There can be very few farmers who do not know of a friend or colleague that has taken his own life. I have known several over the past fifty years. Although there is some doubt about definitions, the statistics are horrific, one farmer or farm worker commits suicide for every week of the year. That level of despair and misery is a tragedy and a national disgrace.
Farming can be a very lonely and isolated existence. It is always said that it is not so much a job as a way of life and that is part of the problem. The hours are very long, at least at certain times of the year, and the farmer lives on site, making it more difficult to switch off when the work is done. I remember, many years ago, a friend telling me that he could cope with being the boy doing all the dirty jobs because he knew, in time, that he would become the gaffer and there would be boys to do the heavy work. But he was wrong because, by the time he became the gaffer, the boys were long gone and he still had to do the dirty jobs on his own.
Most farmers come into farming because their fathers were farmers before them. That was certainly true in my case, it never occurred to me to do anything else. The boy, or often the girl, is expected to take on the family business as, in many cases, the farm has been in hand for generations. The lucky ones take courses at an agricultural college or even go to university for a degree and perhaps have a year or two working elsewhere to get more experience. But there are many who leave school at the earliest opportunity to start work on the farm.
The skills required to be a successful farmer are broad and varied. Husbandry, of course, the ability to grow crops or rear animals is essential but that is becoming increasingly scientific and technical. IT skills are necessary too, partly because of the ever increasing technology, such as robotics, but also to be able to complete the mountain of paperwork involved, increasingly online. Finally, the farmer has to be an entrepreneur with financial and the other skills required to run a successful business. There are many farmers who struggle with some aspects, perhaps without the expertise or training to cope.
The arable farmer may be sitting on a tractor for long hours, the dairy farmer gets up before dawn to milk his cows. The livestock farmer in the uplands may spend much of his time out on the fells tending his animals. The weather is unpredictable and one spell may ruin months of work. Digging sheep out of snow drifts as happened during the Beast from the East last year, watching crops die back as drought takes hold is hard to take. Disease is as bad, such as the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001 when many thousands of animals were slaughtered. Bovine tuberculosis in cattle has caused great despair, especially when many years of careful breed improvement is lost along with the compulsory slaughter. The late payment of Government grants plays havoc with cash flow and yet the Rural Payments Agency seems incapable of paying everyone on time.
There are far fewer people working on farms than there were a generation ago. Farmers may feel isolated, especially if they live in remote rural areas. Many are unwilling to discuss their problems with their wives or families because they feel that they are letting down their loved ones, showing weakness. At times of great despair they may think that suicide is the only way out and, as farmers, have the means to hand, whether that be access to poisons or the shotgun. But that only creates greater problems for those left behind.
I was lucky, I had few of these problems in my farming career. I had good staff on the farm and the support of family and friends. Nevertheless, I felt hemmed in at times. I became a magistrate and sat on the bench once or twice a month. However overwhelming my problems felt as I drove to court, by the time I had heard the evidence of others’ difficulties, I had a totally different perspective on my way home.
There are several charities carrying out great work to alleviate the stress. The Farming Help Group is composed of the Farming Community Network, the Addington Fund and RABI, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. The Farming Community Network was set up in 1995 as the Farm Crisis Network, changing its name in 2013. It has both telephone and internet helplines and over 400 volunteers organised in county groups. They take 100 to 150 calls each month which are passed onto local volunteers who also receive another 150 to 200 enquiries a month. The Addington Fund and RABI both can help financially, with housing after retirement or short terms grants to help with disability, care home or relief farm staff.
Farming may be a wonderful life but it can bring a lot of stress and despair. Many rural villages have become mere dormitories with a loss of community cohesion and spirit adding to the sense of isolation. Suicide is a tragic loss of life that reverberates through the farming community, a waste of humanity. The United Kingdom is not alone, the rate in France is one farmer every two days, little better in the United States. All of us must play our part is alleviating this appalling loss, by donating to the charities that could do more with greater funding, but above all, by demonstrating our love and support for our friends and neighbours to lift the isolation and despair.
Anyone needing help should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 03000 111 999.