Food and Farming: Webinar 3 of Cirican and The Open University’s Rural Natters Webinar Series

“Without farmers we’d be hungry, naked, and sober,” was the title of a recent TEDx talk looking into the decline of farmers in the US despite their importance to society. Unfortunately, farmers in England are also facing challenges, both health and business related. The third and final webinar of this series developed by Cirican and The Open University dived in to take a closer look at these challenges, and how charities are tackling them.  

Challenges our farmers face

Farmers are facing huge challenges which have significant impacts on their ability and motivation to continue with their work. According to Farmer’s Weekly, 28% of farmers are considering giving up farming or downsizing their business. Difficult, challenging work is not rewarded sufficiently and is instead being made harder by shifts in society, legislation, and finances.

Edward Richardson of Farm Cornwall outlined the poor mental health of the farmers he and his organisation, which seeks to support the farming community, interacts with. This poor mental health is driven by a myriad of factors, especially debt issues. He said many farms are riddled with debt resulting from easy to borrow money, used to fund new resources or machinery, which is subsequently creating a huge mental and financial burden.

This debt is hard to work off, not least because financial gains have not risen in line with inflation and the cost of living. The price of commodities and what farmers earn for their work has remained static for decades. At a recent meeting of farmers everyone present said they would not be investing any further in their farms as a result, Edward explained.

Farmers also face resentment for their perceived role in climate change. Activists are targeting farmers for their greenhouse gas emissions and livestock herds, despite the amount of carbon that can be stored in pasture based systems. Farmers feel unappreciated, Edward said, and the short lived recognition they received for their key work during the Covid-19 pandemic has quickly dissipated.

The mental strain of business troubles and public resentment is compounded by extreme isolation. Advances in technology and machinery mean teams of workers are no longer required and instead many farmers now work their land alone.  These factors, along with confusing and hard to navigate legislation, are leading to an exodus of farmers and an unwillingness amongst new generations to take farms over from their parents.

Support available

Organisations such as Farm Cornwall and Lincolnshire Rural Support Network (LRSN) provide health and business support to farmers, but their job is a big one both in capacity and geography. Farm Cornwall, for examples, has three employees covering the entire county and the Isles of Scilly.

LRSN provides one to one support, a helpline, health screenings, and business support. Amy Thomas, Head of Charity at LRSN, said the organisation is experiencing an increase in support requests across the board. In the 2021-2022 financial year LRSN received business financial support requests from 186 families over 12 months – the first six months of this financial year has seen 165 families make requests already.

A big area of impact for LRSN is the provision of health checks. LRSN sets up walk-in centres at three local farmers markets and also has a mobile ‘health hut’ to take to farming events, and Amy said this has been an excellent method of getting farmers, who often cannot get to doctor surgeries, to engage with health checks.

Both LRSN and  Farm Cornwall can demonstrate their social value. Every £1 invested at Farm Cornwall generates a social value of £13.80, while at LRSN every £1 generates a social value of £16.93.

Despite this important work, Alan Robson, who works closely with LRSN in his role as at Lincolnshire Agricultural Chaplain, said there needs to be greater input from central government. Alan explained the need for an active parliament with legally binding targets for food resilience and sustainability, and ideally even a cabinet minister. Without a holistic, joined up approach, many farmers will continue to face the challenges they experience today.

If you’d like to continue these conversations with our chair and speakers you can reach out to them at the following:

Edward Richarson, Farm Cornwall,

Amy Thomas, LRSN,

Alan Robson, Lincolnshire Rural and Agricultural Chaplaincy,

Ivan Annibal, Cirican & Rose Regeneration,

You can download Amy and Alan’s slides here

You can download Edward’s slides here