Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Farming and health

By Richard Betton

Waters Meeting Farm, Pennines

Tenant farmer Richard Betton has 280 pedigree Swaledale sheep and 22 Aberdeen Angus suckler cows on a 290-hectare moorland farm high in the Pennines. Through the National Farmers’ Union, Farming Community Network and Upper Teesdale Agriculture Support Services, he also works to protect farmers’ physical and mental health.

There are really two strands to farmer health. There’s the more obvious one, the physical wear and tear. Certainly in this area a lot of the work is still manual, repairing the drystone walls, handling cattle and sheep, hard physical work. There are not many older farmers who don’t have aches and pains that the health service says we shouldn’t have. And then there’s the hidden ones, the mental health problems, a lot of it down to isolation. It’s very easy when you’re working on your own to think the whole world is against you: because Natural England doesn’t want you to do this, the estate don’t want you to do that, your lambs didn’t make enough money and the feed price has gone up. It’s stressful. One of the things that I really try to push is that it’s all right not to cope. And the first thing is to talk to somebody.

Often just explaining your problems to somebody who is unfamiliar with them helps you to sort them out in your own head.

Farming Community Network has a helpline which operates 365 days a year, from 7am to 11pm. If a farmer phones up and is desperate, or just wants somebody to talk to, our volunteers will either phone them or go and visit them. There are over 400 volunteers, organised into county groups, including a lot of active and retired farmers. They’ll talk and listen and signpost. We don’t give advice, we befriend them if you like. And quite often they find it helpful to talk to somebody who’s not part of the immediate family.

For a lot of farmers, there’s a real elephant in the room with the subject of succession. The children don’t want to say, “what’s going to happen when you die?”. Quite often it’s a huge relief if you can get that conversation going and the family can start planning. All sorts of things come out. It may turn out that the son or daughter doesn’t want the farm and wants to do something else.

I’m on the council of the National Farmers’ Union, and I’ve made a big play about mental health and wellbeing. I’m getting a lot of support for it in the NFU now, which I wasn’t getting some years ago. I also work for a charity called Upper Teesdale Agriculture Support Services (UTASS), where I help farmers with their paperwork. Back in the early 90s we had eight suicides in six months in Teesdale in the farming community. The health service commissioned some research and found a common thread was the ever-growing complexity of paperwork and fear of the consequences of getting it wrong. So in 2000, UTASS was set up to help farmers with their paperwork.

Part of the reason is that Teesdale is dominated by big landed estates, so there’s a lot of relatively impoverished tenant hill farmers. You don’t have lots of assets as a tenant, just your livestock. Perhaps that had something to do with it. In my time in farming, one of the big changes has been that the support payment has moved from the tenant’s asset, which was their livestock, to the landlord’s asset, which is the land. It’s called decoupling. Ever since then, I think tenant farmers have almost been fighting a losing battle. And the big estates have been pushing to get rid of direct payments and replace them with payments for the ‘public goods’ which they own. It’s another tension.

There are other things bearing down on farmers’ mental wellbeing. We’re more dependent on support payments, because food has got cheaper but the cost of production hasn’t gone down, and we are far more aware of the environmental cost if we don’t do it properly. The isolation has got worse, with lots of people leaving the land, farms getting bigger, very few farmers employing anybody, people working on their own. Nowadays a farmer has to be a shepherd, a stockman, a tractor driver, a drystone waller, an electrician, a plumber, and do all the management and the VAT accounts and the recordkeeping. They’re highly skilled people. And they don’t get any days off. When you’re having to keep so many balls in the air, it’s all right not to cope. It’s absolutely natural.

The most important thing is to remember that farmers and their families are people. I think they’re often seen as a commodity or a problem, and actually farmers are the solution to a lot of the things that we want to do in this country. But you’ve got to handle them right, and farmers have got to be receptive and change their culture as well.