ARLP helps dairy leader “slow down to go faster” on his crusade for mental health

Aaron Thomas has known bleak days far from the eye-opening, inspiring experience of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP). He has survived low and hopeless times when he would not have believed he merited an opportunity to develop his leadership or deserved the collective faith of his industry.

He is candid, forthright and generous with his story, because he understands the power of sharing it; what it can do for someone else who is battling, and who doesn’t see the potential in themselves.

Aaron is a dairy industry leader and graduate of Course 29 of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s (ARLF) flagship program, thanks to a scholarship provided by Victoria’s Gardiner Foundation. He is the contract manager at Paul and Lisa Mumford’s 445 hectare dairy farm at Won Wron in south-eastern Victoria, where he has worked for the past 16 years.

It may seem that a lot of doors have opened for Aaron as he builds his career and impact in dairy, but it is thanks to an extraordinary level of support from his employers, his community and the organisational pillars of his industry, that he has found himself able to walk through them.

A cat on a hot tin roof

Paul Mumford remembers Aaron as a school boy, surrounded by a swirl of unsettled currents. When Aaron started working for Paul and his wife Lisa as a farm hand, the couple noticed he was “a cat on a hot tin roof” full of energy and passion but not always able to channel it productively.

Both born and bred on dairy farms, Paul and Lisa started their careers off-farm, until the opportunity arose for the couple to buy Paul’s grandfather’s property and give their children the rural life they had both appreciated growing up. Paul himself was supported by the Gardiner Foundation to participate in a Nuffield agricultural scholarship, and the experience cemented some core values in him.

“That’s where I started to understand the intricacies of working together and supporting others in an inclusive way. That cooperative nature is borne out in our industry and the membership-based organisations that support it. It is something I carried into my relationship with Aaron and his role on the farm.”

Aaron found fulfilment and passion being part of the Mumford’s dairy operation and was gradually given increasing responsibility, including share-farming at a second property purchased by Paul and Lisa. However, Aaron could not out-run mental ill-health and alcohol dependency as he grappled with his fractured family background, anxiety, low self-worth and the break-down of his marriage. In 2016 the milk price collapsed, Aaron’s mental health deteriorated disastrously, and the Mumfords sold their second property, sustaining severe financial losses.

“Everything had come to a head for Aaron,” Paul reflects. “Any business person at that time under such great pressure would have let that person go. Morally, I couldn’t do that to someone who was in such a bad place.”

For an acute two-month period, Aaron dwelt in the lonely darkness of rock bottom, which included two attempts to take his own life. Paul, along with Aaron’s closest network, orchestrated a 24-hour watch system as they worked with the hospital and other care providers to manage the most dangerous period for Aaron.

“I wasn’t prepared to throw him to the wolves,” Paul says. “He needed our support over a period of time. From there, he emerged and eventually blossomed. He has a new outlook on life. He has two young girls who absolutely adore him. My wife and I recognise what an awesome parent he is; how positive his outlook is; and we see the composure and growth from where he used to be.”

A lifeline

As he “fell in love” with the Mumford’s registered jersey stud and dairy business and became interested in breeding and genetics, Aaron could see a good future in the industry. He knew he was in the right environment to develop his passion and make career progress.

“I came back to the home farm in Won Wron in 2016 as a broken person … I don’t say this lightly: Paul and Lisa saved my life. It’s that simple,” Aaron says.

He spent the next four years working on his physical and mental health. When the time felt right, Aaron took part in a leadership development program through Dairy Australia. The experience helped him decide to apply for the ARLP.

“Once I realised I had it in me to beat alcoholism and get my mental health on track, I decided I was going to make my story public and share it with anybody willing to listen,” Aaron explains.

“That was really empowering. It gave me a sense of self-worth and belonging. A lot of what I have embarked on over the past few years is me acknowledging that I was ‘that person’, but I am better; this is how I’ve done it; and look where I am now. I share those deep, personal insights for a greater good, and to give people a sense of hope.”

From “the bottom of the barrel” to the top of a thoughtfully managed “soap box”, Aaron took a positive mindset of openness and empowerment into the ARLP experience and emerged with focus and drive.

Slowing down to go faster

Aaron – like many alumni of the ARLP – found the first session in the remote and beautiful Kimberley to be a pivotal, life-changing experience.

“It had a hugely profound effect on me,” he says. “I always had a bit of a bull terrier mentality. If I saw something I wanted I’d get in there and wouldn’t stop until I conquered it. I was used to reacting quickly.”

Immersed in 65,000 years of culture, Aaron discovered he could embrace another pace and a more reflective way of being.

“It really taught me that slowing down was actually a way to go faster. Mentally and emotionally it allowed me to absorb situations; think, process and then act. It was a lightbulb moment, and something I do on a daily basis now.”

For Paul Mumford, watching Aaron embrace the ARLP with the support of the very same sponsor that enabled his own Nuffield experience, has been a sweet experience.

“The ARLP gave Aaron the pedestal to stand up tall and proud, but more importantly to challenge himself. Some of the things he pushed himself to do were extraordinary,” Paul says.

While he still sees the energy of that “cat on a hot tin roof” in Aaron, Paul has also seen a new “methodical” approach to the lead role Aaron takes on the farm, managing his team, and approaching conversations about mental health advocacy. Paul has been a source of support and encouragement as Aaron has taken a role on a local regional development board with GippsDairy – the extension arm for Dairy Australia.

While proud and satisfied, Paul acknowledges Aaron’s ownership of his growth and success.

“It’s all Aaron’s doing. We’ve just given him a helping hand.”

An investment with infinite returns

For Gardiner Foundation CEO, Allan Cameron, one of the most satisfying parts of his role is witnessing what the dairy sector gains each time it invests in its people. The Gardiner Foundation stewards funds to maximise benefits for all sectors of the dairy industry and dairy communities. It not only funds ARLP and Nuffield scholarships, but five community programs across Victoria and a range of activities through regional development programs.

There is a growing cohort of alumni from all of these programs, and the Gardiner Foundation has just inked a new five-year corporate strategy in which this ‘human resource’ is a major focus.

“We can already see these leadership skills in action in the dairy industry, and we’d like these program alumni to bring ideas to us that they would like to get off the ground,” Allan says.

He is committed to encouraging a collaborative industry that truly celebrates its wins and recognises the strengths of all the people working in dairy.

Allan has watched Aaron’s progress in the industry from a distance over the past five years.

“I would have described him as raw and passionate, with an intensity about him and a desire to help. Everyone would have sensed in Aaron a spirit of service,” he says.

When Allan attended the graduation of Course 29 of the ARLP, he was an appreciative observer as Aaron fulfilled emcee duties for the afternoon.

“I think that would have been a huge stretch for him five or so years ago. I’m not sure he could have done it,” Allan reflects.

What he saw was an authentic Aaron, completely true to himself: “still raw and passionate but conducting himself with professionalism and a level of polish that I am sure the ARLP provided.”

The Gardiner Foundation has funded a feasibility trial protocol with the National Centre for Farmer Health in Hamilton and Deakin University, called ‘Back on Track’. The project aims to deliver a new peer-led mental health support model to farming communities. It’s a natural home, Allan hopes, for someone with Aaron’s insight and experience.

The demands and rewards of dairy

Allan himself grew up on a beef and sheep farm on Phillip Island in South Gippsland. He was drawn to agribusiness and the financial sector where he held a range of roles that exposed him to clients in the dairy industry. He quickly gained an understanding of the rewards and resilience inherent in a well-built dairy business, along with the significant physical and psychological demands on producers.

“Gardiner funded sociological research through the University of Southern Queensland that found that dairying requires more decisions to be made on a daily basis than producing any other commodity … It got me thinking about not just the physical demands of dairy and getting up rain, hail, or shine to milk when that alarm goes off, but the cognitive load. It requires passion to do that day after day and weather the ups and downs. I love working with people that are that emotionally and physically invested in their business.”

A shot in the arm

Back at Won Wron, Aaron, along with Paul and Lisa Mumford, is demonstrating the effectiveness of a somewhat “pioneering” business structure. With the help of a farm advisor, the trio have landed on a model whereby Aaron as contract manager is responsible for hiring, managing staff and payroll, and organising daily workflow. Paul and Lisa have been able to step back from milking and organising day-to-day workforce, while remaining the owners ultimately responsible for inputs and outputs.

“I think we’re only about the third farm to have done something like this. Honestly, I think it may be a new way of doing business,” Paul says.

For Aaron, the role calls on his strengths managing people and caring for livestock, while giving him the space to continue having a broader impact.

“I have this desire burning in my belly to give back to my industry. The industry has been incredibly generous to me and supported me through programs that have started me on the path to be able to have a positive impact,” Aaron says.

As well as his new role with GippsDairy, Aaron is working with local high school students to show them the opportunities in agriculture. He also spent time on-farm with a young work experience student who just might have a touch of the restless energy Aaron still recognises in himself.

“The ARLP has given me that shot in the arm I was looking for to give back to my community and return to my industry some of the investment it has made in me.”

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