COVID and the Countryside

There is no doubt that the world as we knew it at the start of 2020 – remember hugs and handshakes? – is now upside down.

The impact of this global pandemic has been massive on our economy and OECD recently reported that Britain’s economy is likely to suffer the worst damage from the COVID-19 crisis of any country in the developed world

Isolation and social distancing have affected our mental health and shutdowns have severely disrupted many of our vital sectors – not least agriculture, food and drink. While UK farmers may be used to dealing with rural isolation and have been less affected by the health impacts of COVID-19, there are real fears that the industry will be hit hard in months to come as the economic impact from restrictions and lockdown measures take hold.

According to James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, the country’s farming, fishing, food and drink industry, worth £15 billion a year, “is set to lose £3 billion of the value of the sector in 2020”.

In Scotland, farming charity RSABI work all year round to provide emotional, practical and financial support to individuals and their families across the agricultural sector including farming and crofting. They have seen increasing numbers of people accessing their services over the past year and according to Nina Clancy, chief executive of RSABI: “COVID19 and the cancellation of Agri shows will have a big impact. The shows are a chance for farmers and crofters to catch up and socialise. I would encourage all in the community to make contact with one another…as you would do at a show.”

“Let’s keep talking.” she added.

The coronavirus situation is just one more stressor for an industry already facing uncertainty with the new Agriculture Bill and continued Brexit negotiations.

Levels of depression are still thought to be increasing, stress-related calls to farming charity helplines had been increasing and, in 2019, 102 suicides were registered in England and Wales in those working in farming and agricultural related trades according to the Office of National Statistics. These included farmers, managers and proprietors of ag related services and those working in agricultural related trades and elementary ag occupations – some of the categories included were gardeners, horticulturalist, fishermen and women, forestry workers, grounds workers and greenkeepers – 47 of which were among gardeners and landscape gardeners. It is of little surprise therefore, that farm and rural support groups are gearing up for an upsurge in calls to helplines and are adapting their services to support the industry over the coming months.

According to Alicia Chivers, chief executive of RABI.: “Lives have been turned upside-down and we know that the disruption caused by COVID-19 will continue to impact on the farming community for a significant time to come. Farming life already carries many inherent uncertainties and, as we head into the autumn, RABI is expecting an increase in the level of support needed, largely resulting from the effects of the very wet autumn and subsequent dry spring period.

This autumn RABI will be launching an online counselling service for the farming community, free at point of use and available 365 days of the year. It is hoped that this will provide a valuable new complementary way for people to gain advice and support during the challenging times ahead.

She added: “RABI are here to help and I would just like to encourage anyone to contact us.”

Commenting on how the Farming Community Network (FCN) are dealing with the situation Jude McCann, CEO said: “While cases of COVID-19 are currently declining across the UK, farmers will be remaining vigilant at a critical time for the industry and FCN stands ready to provide support to those who need it. We are reminding the farming community of the need to plan ahead, maintain a “COVID safe” workplace and consider contingencies in case any members of the farm team are affected directly or required to self-isolate.”

But what does this have to do with Farm Safety Week?

An interesting result of our most recent annual tracker survey revealed that 85% of farmers under 40 agree that there is a definite link between mental health and farm safety, so it seems only right that this is something that we are highlighting this Farm Safety Week.

We need to build a culture within agriculture that explicitly recognises how the job can impact on the wellbeing of farmers and their families and conversely how poor mental health can have a direct and deadly impact on the job.

There are many wonderful initiatives out there helping to tackle this issue… Young Farmers clubs like Killraughts YFC, Kilrea YFC and Annaclone & Magherally YFC in Northern Ireland have done some fun challenges throughout the lockdown. SAYFC have introduced Are Ewe Aware, a new resource hub to support their members which you will learn about later today and even celebrity influencers like Gareth Wyn Jones have taken on the 25 press up challenge over the past few months to keep people talking about the issue.

YFCs throughout England and Wales have shown real kindness throughout the pandemic, a key element of building mental health resilience. Whether it is delivering groceries and picking up prescriptions, working in food banks, making NHS scrubs and face coverings or checking in on vulnerable people, NFYFC members have been giving back to their communities and registering their details with the Farming Help helpline to be part of a directory to support local farms when needed.

Keeping NFYFC members in contact with each other has been incredibly important and a ‘YFC at Home’ initiative launched early on allowed members to enjoy activities and challenges at home. It also encouraged clubs to stay connected with their members and inspired them to do more online activities and meetings. A YFC ‘Take Time’ campaign was also launched with resources to support members’ mental wellbeing during this challenging period.

Speaking of Farming Help, many in the industry are still unaware of this collaboration between The Addington Fund, The Farming Community Network, R.A.B.I, RSABI and Forage Aid,  supported by The Prince’s Countryside Fund. The partnership offers a free helpline on 03000 111999 where farmers can access free, impartial and confidential support. There are also many other local support groups offering services to deal with the challenges of rural work and life.

For Sources of Support CLICK HERE

There are many passionate partners helping us to give farm safety and mental health equal airtime. And why wouldn’t we?

Where would our agricultural industry be without the hard-working and dedicated people that live and work in it? We may have said it before but this isn’t someone else’s responsibility, this is our watch and, in these challenging times, it’s down to each and every one of us to look out for our friends, colleagues, neighbours and ourselves.

stephanie_berkeley_zl4u2oa9COVID and the Countryside