Support through difficult times
The Farming Community Network (FCN) has been supporting farmers through difficult times since 1995. We meet one of its longest standing employees, Stephen Dennis, who is Regional Lead for the South West.
Mental ill health is now the most common reason farmers, farm workers and their families contact the Farming Community Network (FCN), says Stephen. “But of course, that can incorporate a number of other challenges.”
Since he joined FCN, Stephen has seen the industry weather many storms, from BSE and foot and mouth disease to Brexit and Covid. “The isolation factor during the pandemic wasn’t such a change for farmers until livestock markets closed. As they were the only social activity for many farmers, it caused a real strain on mental wellbeing. But what we are seeing now is relationship challenges from families and partners being at home more.”
The many unknowns regarding farm support are currently causing difficulties, he says. “There is a lot of confusion about what is ahead for farming. It doesn’t feel like we are any further ahead than we were six months ago.”
This was contributing to the feeling that farming businesses are not as valued as they once were, he adds. “The government has a way of not making things as clear as they should and by doing that, it devalues people.”
"We will support you, whatever (mental health) stage you are at"
Stephen’s patch covers Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon. When he joined FCN there were just 10 volunteers in his home county of Devon. “Nationally we now have just over 400 volunteers, of which around 100 are in the South West. We are the biggest region in terms of volunteer numbers and case load, with Devon being the biggest group nationally.
“I think it is due to having a large proportion of family-run farms. While family farms are often more adaptable than big farming businesses, they have their own challenges.” Relationship breakdowns, succession issues and differences in attitude between different generations all cause conflict in farming families.
“Older generations are often more determined to hold on to what they have, while younger people are less prepared to be tied to the farm whatever happens.”
Most of FCN’s volunteers are farmers themselves who have experienced difficult times. “They understand and can be a sounding board. We believe if you support someone with mental ill health at an early stage, you can stop it degrading. But we will support you whatever stage you are at.”
Support is available
Support can be via phone calls or in-person, perhaps going for a walk or chatting outside on the farm. When restrictions allow, it can also be across the kitchen table, or wherever the person would like to meet, Stephen explains. “The ball is in their court. Our aim is to help them see they have choices.
“A lot of people are suffering long term and that creates other problems with managing your business, keeping on top of admin or coping with livestock. And it can have a big impact on your finances.
“If somebody is prepared to sit and listen to you, it can make you feel much more valued. One of the lessons learned through Covid is that running faster and faster is not the answer. It is about valuing people.
“FCN started as a Christian charity and our ethos is still to be caring, showing love for people and looking out for those who feel they don’t have a voice.”
Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.Future Farming Programme