‘I Feel Like A Cheat And A Failure’ – psychological effects of farmers due to weak economic conditions of farming – Brief Article – Column
FARMER MICHAEL HART EXPLAINS THE HUMAN COST OF THE AGRICULTURAL CRISIS.
This year, as I watched the arrival of the first swallows as they came up through the valley from the sea, I wondered if my family and I will be here when they return next spring. Why? Because I am a family farmer of a 100-acre tenanted farm in Cornwall, and I am being forced out of business by the farming crisis.
Being a farmer is all I ever wanted to do. For most farmers, the desire to farm is a desire that cannot be properly explained. The best explanation I can come up with is that it is an incurable addiction, and that is why many farmers and their families are putting up with such hardship at the moment.
It is often hard for those outside the farming community to see just how much farmers and their families are currently suffering. I have been campaigning on behalf of farming for the last four years, especially on behalf of small family farms. This work has taken me on a travelling roadshow, designed to increase public awareness of agriculture. As part of this work, I have met and talked to a lot of farmers about their current situations. I hear some depressing tales.
Tales of families who can’t afford the food they produce, and who don’t know where the money for next week’s groceries is coming from. Tales of ever-longer hours worked by farmers as they shed labour and increase production in a desperate attempt to keep their heads above water. Tales of farming families who cannot afford to go to the dentist or who cannot afford prescriptions for ill health. Tales of constant, sometimes unbearable stress and financial worry; of the strain on family relationships, marriages and partnerships.
I know only too well how my farming colleagues feel. In my own family, the countryside crisis has hit us hard. My wife has gone from working with me on the farm to being employed elsewhere, and I have gone from being able to provide a living for my family to being unable to support them in even the basic things. My 11-year-old daughter worries constantly about whether we be able to stay in our homes, and what will happen to her cow if we are forced out. My 20-year-old son has done an agricultural course, but has now left farming as he can see no future in it.
All this has turned our lives upside down, and it has made me feel I am letting my family down. I cannot even afford to buy my wife a Christmas present, or the occasional token of my love. I feel like a cheat and a failure, and this feeling is somehow made worse by the fact that we are not homeless or jobless. Our farm is still here, and we still produce the same amount of food from it as we ever did. Yet I am claiming family credit, and facing ruin. You feel that you must be doing something wrong or not working hard enough, to have brought such a situation about.
Unsurprisingly, given all this, the level of depression among farmers is at very high levels at present. I myself get very depressed at times, and I am a natural optimist. But as common as depression is anger.
This anger is directed towards consumers, government and the big retailers for the way they have treated farmers. We are angry with government for its insistence on providing cheap food for consumers while putting in place ever higher food safety standards and red tape, placing restrictions and costs on British farming while allowing imports without those restrictions and costs. We are angry with the major retailers, who have helped the government in that cheap food policy while increasing their profits at our expense, because they are so few in number that all the market power is in their hands.
But most of all, we are angry at the public and the pressure groups of one sort or another, who have demanded ever higher food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards while still expecting ever cheaper food. Intensive factory farming has happened because of this demand for cheap food. In the case of pig-meat production, for example, the UK has banned sow stalls and tethers six years ahead of the rest of the EU — when the rest of the world is not even thinking of doing so — as a result of campaigning by animal welfare pressure groups. Yet the consumer is quite happy to go and buy imported pig-meat produced using stalls and tethers, because it is cheaper.
Ultimately, the consumers of Britain must decide if they want food from UK farmers produced to high standards in a well-managed countryside. And if they do, they need to understand that we need a fair return for our work. This doesn’t mean more subsidies — we don’t want or need them. There is plenty of money in food production, but it is not going to the people at the sharp end — the farmers — who do the work.
If I am honest with myself, I know that we will not even be here when the swallows fly away this autumn, let alone when they return next spring. And will anyone really care or notice? As long as there is food in the supermarket, will anyone ever really care where it comes from?
Michael Hart is Director of the Small and Family Farm Association.
In the last year alone, 2,000 UK pig farmers have gone out of business, many are bankrupt, 25 have committed suicide and thousands of jobs have gone.
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