The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Association of has a long history of helping farming families. But what’s it like to work for them on the front line of the battle against hardship in the countryside? Farmers Weekly finds out.

“Hello, it’s only me and it’s confidential.” This is what you will hear if you call the RABI helpline and Jackie Clegg answers.

“It’s my opening gambit,” says Jackie, the charity’s regional welfare officer in the north west of England. “I know how hard it is to ask for help and it’s so important to get people’s trust. Everything we do is 100% confidential.”

Sad farmer standing in a field

©I Love Images/Rex/Shutterstock

Jackie has been picking up the phone and helping farmers across Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and Staffordshire for 18 years. From her home in Whalley, north Lancashire, she drives hundreds of miles criss-crossing the counties, aiming to visit all her 100 Rabi beneficiaries once a year and meet an ever-growing number of new claimants.

Most beneficiaries are of retirement age or older and will receive either quarterly grants to help with TV licences, telephone line rental or other needs, or a one-off grant for specific equipment such as a rise-and-recline chair or a mobility scooter.

About Rabi

  • Welfare charity
  • Established in 1860
  • Support farming people of all ages if they are in financial difficulty and of limited means
  • Freephone helpline is 0808 281 9490 (office hours)
  • Email grants@rabi.org.uk; or visit the Rabi website
  • Works closely with The Farming Community Network (helpline 03000 111 999) and The Addington Fund (call 01926 620 135)
  • Operates in England and Wales – a sister charity, the RSABI operates in Scotland

“Generally, our full beneficiaries are men, women and couples who have worked in farming for at least 10 years and retired either naturally or through disability or ill health,” Jackie explains.

“We aim to make their lives more comfortable, get them out and about and give them a better quality of life.”

But in the past year, Jackie has seen the demand for help from younger farmers increase dramatically. “My workload has gone from looking after a steady trickle of full beneficiaries to being exceptionally busy on the working farmer side because things are so dire,” she says.

Unsympathetic banks

In recent weeks, Jackie has visited six small dairy farms in Cumbria alone. “I am definitely seeing more working farmers now, particularly dairy farmers,” she says. And it is very clear to Jackie why this is the case. 

“Dairy farms are facing the catastrophic combination of a devastatingly low milk price, late BPS cheques and unsympathetic banks,” she says.

Across the region, Jackie says she observes “undue” pressure from some banks. She cites a farm in Cheshire that just two years ago increased borrowings on the back of a profitable dairy business but now faces bankruptcy.

TB, and particularly the restrictions around selling stock, is also taking its toll. “The problem in Cheshire seems to be easing off, but in recent weeks I have been out to four TB-affected farms in Cumbria,” Jackie notes.

In Cumbria, the situation is exacerbated by the winter floods. “One farm I visited had 60 acres under water and still hasn’t received any money from the Flood Recovery Fund to repair hedges and fences,” she says.

Jackie Clegg

Jackie Clegg

And, as low prices also hit beef, lamb and pig producers, Jackie is seeing referrals rising across all farming sectors. “I am really worried about the future,” she admits. “Where will this end?

“I so understand why farmers hang on but, while we can help a claimant through a tricky period, we are not here to prop up a farm that isn’t viable.”

The work of Rabi’s 14 regional welfare officers can be very stressful. “I have sat at many a kitchen table and seen strong farmers in tears,” Jackie says. “They really do not want charitable assistance and, in my view, fairer returns would enable farmers to make a reasonable living.”

She admits to having left farms in tears. “I try to put a brave face on, especially when there are children involved, but it’s hard. Most weeks I am on my own, but if I am very upset I can ring the office. We also have regular welfare committee meetings at Rabi headquarters in Oxford.”

But, for Jackie, the reward “is knowing that we are there at a crucial time”. Sometimes she scores an outright success. Last year, for example, she gave evidence in a court appeal, winning a Rabi beneficiary personal independence payments. “That was a good day,” she says.

More often, though, her work involves a patient slog through bureaucracy. “Getting help for someone is not always quick and I can spend a full day on the phone just talking to agencies.

“My background as a social worker means I have a lot of experience of benefits, but I also try to give an holistic service for the whole family.”

Flood victims

Flooded farmland

©FLPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Rabi’s message is simple – “times change, but needs don’t”. In the mid-1930s, it supported 1,000 people at an annual cost of £32,000. Last year it distributed £1.87m to 1,340 individuals and families in England and Wales facing financial hardship.

Since December 2015, Rabi has given out emergency grants of £58,000 to flood victims in Cumbria, Lancashire and Durham.

One-off payments are made in exceptional circumstances such as accident, illness, family breakdown, bereavement and animal disease. The grant is designed to ease the domestic burden in a crisis by, for instance, funding extra labour, meeting funeral costs or paying utility bill arrears.

Sometimes it is a case of giving very practical aid. In one case, a cheque to buy food for a family living on eggs and potatoes “meant the world to them.” In another, Jackie went out and did a shop herself for a farmer whose marriage had broken down.

“It was my decision that help was needed immediately,” Jackie says. “Usually aid has to be rubber stamped by RABI’s welfare committee.

“Over the years, cases have become more complicated. We give more basic debt advice, as well as advising on welfare and benefits. I spend a lot of time filling in forms to get payments the claimant is entitled to or the right kind wheelchair from the NHS.”

To qualify for a grant, applicants have to be on a low income and have limited savings. But the charity stresses that, even if it can’t offer financial support, it can direct farmers to other sources of help as well as offering advice.

Rabi works closely with The Farming Community Network, The Addington Fund and NHS social care packages.

“The message that RABI is here to help is getting through and I’m always busy, but I’m also sure we are still missing some people,” Jackie says.

“Farmers are very proud and reluctant to contact us. There are instances when we get a call only when the bailiffs are at the door and it is too late to help.”

Above all, Jackie sees her role as the human link between the charity and individuals needing help. Many of the full beneficiaries are lonely and isolated so look forward to a cheerful visit, she says. “We become attached and friendly over the years.” 

“Eighteen years as a welfare officer has given me a really good insight into farming,” Jackie adds. “My grandfather farmed in Rochdale, Lancashire, and if I was 20 years younger, I would love my own smallholding.

“There is a lot we can help with. So I would say, if you are in any difficulty, please ring.”