Farmers have cultured an image over generations. “Stoic”, “hard-working”, “independent” and “trustworthy” are words often used to describe farmers.
That is why advertising agencies like to hijack our image to sell their products. The farmer has been used to sell everything from rugged 4×4 motor cars to online gambling.
Advertisers are targeting the strong associations people have with the farmer’s image to endorse and enforce their product’s appeal.
Farming’s labels are not only attached by those outside of the sector – they are also pinned from within.
Historically, the manual nature of our trade has placed a high value on the label “brawn”. With brawn people assume strength – both of muscle and of mind.
At the recent Sentry Farming Conference, the afternoon lecture was delivered by forensic psychiatrist and chief executive of Southern Health, Nick Broughton.
Dr Broughton was speaking of the disproportionate incidence of mental health issues within farming, specifically depression and suicide – higher than in any other sector of industry.
At the root of these issues lies the solitary nature of our work, but perhaps more important is the stigma that farming attaches to mental illness. The legacy of strength of muscle and of mind has led to farming treating depression as a taboo subject. Whether we are too closed or too proud, we need that stigma to be lifted.
The best way for this to take place is for us to start talking more openly about the subject, so those with mental health challenges will feel comfortable to seek help and feel supported by friends, family and colleagues.
Depression in non-discriminatory. It does not choose between rich or poor, young or old. One in five people will suffer from depression at some time in their life.
There are of course excellent examples of organisations that offer the necessary support, both locally and nationally, such as Mind, the Farm Community Network (FCN) and You Are Not Alone in Norfolk and Suffolk.
New Zealand has an organisation called Farmstrong, with the strap line “live well farm well”. It offers advice to improve your personal well-being and with it your business productivity. Closer to home, the website www.farminghelp.co.uk brings together the Addington Fund, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution and FCN under one umbrella to offer support.
Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of data to show the correlation between low commodity prices and increased incidence of depression among farmers.
As Brexit draws closer, the focus of lobbying from the food and farming sectors’ has been on production and profitability. Of course we must have viable businesses, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of healthy rural communities.
The most important assets within any business are the people. We must accept Brexit will present changing circumstances and these at times will be challenging. We must ensure that we have the right tools to support one another. And we must give greater priority to recognising when we, or those who we work with, require support.
Farmers often form the bedrock of rural communities, but we must not be so arrogant as to think we are the rural community. We must seek to work more closely across all rural sectors, to make a more compelling argument to support rural Britain.
A viable farming sector is pivotal to flourishing rural communities, but without healthy individuals, neither is possible.