Few of us go to church every Sunday, but what if the Church came to us? Rachel Lovell meets a Methodist man who’s a rural lifeline

If you head down to Holsworthy market in Devon this week, the chances are you won’t spot Andy Jerrard.

As the auctioneer rattles through lots, this softly-spoken man will be quietly circulating. Just a small badge on his lapel shows he’s not there to bid.

The story behind his presence started in the mid-90s. As an agricultural adviser in north-west Devon, Andy noticed he was increasingly spending as much time listening to farmers’ personal problems as he was talking to them about business.

“A combination of factors had built up and put farmers under enormous stress,” he says. “The introduction of milk quotas, the BSE crisis and new European regulations had really changed the way that farming operated and was perceived.”

With profits decreasing, wives and partners often had to get jobs away from the farm to make ends meet. Advances in technology meant that farmers were managing with fewer staff, and this only magnified their isolation. The situation is much the same today, and this is where Andy’s role as a Rural Support Worker steps in.

“Folk need someone to pop in and provide a listening ear; someone who understands the farming community but doesn’t work in it and is not part of the family. I’m just doing what the local vicars and ministers used to do when they didn’t have as many churches to look after.”

The need is one for befriending rather than intervening in a crisis situation, which is already provided by organisations like the Farm Crisis Network.

It’s TB that seems to have the biggest impact on the mental health of our farming community

Born into a family of Devon farmers, Andy always had his feet in the soil. After studying agriculture, followed by a career with the Environment Agency, he spotted the advert for his current role in a local church newsletter. Funded by the Methodist Church but non-ordained, Andy and his team spend time at Holsworthy and South Molton livestock markets every week, and Exeter’s market once a month.

“Being part of people’s work- lives is where I believe the Church should be; Christianity relates at least as much to work days as it does to Sundays, and for many in the farming community that dividing line is not clear cut,” he says.

“We’re here to listen and to break into isolation before it spirals into something more serious. Our aim is to be there for the ordinary, so that if the extraordinary comes along, the relationship is already there.”

So while the chat at the markets may be about beef prices and land sales, Andy is often helping with more serious issues back in the farmyard. Many of the problems he deals with are universal: debt, family and divorce. However, because the home and the business are the same place in farming, a problem in one area can quickly take over everything.

“Inheritance is a big issue. Deciding when the next generation take on the farm and how much they should do is very difficult,” he says. “Often the older generation are not ready to relinquish control, leaving the next generation waiting for their opportunity; they can’t see it coming yet they are expected to carry on.”

But, it’s TB that seems to have the biggest impact on the mental health of our farming community.

“I wish the rest of society would get that TB is about more than cattle and badgers. It’s about human lives; how without hope, farmers can sink into despair. If their animals are culled could it still then be another 30 years of reactors and slaughtering? Will someone change the rules on TB management again?”

Another important part of Andy’s work is networking in the local community. By talking to vets, agricultural suppliers and hauliers, church leaders or the local NFU, he sometimes finds struggling individuals who have slipped through the mainstream support system.

“I also like to do what I call ‘warm calling’, where I’ll drop in on a farm or rural household that is unknown to me, but happens to be near my route. Only once have I not been invited in for a cup of tea and a slice of cake.”

Confidentiality is important, so Andy can’t talk about individual cases. However, a strong reminder of the importance of his work comes from one of his seed merchant contacts.

“A salesman was talking with a farmer at market, and as he left the farmer said: ‘Call in soon, won’t you’. Some weeks passed as the salesman was busy, and when he phoned the farmer he found that he’d taken his life just hours earlier. It’s my job to try and spot those little calls for help as early as possible.”