15th January 2024

Time to talk about mental health

Farming can be a notoriously tough and solitary livelihood which can test even the hardiest of souls. In Cornwall, farmers don’t have to go it alone, thanks to an innovative new scheme

By Richard Young
The cash just isn’t out there, and it means that many farmers are struggling to actually run their business

Rising operating costs and dwindling incomes are putting a strain on many farmers’ ability to run viable and sustainable businesses. Needless to say, the emotional toll of this can be severe — and for many, it can be unbearable. With a mental health crisis affecting farmers, their families and, in turn, the livestock under their care, an innovative project launched by Cornwall Trading Standards is letting struggling farmers know that help is at hand.

Jonathan McCulloch, Animal Health Inspector at Cornwall County Council Trading Standards, was the driving force behind the Speak Out to Help Out initiative, which encourages farmers facing personal difficulties to talk
about them in a supportive and confidential environment.

“We all use the expression ‘perfect storm’ far too freely these days, but it does apply to agriculture at the moment,” McCulloch says. “Last winter, because we had had such a hot, dry summer, there was a shortage of animal feed. The war in Ukraine pushed up the price of grain, fuel and electricity — from which we’ve all suffered — but when you’re a large user of electricity, such as a dairy farm, that means a massive increase in your costs. The price of straw has also gone up this year, to about £150 a ton, which is double what it was a few years ago. Farmers are struggling to buy straw so their animals can have a clean, dry lying area, as required by the legislation. Fertiliser also is now seven or eight times the price it was three years ago.

“This winter, milk prices have dropped. One dairy farmer told me that he’s lost £100,000 a month as a result. That’s a massive amount and it affects the viability of the whole business. He’s one of the biggest dairy farmers in the county but smaller farmers are proportionately affected. We’re all suffering across the whole country, the cash just isn’t out there, and it means that many farmers are struggling to actually run their business.”

All too much
One particularly difficult episode which occurred in January 2022 was the impetus for the Speak Out to Help Out project. A local farmer had experienced a series of family tragedies which resulted in him becoming overwhelmed by the strenuous day-to-day duties of farming and a rising tide of paperwork and bills. He suffered a mental breakdown, and when McCulloch and colleagues visited the farm they found malnourished cattle, as well as the carcasses of animals that had already starved to death. Urgent remedial action was required, but it was clear that prosecution would not be appropriate under the circumstances.

Cattle which were sufficiently healthy were tested for bovine tuberculosis and sold on to other farms, while those that were beyond help had to be culled. The farmer himself received mental health support and is now retired.

“In more than 25 years, I’ve never come across a case as bad as this one before,” McCulloch reflects. “But the agricultural world is such a close community that neighbours rallied to provide food and hay for the cattle so they weren’t going hungry. Everybody worked together and it was a real team effort.”

Many different agencies and organisations had visited the farm prior to McCulloch’s involvement, but no-one had realised the seriousness of the situation until it was far too late. McCulloch believes this is because of the ‘stiff upper-lip’ attitude that many in the farming community adopt, and he could see that there was a necessity to dismantle the stigma around mental health issues. “The vast majority of farmers are male, and there is often a lack of willingness to speak to friends, relatives or medical professionals about the way they’re feeling,” he says.

“There’s been some great work done over the last few years across the whole country within the agricultural sector, but there’s still a need to get the professionals in to help people — which is where Speak Out to Help Out comes in.
“It doesn’t necessarily need to be self-referral; people can refer a friend, a neighbour or a relative if they think they are suffering from a mental health episode and need help.

“We’ve also got agricultural chaplains involved, who can pop around to see how people are doing and start the conversation.”

Spreading the load
Speak Out to Help Out enables organisations with an interest in supporting Cornish agriculture to pool resources and ensure the needs of farmers in difficulty are addressed.

Its meetings, which are chaired by Trading Standards portfolio-holder Councillor Martyn Alvey, are scheduled for the winter months when problems are usually at their worst. The group first met in November 2022 and meetings are held every six weeks, hosting representatives from the Farm Community Network, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, the Addington Fund, Farm Cornwall and the Farm Fit project, as well as other interested parties including the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association, the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the rural team of Devon and Cornwall Police, and the Bishop of Truro’s agricultural advisor. Staff from the Cornwall Council Animal Health, County Farms, and Public Health teams also attend.

The Farm Community Network provided a contact number which was printed on credit card-sized window stickers sponsored by Cornwall Council’s Public Health service, as well as posters which were distributed to vets, livestock markets and other farm support professionals. The helpline, which operates from 7am to 11pm, provides an outlet for any farmer in Cornwall experiencing mental health difficulties. It means they can speak confidentially about their problems, receive targeted advice from specialist organisations and charities and, crucially, know that they don’t have to go it alone.

The scheme has proved a success — and there is no reason it shouldn’t be replicated elsewhere in the country, says McCulloch. “We perhaps don’t realise the ‘soft power’ we have, as county councils, whereby if we invite the relevant people and organisations to come in for a conversation, they generally will.

“It’s not at all expensive to do it. It just requires the use of a meeting room, and a small amount of Officer time to coordinate things. As councils we can use our power to bring together farm support charities and other interested parties to discuss problems before they become nightmares.”

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