Better support needed to help farmers under pressure, warn charities
Greater recognition and support is needed to help Britain’s farming families meet the challenges facing UK agriculture, says a coalition of rural charities and industry organisations.
The warning is contained in a Health and well-being Research Report prepared by researchers from the University of Lincoln and rural economic consultants Rose Regeneration.
It was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Farmers, which led an industry forum comprising 20 farming charities, rural organisations and support groups.
The report paints a picture of an agricultural industry with lots of potential – but an urgent need for a more holistic approach to support if those working in the sector are to thrive.
Concerns include major challenges around mental health, long working hours and rural isolation – as well as unpredictable weather, uncertain global markets and volatile commodity prices.
Wide-ranging changes in government policies for agriculture due to Brexit will add to these pressures – requiring many farm businesses to rethink the way they operate.
While some farmers and farm businesses are well-placed to deal with these changes, others are not.
Two thirds of younger farmers report being good physical health, they are most likely to say that their mental health is only ‘about average’.
There are also social and cultural factors that affect health and well-being behaviours in farmers.
In general, stoic attitudes may make it more likely for people living and working in rural communities to deny health problems, says the report.
Stakeholders and rural support organisations suggest that there may be under-reporting of suicide among farming occupations.
Statistics on suicide by occupation only includes those up to the age of 65, meaning that farmers who continue working beyond traditional retirement age are not included in the data.
Academics, organisations and charities highlighted in the study have also identified a series of economic or business factors affecting the farming sector.
These include declining farm gate prices, changing weather patterns, animal diseases, and the burden created by the large number of regulatory bodies.
While some farmers continue to operate while making a loss – relying upon credit to keep their farm business going, others diversify their activities to generate income on or off the farm.
Succession planning and the pressure to retain the farm within the family can put extra stress on farmers to continue, says the report.
The pressure of maintaining the legacy of the family farm combined with social and physical isolation, living in a close-knit community means people are sometimes reluctant to seek help.
The situation is exacerbated by a reduction in services over the last 10 years which has contributed to a downward spiral in health and well-being among rural communities.
At the same time, public bodies and national organisations that support communities are increasingly beset with enquiries and referrals.
These include health (NHS), social care (local authorities), welfare and debt (Citizens Advice).
This means local, regional and national support groups and charities which specifically help farmers, their families and rural communities are being called on more than ever before.
Often locally managed, these rural support groups are embedded within the communities they look after – frequently made-up of staff, volunteers and trustees from the local area.
They are often best-placed to help because they are known, seen and trusted by farming communities who feel able to ask for support on their own terms.
But all support groups have finite resources and some struggle to raise the funds or recruit the staff needed to meet the demands of their increased workload.
This leads some groups to become project focused – because funders can be reluctant to cover core costs – and means that they are unable to plan for the longer-term.
The study says increasing openness about mental health and well-being in agriculture provides an opportunity for support groups to develop new tools and approaches to the help they offer.
“A number of other countries have national initiatives to promote well-being among farmers and farming communities,” says WCF former master Philip Wynn, who initiated the Forum.
Those countries include New Zealand, which set up a nationwide FarmStrong programme to help them manage their health and well-being.
The FarmStrong initiative encourages farmers to perform at their best by sharing health and well-being tips – building up resilience while recognising the pressures involved in agriculture.
“A similar initiative in the UK would reduce the stigma of asking for help and encourage more farmers to access support sooner rather than later,” says Mr Wynn.
The report makes a number of recommendations:
enhance the help provided to staff, volunteers and trustees at support groups so they do not experience burnout as demands on their services increase.
collect data and evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of support groups and the positive difference they make to farming and rural communities.
improve networking between support groups and with other service providers so they can learn from one another and share resources where appropriate
better promote the work of rural support networks and highlight their benefits more effectively with government, statutory funders and major charities.
The establishment of a nationwide programme which takes a holistic approach to promote well-being among farming families and rural communities.