Following our December newsletter, we received a very personal account of one young farmer’s experience of the danger of pushing man and machine beyond acceptable limits. Although anonymous, he has agreed to share his thoughts on the stresses of modern day farming in the UK and the lessons we can learn from across the world.
Dear Yellow Wellies…
I am writing to you following your recent December newsletter and the mention of mental health and stress in agriculture. Whilst what I am going to share is not a survivor story so to speak, I feel it is something worth sharing as I feel it is a problem that is somewhat endemic in UK agriculture, especially in the large scale arable sector.
I am not from a family farming background so I suppose that gives me the ability to see things from an outsider’s perspective. I started my agriculture career in 2008 by taking a degree and within that were summer work placements and also a full year in employment as part of the course. As my interests lay within the arable sector I took jobs on some large-scale arable enterprises. We all know that at certain times of the year there are some long hours required to get the job done at the sacrifice of personal time. I took this on the chin as I knew that these were fixed term contracts and that they would end. However, it got me thinking by the time I returned for my final year at university that with some simple improvements in management efficiency, things could be improved on these enterprises.
During my work placements there had been the phrase “well that’s just farming” which was used on a number of occasions and I felt this was just being used as an excuse to push man and machine beyond acceptable limits.
I felt I needed to get something to compare against so following my degree, I decided to travel and work elsewhere in the world to see if there were any better ways to do things. I took two jobs for the year following my degree, one with a large scale forage contractor in New Zealand and one with a large scale arable enterprise on the Canadian prairies.
Whilst the farming practices were very different, the Canadian enterprise stood out very clearly for the way they supported staff during the peak overtime hours. We worked even more hours than I had done previously in the UK but due to their management practices I felt no worse than if I was working a 9-5. They would take a full break and provide a healthy cooked meal every day during seeding and harvest. This would not only give us the energy to continue on well into the night every day but by stopping and walking away from the job and coming together as a group to just talk with each other and socialise for 30 minutes, it gave a mental break from the isolation of being sat in the cab with nothing but your own thoughts for anything up to 18 hours a day.
This experience opened my eyes to how something so simple can be so useful to maintain both a healthy mind, positive staff morale and help build the team during the long hours that the job requires. When I returned to the UK, I applied for a job back on the same large enterprise that I had done my full year’s placement with previously. They had changed management in the years since I had been there last and when I returned for interview they were adamant that practices had changed, they had improved their efficiencies and supported staff much more.
I started working with them again and it soon became quite clear that things hadn’t really changed. Again the phrase “that’s just farming” seemed to get banded around when times got tough. On several occasions during personal reviews, I tried to make suggestions that simple improvements similar to what I’d experienced in Canada during peak times could improve morale and also help keep us safe by maintaining energy levels both physical and mental. It would have not been expensive or hard to achieve for them as the enterprise had a number of in house eateries alongside the farming business.
After two years of being back with them things had got increasingly worse as we were taking on ever more contracting work outside of the in-house land. My social life was non-existent and I knew I had to get out of this situation before I became depressed or that I had an accident due to mental exhaustion.
So I started applying to different jobs on arable enterprises. At interviews I started asking about staff support and how they maintain staff morale and energy levels during peak times. I got varying answers but none gave me any confidence that they would be any different from where I was trying to get away from.
It left me with an incredibly tough decision but it left me little option other than to get out of UK agriculture. I discussed with family and a few friends I had been able to share my thoughts with about making the move from the UK to Canada. Their responses were that it was a big risk if my one Canadian experience had been a lucky one and that they weren’t necessarily all like that. I took their advice but knew I had to at least try and find out if that was the case.
I met with the recruitment company that I had gained my first Canadian job with previously and discussed my concerns and that if they had any permanent positions available. As with any of their permanent positions, they advised I fly out and visit the farms in person which gave me a chance to get a feeling for the jobs and the people out there.
With nothing to lose, I decided to fly out for a week and visit a variety of different enterprises; from smaller family farms to a massive twenty five thousand acre enterprise. It was a polar difference to the UK when I asked the same questions about staff support during peak times. Two of the answers I got made the decision a simple one; “If we work through two meals in the day, one will be provided”, and the second of “If we are working for sixteen or more hours a day for multiple weeks at a time, how can we not provide the staff with sustenance as nothing is open for them to go shopping outside of work hours”. On returning to the UK it was a tough decision but if I wanted to stay in frontline agriculture, it was the only option I could take.
It’s been four years now since I left the UK for a new life in Canada and I don’t regret it one bit. We work incredibly hard at the peak times of the year but with the support that goes alongside it, I am stress free and have an incredible life outside of work which I couldn’t have ever imagined achieving back in the UK. Some back in the UK have said that the Canadian seasons lend more to a balanced lifestyle outside of farming and I appreciate that but there is certainly nothing stopping UK arable from adopting the simple things that I have mentioned in order to improve the work life balance.
At the end of the day we work to live not live to work.