Looking after the wellbeing of all involved in a growing venture is often the weakest element of farms and food businesses, with the focus of work tending to go on practical tasks such as the growing and selling of crops. Although these practical jobs are essential for running a food business, without the wellbeing of workers being nurtured, the long term resilience of a farm is questionable.
I was therefore glad to see a session focused on farmer wellbeing at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference, especially when it opened with a statement around the health and vitality of a farm being intricately linked to the health and vitality of those working on the land. This session saw a panel of farmers openly explore issues surrounding wellbeing, the problems faced and tools that help.
They discussed how farming as a profession can be socially isolating, particularly when farms are located away from urban areas. This isolation can be enhanced when business models don’t build a community of support around a farm, and the risks associated with farming are not shared with a wider community (with customers for example). When things go wrong within this context of isolation, it can tip things over the edge and lead to increased stress, mental health issues and even suicide. (Farming has a higher suicide rate compared to other professions, with a 2018 article on the Farm Business website stating that more then one farmer a week in the UK dies by suicide).
In many ways a growers’ wellbeing is shaped by the seasons; the success of a harvest being at the mercy of a good growing season (‘ideal’ and predictable weather…) Although farming offers a great opportunity to meditate on the changing nature of everything, at the end of a day a farm needs to cover costs and support resilient livelihoods. As farmers tend to live and work in the same place, boundaries around work and non-work life can also blur, and family life can get neglected.
Some great solutions to these issues were also discussed. The Community Supported Agriculture model was mentioned as way for sharing risk, creating more reliable income streams and building a supportive community. The importance of designing the farm that ‘you want to run’ was raised (as it becomes your life), including designing for part time co-working and the setting of boundaries around work and family. Mentors for sharing issues and seeking advice from was also considered key, as was linking with supportive solidarity networks e.g. Landworkers’ Alliance, Food Sovereignty and local food networks.