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The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) recently did a survey on farmer health and wellbeing. What they discovered about the state of the mental and physical health of our farming community was saddening and shocking to many, but for anyone who works closely with farmers, it's not a surprise.
This was the largest survey ever undertaken to gain an understanding directly from farming people of the stresses they face and the impacts on their wellbeing of these challenges. The findings represent the testimony of over 15,000 farmers, farm workers, contractors and their households.
It's no secret that farming is a very hard job characterised by long hours, dangerous working conditions and modest financial rewards. But less visible are high rates of mental ill-health and poor quality of life. Did you know that more than one farmer a week takes their own life? The study found that over a third of respondents have mental wellbeing scores that are sufficiently low to cause concern, experiencing high levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness. They also found that women farmers fare worse, with higher rates of depression and anxiety than their male counterparts.
We found this report particularly useful in that it not only shines a light on how much the farming community is suffering, but also explains the cause of the stress.
One factor in the top stressors that farmers identified as impacting their mental health was that the public didn't appreciate or understand what they do (30%) as well as financial pressure at 31%.
These are two areas that our model of farmer-focused trade helps to alleviate. Short supply chains and farmers' markets enable the public to know who their farmers are and have the chance to learn more about what they do. All the Better Food Traders in our network have a commitment to educating their customers about farming to help bridge the divide. The other vital thing is providing farmers with a secure market for their produce where they are paid properly and promptly. This goes a long way to alleviate farmer stress. Less financial pressure means farmers are more able to concentrate on working with nature rather than against it, adopting agroecological methods that improve soils and ecosystems rather than cutting corners with damaging chemicals and inhumane livestock practices.
This is one of the key things that our farmers cite as the best thing about trading with us. The study with the New Economics Foundation that we were involved in last year assessed the added value we create for the public, environment and farmers. One of the things they discovered was "the greatest benefit for farmers was wellbeing – the feeling that their work was more appreciated. They also benefited from being able to manage better financially and felt more secure in their job. The value of reduced pressure to scale up their operations was also significant, at £625 per farmer, as was the increased autonomy over what they can produce."
What these two studies by RABI and NEF show is that farming people matter. Defra estimates that 472,000 people work in commercial agriculture across the UK. Working across an estimated 219,000 holdings, farming people are responsible for 71% of UK land. If we look after our farmers, they look after us, and the land and the ecosystems they preside over.