BEHIND the nation’s burgeoning labour crisis lurks a bigger challenge: a nation of farmers and their families whose mental resilience is being pushed to breaking point.
In the past few weeks, I have heard from several farmers who are ready to throw in the towel, succumbing to the growing pressures they face to keep their businesses afloat, with mounting overheads, supply shortages and a lack of staff.
We have a nation of exhausted, frustrated farmers, who don’t feel heard or valued and, once the dust settles from Brexit, the extent of the mental health crisis which is engulfing the industry will become clear.
Many are questioning whether they can face the prospect of another harvest or another lambing season, when the current struggles show no signs of relenting. They feel abandoned by the UK Government which isn’t listening, isn’t acting and can’t see past its own pride, to allow them access to an overseas labour market that is vital for their harvesting plans.
It is all fair and well to talk of improving pay and working conditions to attract a local workforce, but many businesses have done just that, and it makes little or no difference. The UK workforce just isn’t interested!
It is time for Boris Johnson and his Government to wake up and realise that we simply don’t have an ample and willing labour pool, ready to fill roles in food production and processing, and repeatedly pushing this message on an exhausted, workforce is taking its mental toll.
The agricultural industry already has one of the highest rates of suicide of any sector, with one farmer each week taking their life in the UK. Everyone in farming has been affected by the death of a loved one, a friend, a neighbour, or a colleague, who has been lost to suicide and the grief this brings to the close-knit communities which characterize the sector cannot be overstated.
Read more – Farming’s ongoing battle with suicide
Farmers are too often expected to be of a “tougher breed”, and many feel the pressure to keep schtum when times are hard, not wanting to worry their family or to let down their forebears – carrying the weight of generations of a farming dynasty on their shoulders.
This week marks “AgMentalHealthWeek” – an annual mental health awareness campaign which looks to bring together voices from across the industry and the world, to unite in addressing poor mental health within the agricultural industry.
One farmer who has made it his mission to get the agricultural industry talking about mental health is New Zealand farmer Doug Avery – author of The Resilient Farmer.
Doug overcame drought, earthquakes, mental health challenges and spiralling debt to establish one of the most productive farms in New Zealand and, three years ago this week, he toured Scotland, offering advice to farmers on how to bounce forward from a crisis.
Doug developed depression in his mid-30s during an eight-year drought in Bonavaree, New Zealand, where he and his wife Wendy run their farm together. He became overwhelmed by the devastating impact the drought was having on his farm and began to push everyone around him away and became trapped in a black bubble – his own form of emotional drought.
When he was close to breaking point, he reluctantly attended a seminar led by a Dr Derrick Moot, who challenged farmers in the audience – many living through the same hellish drought – to be brave enough to change the direction of their businesses.
That one hour changed Doug’s life. He felt like he was given permission to admit he was struggling and to move forward and embrace new, positive opportunities.
Like many farmers, Doug had been scared to embark on a new path, choosing to suffer in silence when the times got tough, but he realised he needed to change the way he farmed if he was to survive the drought and make his farm prosperous again.
The advice he gave, which stuck with me to this day, is that the dice of life has risk on every face – so rise and face the world as it is.
Many years later, he did just that, following one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded – a magnitude of 7.8. Its epicentre was less than 2.5km from his home and its force lifted the entire farm two metres high and five metres north, bringing hillsides crashing down in the process. But to the amazement of all those who have listened to his story, he was able to gather the strength to get the farm back up and fully functioning 12 days later.
On recounting that challenging moment in his life, he said that the big things in life are outside our control and that the only thing we can control is how we meet these challenges.
Doug brought this message to Scotland and began revolutionising conversations around mental health. He gave farmers that same permission he had been given to admit that “it is okay not to be okay” – and his message stands to this day as a totem for the industry.
When resilience is running low, it is so important to ask for help.
Doug recognised that improving our nation’s mental health was the greatest opportunity our country has ever had to improve our social, environmental and financial development and it must not become an afterthought.
In the challenging months ahead, I hope that the farming industry will have the strength to speak out about the struggles they are facing, and that Boris Johnson and his government will, this time, be listening.
Guidance and support
If you have personally been affected by any of the content in this article and would like to seek further advice, please see the contact details of specific organisations below:
Breathing Space – Lines are open Mon – Thu between 6pm – 2am and from Fri 6pm – Mon 6am on 0800 83 85 87
RSABI – Helpline open seven days between 7am – 11pm on 0300 111 4166 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Samaritans – Helpline open 24/7, on 116 123 or 08457 90 90 90 or email@example.com