Imagine asking a member of the public to think about what farming means to them. Can you guess what image they would think of? I imagine in a lot of cases it would be the picture postcard rural scene. Sun dappled green fields, animals grazing and crops blowing in a gentle breeze. Physically fit farmers, working their land, content in their connection to nature. Happy children playing in the farmyard, watched over by the apron-wearing farmer’s wife, as she bakes some tasty cakes!
Of course, these idyllic scenes do happen, but they do not reflect the day-to-day grind of running a farm today. As a farmer’s wife I’m afraid the cakes I make are often burned, rather than tasty! and that’s on the rare occasions I find time to bake! My husband and his father run a beef and sheep farm in north Cumbria and I grew up in a farming community and have been involved on our farm for the last twenty years. I’m also currently doing a study at university, looking at ways we can improve our well-being, after seeing the daily struggles that we, as a farming community, can go through.
If we tried to explain to a non-farmer the daily struggles we face, it could be challenging. We manage the tribulations of working with animals, who can be vulnerable to illness. We face the threat of animal disease, such as Bovine TB or Avian Flu. Our crops are threatened by failure, drought, or floods. We swap hats and become business managers, understanding accounts, regulations, and bureaucracy. We deal with, what feels like sometimes, never ending paperwork to keep the agencies informed of everything we do. We handle spiraling energy and input costs. We survive having little to no control over our income. We even negotiate our work to fit around the weather, which is firmly in the hands of the gods! The reality of being a farmer today can be far removed from those beautiful scenes of a green and pleasant land, with a contented lifestyle.
Being a farmer can be rewarding in so many ways. Sometimes though, the constant battle against the elements, disease and red tape can begin to feel like an uphill struggle. Add into that mix, the fact that we tend to spend a large part of our day alone, which gives us time to dwell on these problems. It is easy to see then why occasionally, the difficulties of farming become a burden that we find too hard to carry. The increasing weight placed on our shoulders can make it difficult to approach everyday life with ease and contentment. And it doesn’t matter how long we have been involved in farming. The continual stressors wear down our ability to manage both our emotions and our responses. Many of the problems we face are outside of our personal control. Government changes and focus, weather, and diseases, are all factors which are outside of our ability to change, but we still must manage them. This can lead to both our personal reserves of energy and our financial resources becoming depleted. It can then be difficult to see beyond the source of these problems.
As a livestock farmer though, one of the most common phrases in our home is “where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock”. Put into other words, as farmers, we understand that life isn’t always rosy. We grasp that bad things can, and will, happen and we must find a way of getting on with it. Without even being aware of it, we are showing resilience. Resilience is, very simply, our ability to bounce back from our problems and to keep going. Accepting that life sometimes can be difficult and finding a way to deal with what gets thrown at us, is part of what being resilient means. And as farmers, we need resilience in spades!
As farmers, we typically tend to be quite a private group. We don’t have a habit of shouting from the mart box about the things that worry us! But, if we all spoke to each other a little more, we would perhaps soon see that many of us are carrying the same bucket load of problems. And we are all trying as hard as we can to carry on without that bucket overflowing or us dropping it. The things that cause us to feel concerned, the things that we dwell on, or that keep us awake at night, or wake us early in the morning, are very common to many of us. Knowing that these concerns are experienced by many of us does not reduce their weight unless we are willing to share the load and talk to one another. All too often it seems easier to “put up and shut up” and our buckets become too heavy to manage with the weight of the problems we are carrying.
And there are lots of concerns to carry right now….
The security and future of our farms is a leading cause of concern. We take pride in our farms; they give us a sense of belonging and purpose. We feel a connection to the land we work on. Whilst we accept the inevitability of livestock death, none of us like to think about what will happen when our loved ones die. Some of us find it hard to think about what might happen when our own time is going to come too. But whether we want to talk about it or not, the one certainty in life is that death will come to us all. Staying quiet, burying our heads in the sand, or putting off making plans for what will happen to our farms when it does happen, is a recipe for trouble. Many farms are run in a secret closed nature. This means we are not doing all we can to protect our farms for future generations. By not making firm legal plans, we create anxiety for ourselves as we don’t want to think about if we may need to split up a business. It is also causing anxiety too for the children and siblings who don’t know what the future holds. And the troubles that people are left with when deaths happen without legal affairs being sorted can be catastrophic. Farms all over the country are being lost. All because we aren’t making proper plans for succession by getting our business and legal affairs into order.
We all work long hours and when the work outside is done, we then can end up with the paperwork to do too. Negotiating new scheme requirements and keeping on top of new grant applications are part and parcel of running farms today. Having to fit these around our crops and animals can take considerable organisation skills. We worry we aren’t doing things correctly. We are scared we’ll be penalised for making a genuine mistake. And when things are busy outside, paperwork can be the last thing we want to face late in the evening when we’re tired. When we don’t quite manage to understand requirements or keep on top of admin, this can cause be a real source of stress.
Finally, how could I consider what causes us to feel stressed without considering money! Everyone, not just those of us in the farming community, is feeling the pinch with the cost of living being so high. However, with the rising energy costs, the price of fertiliser fluctuating and machinery costs escalating, we are taking a real hit with the amount of expenditure we are having to make. With the BPS ending by 2027 we all know we need to ensure we future proof our businesses to ensure we can manage financially. The uncertainty and these changes may leave us feeling like we have little control, which can be a big strain for us to manage.
But there are things we can do to help ….
Unfortunately, we cannot remove stress from farming. We cannot control the weather or, for example, have any direct impact upon the world economy. Even when we do find a way of removing one problem, something else is often waiting around the corner to refill our buckets. It is the nature of farming. The variety and challenges are one of the reasons why many of us love it so much. So long as we find a way to carry that bucket without it becoming too heavy. And there are some things we can do to help ourselves manage the load. We can make some small changes in our own lives that can help us when things become difficult. By considering how we react and behave in response to problems we may be able to make small changes. These might help us keep going when our buckets become heavy.
Over the coming weeks on this blog, I’ll be talking more about the issues we face as farmers. The problems that fill our buckets up. More importantly, I’ll be discussing the kind of things we can do to help carry our buckets. How we can build our resilience. I’ll also be explaining a little about the studies that I’m doing to try to help us better understand the causes of stress and solutions. I’ll be explaining how you can get involved and take part.
What’s coming on this blog….
1. Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock: Welcome to the blog.
2. Helping others whilst helping ourselves; It’s good to Talk: Not just a cliché.
3. Digging deep: Building our resilience.
4. Women In Farming: Recognising our contribution.
5. Sources of stress and some solutions: Get involved to help us to understand.
In the meantime, for further information on how the Future Farming Resilience Fund can help specifically with the transition from the BPS, succession planning and advice about possible grant funding, please visit these links on the website for further details. We also have a section with links to useful information to support your personal resilience here
Sarah Nyczaj Kyle, June 2023