Have you heard of Active Farmers?
It’s a charity organisation that’s passionate about improving fitness and general wellbeing in small farming communities across Australia.
Active Farmers was founded by Ginny Stevens after she moved to a small farming community in NSW. Initially, the goal was to mimic a team sporting environment bringing people together to exercise and socialise.
But the town of Mangoplah, NSW, (population 300) set a benchmark, and it wasn’t long before neighbouring communities were reaching out to Ginny for a personal trainer to run fitness classes.
Now, when Ginny says small communities, she’s talking about the small towns with populations of about ranging from 100 to 5,000 people.
“Many farmers would have played football in their youth, but when they hang up their boots to focus on family and farming life, that social connection is often lost, unless they’re bumping into a friend at the pub,” Ginny said.
“I didn’t think Active Farmers was ever going to extend past my small community.”
Today, Active Farmers is a not-for-profit organisation providing fitness classes in 68 regional and rural communities across Australia, predominantly in small towns that have limited access to health and fitness opportunities.
There are 47 personal trainers delivering weekly fitness classes, some across multiple communities and many more towns wanting to get involved.
Statistics reveal why organisations such as Active Farmers are so important in rural communities farmers are overrepresented in reports of suicide and self-harm.
Active Farmers is responding with weekly classes, which is their bread and butter, but additional events such as Run for Resilience, charity bike rides and the Active Farmers games bring communities together and provide a fun, challenging and social environment not just for farmers, but the entire community.
While attendance numbers may not be as high as those in the city, Ginny says providing a fitness class for a small group of people is still important.
“Numbers aren’t always going to be high depending on farming and seasonal conditions, but it’s still really important for those who attend,” Ginny said.
“The stronger our farmers are, both mentally and physically, the better they can cope with farming and climatic challenges that impact their daily jobs.”
In southern NSW, cotton farmer Joe Briggs knows all too well how much of an impact Active Farmers can have on a community, and an individual.
During the drought in 2019, Joe was struggling with his mental health. Farming was extremely challenging, paddocks were brown and bare.
“In the city, you’ve just got to walk out your front door and you will see people. But in the bush, if you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t see people for weeks,” he said.
“When you’re sitting on a tractor and drinking Red Bull and thinking about your overdraft to keep you going - heading to a fitness class once a week is a great thing to do...”
Joe got involved with Active Farmers and signed himself up for a charity bike ride. It worked. The challenge took his mind off the drought and helped improve his mental health.
Joe’s community spirit kick-started a fundraiser to build a community gym in Coleambally. He is an Active Farmers board member, and this year, hosted the second Active Farmers games in Coleambally.
While the majority of Active Farmers communities cater to both men and women, The Coleambally Active Farmers community is a men’s-only fitness class, led by personal trainer and fellow cotton farmer Angus Whittaker.
“Coleambally had fitness classes for women, but nothing for the blokes besides a beer at the pub,” Joe said.
“It has definitely brought many men off the farm for a jog around the park, some good banter and coffee afterwards – sparking the opportunity for conversation and to check on each other.”
The demand for Active Farmers is massive, Ginny says.
But finding personal trainers, and the financial support is what is holding Active Farmers back from reaching more communities across Australia.
“We were fortunate to have Delta Ag partner with us in 2017 to expand Active Farmers, and many more since then, but we are always welcoming new partnerships that can help us grow and deliver health and fitness,” Ginny said.
“We also have the Empowered program that puts individuals through their personal training qualifications so they can start fitness classes in their communities. Because as you could imagine, there’s not an abundance in rural towns.”
In September, Active Farmers will celebrate five years as a charity organisation and will be holding a black tie ball at Mangoplah, where it all began.