NZ: Research exposes farmers’ emotional responses to M. bovis eradication

In 2017, the presence of Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis) was confirmed on Southern New Zealand (NZ) farms. M. bovis is a disease spread between animals through close contact and bodily fluids such as milk and mucus, causing pneumonia in calves, and arthritis and mastitis in adult cattle.

The first case of M. bovis was found in New Zealand on a dairy farm near Oamaru in July 2017. In May 2018, a decision was made to try and eradicate this disease and a 10-year Mycoplasma bovis Eradication Programme was initiated with the support of DairyNZ, MPI and Beef + Lamb New Zealand.

New research, published in the Journal of Rural Studies, shows the impact of the eradication programme on affected farmers. It illustrates their liminal experience – their emotional transition through major transition.

“This is very overwhelming”
One dairy farmer, named Timothy, experienced a partial cull on-farm. He said, “Looking back, I can see I went through a series of emotional phases… The initial one was shock. Second phase I think was probably a panic… Third one was trying to think, ‘Jesus, this is very overwhelming’… And then I got to [the] phase, ‘Okay, we’re stuck in this, how are we going to get out?’… I think I’ve become more pragmatic about things. I’m more accepting of what needed to happen… But it was a difficult period to go through all those phases.”

The paper, Mycoplasma bovis and the liminal journey of southern New Zealand farmers, was written by researchers from the University of Otago, VetSouth NZ and Curtin University, Australia.

They note that M. bovis does not pose any human health or food safety risks and is not considered to be particularly contagious.

However, M. bovis was listed as an Unwanted Organism under the Biosecurity Act 1993, and on May 28, 2018, the NZ government announced a decision (unique in the context of international responses to M. bovis) to commence a phased eradication of M. bovis.

Eradication was to be achieved via the identification of infected animals at herd level, and subsequent culling, i.e. slaughtering, of infected herds.

Improving farmer support
The researchers explain the importance of their retrospective research. “Awareness of the liminal journey is valuable to providers of farmer support (e.g. Rural Support Trusts, banks, rural business advisors, veterinarians, rural organisations such as Federated Farmers).

“It provides them with a framework for anticipating the needs of farmers and agri-business operators as they move through the process of a biosecurity crisis or regulatory challenge, for example the authorised extraordinary culling of entire herds of asymptomatic cattle, or any other disaster response, for that matter.

“For agricultural industry regulators, a better understanding of the process and impacts of liminality as it can be applied to a disease incursion and response will better serve regulatory decisions and their associated outcomes and may assist farmer compliance and recovery.”

Liminal experiences
Liminal transitions were first described by Van Gennep in 1960 to illustrate rites of passage, with three defined stages of transformation identified: separation, the transition itself, and reincorporation.

The first stage occurs when the individual becomes detached from their former role or situation.

The second (transitional or liminal) stage is typified by suspension from everyday routines and social roles. Uncertainty, disorientation and ambiguity distinguish this space.

In the third and final stage, the liminal space/place is exited and the liminar returns, transformed in some way, to society.

Qualitative study
The study identified eighteen farmers and farming couples who were then interviewed about the impact of the 2017 Mycoplasma bovis incursion and its management on farmers in southern New Zealand.

Farmers described separation from usual farming practices during the incursion management process. The disruption to farming rhythms was characterised by long periods of waiting for test results, stand-down periods, and compensation claim outcomes.

In emerging from the incursion, participants reflected on altered identities and relationships within rural communities and with the government, including greater awareness of biosecurity issues.

The liminality of M. bovis was anchored upon the farm. However, the liminal space of M. bovis lingered long after the official exit of the farm from liminal status.

The researchers say, “Previous research into the impact of exotic diseases and their associated intervention programmes has highlighted the hidden, under-reported and sustained psychosocial stress for affected farmers which is frequently unacknowledged at the time.

“Our analysis revealed remarkable similarity in participants’ experiences of the M. bovis management and eradication intervention, and frequent use of the phrase “being in limbo”. Farmers exposed to the intervention described transitioning through a series of distinct phases punctuated by long periods of waiting that were characterised by uncertainty.”

Read the paper, Mycoplasma bovis and the liminal journey of southern New Zealand farmers

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