When 20-year-old shepherd Ffion Hooson opened up on social media about her recent mental health struggles, she was overwhelmed by the response.
Her father had suffered a stroke, leaving her to run their farm in Denbighshire, North Wales, alone. The responsibility and bad weather had crushed her to breaking point, she said.
“I’m 20 years old and farming alone and I am constantly putting a brave hard face on … yet deep down I’m pretty much breaking inside … it’s the most I’ve struggled and no one really understands but I have no choice but to carry on,” she posted on Twitter.
I’m 20 years old and farming alone and I am constantly putting a brave hard face on... yet deep down I’m pretty much breaking inside... it’s the most I’ve struggled and no one really understands but I have no choice but to carry on😣😔 pic.twitter.com/n8keHhWci5— Ffion Hooson (@ffionhooson0) February 7, 2020
Hundreds of people jumped in to offer their help. “Who knew there were so many people out there to support what you’re doing,” said Hooson, adding that the responses made her feel “less alone”.
Her situation has highlighted the stresses faced by many farmers, often working alone in extremely isolated locations. For years mental health in the farming sector has been an important topic – but now it is in the spotlight.
An ‘anti-meat agenda’
The issue of meat consumption has been particular sensitive for farmers. This week the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said that the “anti-meat agenda” had become an added strain on farmers’ mental health and that the demonising of livestock farmers was having “real-life consequences”.
“People need to remember, at the heart of every farming business is a family. In a world where there seems to be increasing polarisation we mustn’t forget we’re all human,” said NFU president Minette Batters in a speech on Tuesday.
Anna Jones, who runs the Just Farmers network, said she had witnessed a “collapse in self-confidence” among farmers due to the ongoing debates about veganism and farming in general. “They feel vilified and attacked all the time. And for them it is not just a job they do from 9–5, it’s their whole life.”
Food policy academic Tim Lang, a former hill farmer himself, said while he was sympathetic to livestock farmers, there was no escaping the need to transition away from meat and dairy production and consumption. “It’s about a slow but inevitable re-structuring of land use and the role of farm animals within that. We’ve got to put farm animals back into a more appropriate ecological niche,” he said.
Greenpeace said intensively-farmed meat locked consumers into destroying the world’s forests. “They’re being wiped out to grow crops like soya, 90% of which is used as animal feed for meat production. If we eat more grains, fruit and veg, and less meat, we get more food from less land and it reduces pressure on global forests,” said Chiara Vitali, Greenpeace UK forest campaigner.
But it was big brands’ demands for ever more – and cheaper – produce that were to blame for this unsustainable system of industrial food production, not farmers, said Greenpeace, which called for livestock farmers to be supported to transition away from this type of farming, “not victimised”.
“Being mindful of the detrimental role the current level of livestock production plays does not mean victimising farmers,” agreed Dr Marco Springmann, a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, who has published research on the necessity of low-meat diets to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.
Devastating flood damage
Other things have been adding to the pressures on farmers. A survey carried out by the Farm Safety Foundation this month found 84% of farmers aged under 40 believe mental health is the biggest hidden problem they face. In 2018, 83 suicides were registered among people working in agricultural and related trades including fishing and forestry in England and Wales.
The recent floods and snowfall have created further strain and caused extensive damage to huge swaths of farmland across the country. Farming charities have set up crisis funds as they report increased numbers of calls from people struggling to cope with months of clean-up and uncertainty around future crop harvesting.
“It is a business that has so many external factors beyond farmers’ control,” said Jude McCann, CEO of The Farming Community Network which has more than 400 volunteers throughout England and Wales providing free support.
Emma Picton-Jones, whose husband Daniel, an agricultural contractor in North Wales, committed suicide in 2016, said isolation prevents many farmers from seeking help. “A lot of the reason people don’t open up is because they don’t see anyone.
“There’s lots of other occupations with pressures and where people are self-employed, but with other trades like carpenters or builders you go to people’s houses and work with other tradespeople. Whereas farmers can go for a week without seeing anyone,” she said.
Fear of letting the family down
And Brexit has added to the financial pressures faced by many farmers with the UK Government phasing out the existing system of EU farm support payments from next year. More than 40% of UK farmers would have made a loss between 2014 and 2017 without the EU’s farm subsidy payments.
Yet with many farmers running businesses that have been handed down over generations, there is a reluctance to be the one to leave the industry.
“Farming is a family business that people have a huge amount of pride and attachment to. In other businesses people may just shut up shop and move out, but it’s not so easy to do that in farming,” said McCann. “Many don’t feel they can make that decision. It’s an emotional and irrational attachment that you don’t get in other businesses. Leaving the industry should not be seen as a failure or letting the family down.”
Since her husband’s death, Emma has set up a charity to support people within the rural community suffering mental health difficulties. She says the response to Hooson’s call for help shows there has been a big step forward within the rural and farming community when it comes to talking about mental health.
“People have told us they feel better from having seen conversations now taking place on social media or at auction marts. I want mental health to be talked about the same way physical health is. We openly talk about physical illnesses and that should be the same with mental health too.”
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here. In the UK, The Farm Community Network helpline is also open from 7am-11pm every day of the year on 03000 111999.