Her scholarship studies have helped Ginny Stevens, CEO and Founder of Active Farmers, understand how she can best lead and support the passionate staff in her life-changing not-for-profit.

It’s well known in Australia that the rate of suicide in farming communities is concerningly high. What’s not so well known is what can be done to improve the mental health of our farmers.

Clearly, some lateral thinking is needed to affect change, and that’s exactly what Ginny Stevens has done.

Ginny was working in the Agribusiness banking industry, following a degree in Agricultural Science, when she moved to Wagga Wagga and met her future husband, a farmer.

“I wanted to get to know people in the community and work out how I could contribute,” recalls Ginny of her early days in the regional town.

“I was going for a run and was thinking about the prevalence of mental illness amongst farmers. It had always concerned me but wasn’t something I could impact much through banking, beyond financial support.

“I was also reflecting on how great team sport had been for me throughout school – how good it is for both physical and mental health as well as that sense of connection and belonging it gives.

“So, I thought maybe I could mimic the team effect – give farmers a break from their farms to come together and do some exercise with the entire community, in place of a team.”  

Image: The 2020 Active Farmers Games
were held at Lake Centenary, Temora NSW in March 2020.

Starting her own business 

Ginny took an online course in Personal Training while still at the bank and began running classes at the local footy oval before and after work.

Despite the unlikely image of a bunch of farmers hitting the ground for 20, and the fact that “male farmers are a tricky market to crack”, says Ginny, laughing, the community was enthusiastic, and the uptake was good.

After a year, Ginny left the bank to focus on Active Farmers. However, she quickly realised that the venture wasn’t commercially viable.

“We were servicing communities with small populations and class numbers fluctuated because of different periods like harvest – but I really felt that the need was there and communities were responding really well to the program,” she says.

“I realised we had to turn it into a not-for-profit, because it was never about making money anyway; it was about impact and there certainly was a need.”

Establishing a not-for-profit 

The process of turning her business into a not for profit was trickier than Ginny had envisaged but through her community she kept finding the support she needed and soon she had a Board and business sponsorship.

Of course, things got tricky when Ginny had an emergency caesarian the night before her first planned Board meeting but, despite bringing three kids into the world in the last four years, the not for profit has gone from strength to strength.

Active Farmers is now in 50 communities across Australia, offering 200 classes a month with around seven to eight participants in each. The organisation has branched out into large fundraising events such as Run for Resilience, and also offers each community a health workshop of their choice each year.

Image: Participants in the 2020 Active Farmers Games.

Assessing social impact

Ginny and her team recently invested in research with the Regional Australia Institute to assess the impact of Active Farmers.

“We felt we’d been in operation long enough to find out what impact it really was having,” she says. “I was very nervous – especially as so many people have worked so hard – but the results were really encouraging.”

The report showed nine out of 10 participants reported an improvement in mood after a class and said their fitness levels had increased.

“The best thing for me was the research suggests that Active Farmers is playing a role in building individual resilience, community resilience and boosting people’s ability to cope with factors outside their control like drought, floods and fires.”

Upskilling with a scholarship

Earlier this year, a Board member shared information with Ginny about Australian Scholarships Foundation’s capacity-building scholarships for the not-for-profit sector. Ginny applied and was honoured to soon find herself undertaking two, week-long intensives with McKinsey Academy’s Executive Leadership Program.

“It felt like such a privilege to be part of the course. The guest speakers were amazing and the facilitators were brilliant … I learnt so much.”

Ginny says highlights included taking the time to learn about herself, which was the primary focus in the first week; being reminded to get a big-picture perspective on the business rather than getting too bogged down in the daily nitty-gritty, and learning how to best support employees and embrace their ideas for the organisation.

At one point in the course, participants were asked about their ‘why’.  “I was relieved that I felt really clear about my why, whereas a lot of people struggled with that,” she says.

It’s no wonder Ginny has such clarity about her exceptional program, which she hopes to take to another 50 communities over the next few years.

“My view is that we rely on farmers to feed and clothe our country but we’re losing too many lives and, as a nation, we don’t always put the resources into addressing that.

“[At Active Farmers] we ultimately want to be saving lives from suicide and we know from our research that our program is working, so the more communities that have access to it, the better.”

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