NFU Comment: Farmers don’t have to plough a lonely furrow, says Matt Swain

Essex farmer Matt Swain.

Essex farmer Matt Swain. - Credit: Andrew Partridge

Mental health is rarely talked about in farming, which is at odds with the long periods of solitude during which the mind can do funny things. Molehills can become mountains when you’re on your own and the way of the modern farmer is one of increasing isolation.

The farm where I am a tenant once had 30 full time workers but now there are three part time employees. I’m lucky in that low profits forced me to seek a second job, and therefore more connection, but I well remember drying grain through the night wondering why I was making less than the minimum wage, and where my life had gone wrong.

The fact was my life was fine but, without someone to reassure me of such, I would dwell and dwell. I often see this in my fellow farmers, though they would be loath to admit it. Outbursts of anger and anxiety are probably the least-worst symptoms of disquiet because they can pass in the moment, whereas depressing oneself, well, we can do that for days.

I choose my words carefully as I have learnt, to my cost, that these are all behaviours that we do to meet unfulfilled needs. I became interested in this subject 10 years ago while travelling on a farming scholarship, and couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme; that while all humans have the same needs, farming communities tend to have unique rules relating to those needs.

Since then I’ve been humbled many times to see the private demons behind the public success and no amount of land ownership is a barrier to this.

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I now speak all over the country on these “soft” issues and the one thing I would share is that feelings of “not being enough” are actually the norm. The issue is what we do with these feelings.

Some, let’s call them the whole-hearted, live extraordinarily fulfilling lives, irrespective of their circumstances, but the more typical response is to work ourselves up, depress ourselves or perhaps turn to alcohol.

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What we should know, and were probably never taught, is that these responses are all learnt; we don’t have to do them. If we have learnt them, we can unlearn them. And we can choose a more empowering response.

Sounds too easy? Yes there’s a catch; all behaviours have a pay-off and we habitually turn to them for a reason.

So the challenge is to identify the pay-off before finding a better way of living, which usually has benefits to all who come into contact with us.

If you managed to get this far and think I’m talking nonsense you may well be right but let me ask you: who did you get your rules from and your behaviour? And were those people always happy?

Hmmm, something to think about while cultivating into the dusk.

PS My wheat did 8.3 tonnes per hectare and my oilseed rape 4.2 tonnes. Now that’s proper farming talk!

: : Matt Swain farms in north-east Essex and is a Nuffield Scholar.

YANA (You Are Not Alone) offers help for those in farming who may be affected by stress and depression. Its helpline number is 0300 323 0400 and further detaila are available at .

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