TO A casual observer, southern NSW beef and lamb producer Michael Shannon would seem to be riding high on a-once-in-a-lifetime wave of good seasons, high prices and great opportunities beyond the farm gate.
Add the recent birth of his first child, the opportunity to take part in a Young Food Innovators study tour of China in 2016 and an impressive list of achievements in a few short years, the picture looks even brighter.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. While Michael had successfully sorted through some challenging family issues to take the reins of the farm business; was well advanced on a comprehensive farm development plan; and was busy exploring the potential of value chain beef marketing, underneath he was bearing an increasingly heavy burden.
He says that burden has been significantly lifted since taking part in a workshop for male farmers, organised through the NSW Department of Primary Industries in May. But he knows to remain effective in business and relationships, he needs to stay attuned to the stressors around him and his emotional responses to them.
“I am still dealing with things that have gone on but I’m slowly but surely pulling myself out of the hole,” he said.
At 31, he runs a 1600-hectare beef and lamb enterprise, Lowanna Properties, in the idyllic Cathcart district between Bombala and the South Coast. In partnership with his mother Lyn and wife Alice, Michael takes pride in securing the future of a land aggregation that includes the original homestead block of his grandfather, Laurie Platts, who had established the acclaimed Lowanna Hereford stud in 1959.
But while families can be a great source of pride and inspiration, they can equally bring frustration and heartache. Having returned to the farm business in 2007, Michael seized the opportunity with gusto, embarking on an ambitious redevelopment program after 12 years of drought. The partnership sold some land, bought additional blocks and had invested heavily in subdivision fencing and pasture reclamation of otherwise productive country over-run with tussock.
Michael was energised by the challenge but life became both more rewarding and more complicated. In 2013, Alice moved from Canberra to be with Michael and they were married in 2014.
“That was the good part but things became more complex when my parents separated in 2015,” he recalled. “We had built up some debt developing and buying more land and because of a few other expenses, we were feeling a bit of financial pressure.”
Relationship breakdowns also require property settlements and after a predictably difficult negotiation and divorce, Michael’s father left the business in 2016. Michael and Alice had welcomed Sophie into the business in early 2015.
“And just for good measure, we decided to renovate the house we had bought on a new farm block, which was probably not the best timing,” he observed wryly.
“It was all a bit too much. I was exhausted and not effectively managing the business with so much other stuff happening.”
The combination of family stress and baby-induced sleep deprivation was taking its toll on Michael personally and his relationship with Alice.
Within the emotional fog, Michael felt both anger with the circumstances around him and disappointment with himself as a husband.
“In Alice’s last trimester of pregnancy, I should’ve been a supportive husband. But I wasn’t supportive. I wasn’t really there as a husband,” he said.
“Emotionally, I was drained after all the stuff with my parents. I just felt: ‘When is it going to end’. Alice just said: ‘You need to work things out’. So I decided to see a doctor.”
For Michael, this was a turning point but even with professional help and the property settlement in late 2016, the emotional legacy of the family dispute and ongoing farm responsibilities were still affecting his health and wellbeing.
So earlier this year, when he was invited to take part in a two-day Tune Up For Farmers (TUFF) pilot workshop for men at Bega, Michael felt the timing was right.
While justifying his participation as a way to develop a stronger relationship with the South Coast Farmers Network, a group developing a beef producers’ co-operative that also helped organise the workshop, Michael sensed the experience would help him on a deeper level.
“I was going through a pretty difficult time so I had to take a deep breath and just give it a go,” he recalled.
“It was great to sit around with the other blokes and hear their stories. I think it was the openness, to see tough-looking blokes and realise they were a bit broken too. And being able to get some things off my chest in a different domain, that was really powerful.”
Michael returned the second day enthusiastically relating the great discussion it had generated with his Alice overnight.
“I think where TUFF really helped me was giving me an opportunity to compartmentalise my life and put things in perspective. That simple life-wheel exercise showed me where I was putting my time and how I was prioritising my energy and efforts between farm, family and fitness; they all run in parallel,” he said.
“It really showed me what I was neglecting and these were the things that were most important to me.”
Having Alice also do his life-wheel for him, and accurately identifying the same gaps, helped him recognise what he had to do to realign his life and who could best provide that support. “I’ve started running again and working in the gym we have in the garage – also cutting back on the cigarettes. Alice can come and do this with me sometimes so we are able to do things together and that’s better for our relationship.
“The TUFF workshop really resolved a lot of things in my mind that I probably would’ve needed to get some help about, and while I wouldn’t rule out getting professional help if I need it, I feel like I am in a much better place now.”
Timely life changes necessary and welcome
FOR Alice Shannon, the changes her stressed husband Michael has made since attending the Tune Up For Farmers (TUFF) workshop have been welcome.
Working fulltime as a teacher in Bombala and well aware of the complexities of “fast-paced” life, Alice was increasingly concerned at the toll family and farm business challenges were taking on his wellbeing.
“Michael was more willing to give up on hobbies, exercise, friends and family time before he would give up on anything farm related. Hearing from your wife that you need to make times for hobbies, friends, exercise doesn't always work. I felt he needed to hear it from someone else,” said Alice.
“The Tuff program really gave Michael the opportunity to hear from other like- minded people about their situations and how they dealt with all the ups and downs one experiences through life,” she said.
“Since the program he has been actively working on ensuring that his work life isn't consuming his personal life. We have days where it’s ‘tools down’ and off we go to explore a new place or catch up with friends.”