Long hours, working alone and a feeling of being undervalued and disconnected from the wider public are among the key factors which cause loneliness within the farming community, a major new study shows.
The research by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) and national charity The Farming Community Network (FCN), has identified reasons why farmers and farming families can feel isolated and lonely – at the same time laying bare many of the challenges and pressures farmers regularly face in their occupation.
Loneliness was found in the study to be linked to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
The study involved in-depth interviews with 22 farmers/members of farming families and 6 farm support practitioners in England, conducted either by telephone or video-call between March and July 2021.
Farmers have said the long hours they work trying to keep their business going despite low returns leaves little time for socialising, relaxing, or spending time with their family.
Other challenges include a lack of social opportunities, geographical isolation and declining business-related contact.
Poor rural broadband and transport connections add to this sense of isolation, as well as a general feeling that the public has a limited understanding of what is involved in farming and the array of challenges farmers face in producing food and managing the countryside.
One farming man, aged 40-49, said: "I just couldn’t see anywhere to go. Because all I was doing, back then I was working on average I reckon 15-18 hours a day. I’d be sat on the tractor seat all day trying to earn money to keep the business afloat.”
A farming woman, aged 18-29, said: "Being on a farm in the middle of nowhere... you are out on a limb in agriculture…the internet is rubbish, you can’t quickly send a message to someone, you can’t call someone because you won’t have signal, and there are so many hurdles in order for you to get anywhere, both physically and mentally. It just really takes its toll and just slowly grinds you down.”
Another farming man, aged 50-39, said: “I don’t understand what people want from British agriculture anymore. That’s what makes me feel a bit lonely and a bit sad really.”
The research found that farmers are keen to highlight the vital role they play in producing food, and the positive actions they are taking to care for and improve the environment, but feel these are often overlooked in media stories about agriculture and environmental issues such as climate change. This can lead to farmers and their families feeling unappreciated and isolated from wider society.
The research also provides a number of important recommendations for improving support to farmers, including continued investment in rural broadband; further education and outreach to help the public understand farming and its challenges; and normalising taking time off-farm and finding a healthy work-life balance.
The research was carried out by Dr Rebecca Wheeler and Professor Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter and Dr Jude McCann and Alex Phillimore MCIPR from The Farming Community Network (FCN).
Dr Rebecca Wheeler from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) said: “Farmers are currently facing a multitude of challenges and many told us about how they are struggling to find the time to socialise or take a break from the stresses of the occupation.
“Farming can be a lonely life for both farmers and their families and negative views of farming among the public can exacerbate feelings of isolation further. We need to do more to celebrate the work that farmers do in producing food and managing our countryside and support them in making positive changes where needed.”
Participants told researchers ‘hard work’ is an accepted and valued part of what it means to be a farmer, and that this can lead to pressures and expectations to work harder whatever the situation. Loneliness and other mental health problems were compounded by a reluctance to talk about their worries, sometimes even to those closest to them.
Dr Jude McCann, Chief Executive Officer of FCN, said: “There is a need for a culture change in farming that not only permits farmers to feel they can take a break from work without fear of judgement, but actively promotes it as an essential part of successfully managing a farm business. Taking a break from the farm or having a rest from work is not a waste of time. The truth is it’s one of the most productive things you can do.
“Farmers told us they are expected to be strong and resilient and that admitting they are struggling and need help would be an admission of failure, of somehow not being a ‘good farmer’. This prevented people seeking help for loneliness and related mental health issues. We need to encourage a positive farm-life balance, whilst also doing.
“Participants also spoke about a culture within their families of not discussing mental health, linked in part to wider taboos about the issue within the farming industry.”
Recommendations made in the report include:
- The work of the Farming Help charities, including FCN, is vital, and these charities must be properly funded.
- Regulatory inspectors and farm assurance assessors should be trained to recognise mental health issues.
- Rural GPs and Community Psychiatric Nurses should have greater information and training on the specific issues and challenges faced by members of the farming community.
- There should be an expansion of practical and business support for farmers.
- Continued investment in rural broadband access from local authorities/providers is essential to improve connectivity and reduce isolation.
- There should be greater social opportunities and networks (both in-person and online) for farmers, farm workers and farm family members locally.
- Further education of young people on food production, farming and environment is necessary in helping to attract more people into farming and to reduce feeling of ‘disconnect’ from wider society many farmers experience.
- Spending time with family and getting away from the farm should be normalised via promotion of a culture change within farming communities.
This project has been funded by the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation.
You can register to attend a webinar about the research via the link here: https://bit.ly/3pjkya2
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Loneliness and Social Isolation in Farming Communities: Summary of research findings
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