Calendar project breaks down mental health stigma

Dairy farmers Paul Cocksedge of Nerrena, with Michelle and Andrea Axford, of Korumburra South, who are all featured in the 2024 calendar.

An annual calendar project in Gippsland, focused on dairy farmers, is breaking the stigma around talking about mental health.

The first calendar was created in 2018, and since 2020 has been an annual publication, and so far has told the stories of 72 Gippsland dairy farmers.

“That’s nearly 10 per cent of the dairy farmers in Gippsland,” Gippsland Jersey calendar founder Sallie Jones said.

The 2024 calendar was launched at Lakes Entrance on Wednesday, December 6 at the processing factory, or home base, of Gippsland Jersey.

Linda Smeaton, Miriam and Barry Basset and Luke Smeaton, all of Lakes Entrance. Miriam is sister to Michael Bowen, to whom the calendar is dedicated.

“People telling their stories through the calendars builds social capital in our industry,” Sallie said.

“As we’ve heard today, the biggest help any of us can give to each other is to show up and help when we need it, whether that’s a disaster like flood or fire, or a personal crisis.”

Gippsland Jersey’s co-founder Steve Ronalds, with dairy farmers featured in the 2024 calendar, Paul Cocksedge of Nerrena and Lisa and Mark Wilms of Willow Grove.

The calendar project grew out of a combination of factors — the dairy crisis brought on by the collapse of Murray Goulburn, poor milk price at the farm gate, the suicide of Sallie’s father, a serious accident experienced by Gippsland Jersey co-founder Steve Ronalds — and has been compounded by drought, bushfires and floods across Gippsland.

It is now an entrenched part of psychosocial connections across the Gippsland dairy industry.

“Every year we go on the hunt for 12 outstanding Gippsland dairy stories to feature in our calendar,” Sallie said.

“We’re always surprised by the heart-filled stories that pop up.

“The calendar was born from my own experience of publicly sharing the loss of my father.”

Her father, Michael Bowen, died in 2016. Prior to that, he leased his dairy farm and sold his value-added ice-cream business.

Sallie said he was clearly unwell.

Unfortunately, the support of her mother, herself, her sisters and Michael’s sister, Miriam Basset, was in vain.

Steve Ronalds experienced a motorbike accident in late 2015 that saw him unable to milk cows for most of the following year.

Sallie and Steve, supported by their partners, brainstormed possible futures as business partners and decided to open a boutique milk processor, Gippsland Jersey.

In 2023, they celebrated seven years of operation, and a business partnership for the same length of time with another processor, Burra Foods, ensures excess milk is collected from their farmer suppliers.

“Gippsland Jersey’s foundational pillars have remained since day one — ensuring farmers are paid a fair price, driving social change in rural mental health, and promoting kindness,” Sallie said.

The calendar project reflects these pillars and is aimed at driving social change about talking about mental health and well being.

“Our goal is to get Gippsland dairy farmers talking and it starts with the question of, what stories would my Dad have loved to read,” Sallie said.

“Through the calendar, we see the importance of sharing stories, to make a difference.

“We believe that personal stories are the most powerful catalysts for change.”

This year’s calendar is titled Farming Conversations and features dairy farmers telling stories as diverse as the impact of the sudden death of a teenage son, to raising a family as a single parent, managing breast cancer treatment, dealing with floods and sinking so far into depression as to be unable to make a decision.

After telling their story for the 2024 calendar, Willow Grove dairy farmers Lisa and Mark Wilms started seeing a counsellor.

Mark is a genial but quiet man and Lisa had noticed his behaviour change. But she was having trouble getting him to communicate what was going on.

“I wasn’t able to make decisions,” Mark said.

That realisation saw Lisa step up to become the key decision maker and manager for their farm. She remains in that role.

“Since doing the calendar, we’ve been seeing a counsellor together,” Mark said.

“I wouldn’t have done it without Sallie’s prompting.

“I think it was a good thing to do and we’re going back,” he said.

Deena and Jason Tharle, Nambrok, and Les and Lyn Hornby, Monomeith, are all featured in the 2024 calendar.

Warragul dairy farmer Joe Meggetto featured in the 2018 calendar and was a guest speaker at this year’s calendar launch.

Since appearing in the calendar, he has become an advocate for mental health awareness.

“I don’t know what made me depressed,” he said.

Looking back, he believes his mental health struggles began in the early 1990s and by the mid-’90s he was expressing it through anger.

“I didn’t want my mates to know I was suffering, I thought they’d think I was weak as piss,” Joe said.

“What do men do when something’s wrong? We hide in ourselves.”

Joe said his Italian heritage made it easier to focus on working harder, but also made it harder to share how he felt.

“Once I opened up and started talking about my mental health, a lot of other people have surprised me by identifying their own issues,” he said.

Since participating in the 2018 calendar, Joe said he had grown as a person.

He has spoken at Dairy Australia and local events, raising awareness about mental health challenges. He sought advice from his GP and uses medication to help him cope with depression.

He has been the subject of an Archibald art prize entry.

A lot of Joe’s growth is about realising he has a community around him that care about him.

“At the end of the day, you may not think anyone cares, but your family and friends, the people in your community, care about you,” Joe said.

“I still think about suicide, but now I’ve learned to look through the problem for a solution.”

Mark Humphris, of The Milk Road, Newry, with his neighbour Kate Mirams (featured in the 2024 calendar) and her son Tristan Neaves, both of Newry.

Mark Humphris, of The Milk Road, said psychosocial support was a key factor in helping people cope with and even recover from personal challenges and disasters.

He has been undertaking research, after realising he was struggling and looking for his own solutions to look after his physical and mental health.

“Building connections in the community are important,” Mark said.

“I learned I have to look after myself before I look after my family and my business.

“Natural disasters and climatic events are having more impact on our farm businesses.

“Money for recovery is secondary to people being connected to family, friends and their own industry locally.”

Mark said it was important as a society to de-shame mental health issues. He said sharing experiences in a supported space was one technique that helped some people.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is one organisation that is leading by example.

In East Gippsland, there are three mental health support workers leading programs.

Mental health nurse with RFDS, and local resident, Louise Oswald, is working in the Ensay district and providing support for community programs that are enabling people to share their stories.

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Maree Cramp, Owen Wood, Henry Wood and Paul Wood, of Fulham, feature in the 2024 calendar.
Marion French and Tim Cross, representing Saputo in Gippsland, with Gippsland Jersey co-founder Steve Ronalds. Tim said Saputo’s truck drivers are part of the annual distribution of calendars to dairy farmers across Gippsland, to Saputo and third party suppliers.
Some of the dairy farmers participating in the 2024 calendar.
Susan Scarr from Gippsland Lakes Complete Health and Shirley Blyth, Lifeline volunteer from Warragul.
Sue Porter, Veronica Curtis and Anne Kokkinos, all of Tambo Bay, are customers of Gippsland Jersey and wanted to support the calendar launch.
Sallie Jones, co-founder of Gippsland Jersey (right), with her aunt, Miriam Basset, who spoke about her brother, Michael Bowen, who took his own life and was the inspiration for creating the annual calendar profiling dairy farmers in Gippsland.
Participant in the 2021 calendar, Andrew Kirkham, of Bundalaguah, with his children, Brooke, Ella and Jackson Kirkham, at the launch of the 2024 calendar.
Michelle Connell and mental health nurse Louise Oswald represented the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s social outreach service at the 2024 calendar launch.