your facilitators deal with, which are the most common?
We get a spread of issues – ranging from employment or farm management issues to financial and relationship problems as well as stress, anxiety and depression.

We have definitely noticed that more people are ringing when they are struggling with the pressures they face. The John Kirwan, Doug Avery, Mike King and Sam Whitelock campaigns have helped so much – living the message that it’s ok to reach out.

What makes the RST so valuable to rural people?
We provide a totally independent, free and confidential service. When people are facing hardship and they need to talk to someone – they’re not going to open up to just anyone. They need someone they can rely on, who can just listen and who they don’t fear being judged by.

We’re not experts in any one thing but our facilitators are from farming backgrounds and they understand the specific issues faced on farms. They are trained to identify an issue and link that person up to the right resource. We are people who ‘get it’ and can help other people find the way forward.

We support men and women right across the whole spectrum of ages, positions held in the rural community and type of agri-business they are involved in.
The National Council was set up a few years ago now – how has it helped the Trust achieve its mission?
It’s brought 14 regional Trusts closer together. These entities have their finger on the local pulse and can engage with individuals and families that need them. However, it’s undeniable that our impact has been amplified, by having one voice when we interact with sponsors, speak at events, fundraise, advocate to policy makers, interact with MPI and a host of other external bodies. It has helped us to focus on issues we all face and be more effective in generating broader engagement.

How do the facilitators reflect the communities they support?
Well firstly we try to select the right people to be our facilitators. Our regional Trusts often hear about locals who have the right experience and attributes, so we can identify people who are best placed to get out there and help rural men and women. They are then given internal and external training for their roles.

In the Waikato for instance, approximately 80 percent of those who make phone calls to our 0800 number receive visits. Which means we need people who can go out to a stranger and make them feel at ease, instil trust and encourage them to tackle the issues. 

When there’s an ‘adverse event’,  what role does your team play in that community response?
Across most of the country the Rural Support Trusts (RSTs) are a part of Rural Advisory Groups or Adverse Events Clusters, within which our members have relationships with other groups including Civil Defence, MPI, Dairy NZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, Federated Farmers, Rural Women, local and regional councils and some commercial organisations.

That way, when an adverse event occurs, it is easy to call the group together. They all know one another and can plan a co-ordinated response, utilising each organisation who is best placed to contribute what they can to the effort. The RSTs are then usually contracted to provide an ongoing Welfare Recovery effort.

Can you give any examples of where that has worked particularly well in the last few years?
There are many that have worked very well but one I was involved in was the Waikato, South Auckland and Hauraki Plains ‘Tasman Tempest’ storm and subsequent rainfall events. We held conference calls within a couple of hours of it happening and assistance was provided promptly. Ongoing community activities were held and support was provided by our team and Enhanced Taskforce Green teams, co-ordinated by us.

You’ve certainly had a bit of practice over the years – from fires to earthquakes. How do you prepare for these emergencies?
Yes, there have been a large number right across the country and the best way we can prepare is to nurture those relationships with all the other organisations involved in the rural sector and develop plans on how to respond in case of an event. It is also important for each Trust to pre-plan scenarios, including working out how to upscale their own resources if there is a need.

The rural sector is reasonably well connected with a lot of institutional knowledge held in many organisations. On a local basis, it is just a matter of being a part of the different groups getting to know the industry leaders and making sure we keep communications channels open. My phone gets a hammering sometimes!

What’s the one big thing you want to focus on in the next 12 months?
I would like to concentrate on making sure Trusts have the capability and resources to meet the needs of their own rural communities. Each Trust will understand their own community best and with the spread of population densities, farming types and different geographical features across the country they are the right people to develop their own plans.

How can rural communities support you to achieve that?
It is important that rural communities recognise the work that Trusts do for those facing challenges. We need them to promote us. To those who need assistance but also look at how they can provide resources and assistance, if they are able.

The RSTs are part-funded by MPI, part-funded by much-appreciated national sponsorship and part-funded by local sponsorship and donations. Some Trusts run community events and fundraisers. For instance in Northland they ran collaborative dinners during the drought, in Ngatea there was a comedy night after the floods which was a much-needed laugh. After the Tasman Fires the local Trust put on a BBQ that was attended by over 250 farmers. Coming together in tough times is so important. Any support that can enable us to keep this up is much appreciated.

For a free, independent and confidential chat, phone the Rural Support Trust on 0800 787 254.