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From left: Jon James Farming Health Hub, Michael Ross ABS Cornwall, Lisa Pender Farming Health Hub, Kevin Greaney ABS Cornwall, Martin Howlett RABI Cornwall Chairman and Professor Matt Lobley of Exeter University 

Farming Health Hub will provide an absolute lifeline for farmers in the South West facing mounting pressures

To the outside world, farming can seem like an idyllic lifestyle. With nature therapy now being prescribed by doctors, the idealised version of a farming life and the one represented in popular media holds a strong appeal for many.

However, figures from the Centre for Rural Policy Research's South West Farm Survey in 2016 told a more complicated story, with over 60 percent of farmers surveyed feeling disenchanted. Professor Matt Lobley from the University of Exeter was one of the speakers at yesterday’s Farming Health Hub information day, attended by representatives from more than 50 organisations from across the South West. He spoke in depth about the research amongst farmers in this area of the country, and has been working closely with Farming Health Hub's Jon James to develop his vision to address the problems our farmers have been facing: the Farming Health Hub Project.

At yesterday's information event about the project at the Royal Cornwall Showground in Wadebridge, Jon explained the idea that he’s been developing for the past six months: to provide a single source of business, physical and mental health support for farmers and their families.

The Farming Health Hub – the first of its kind to be developed in England– is a totally new concept where organisations from the private, public and voluntary sectors will join together to provide advice, support and guidance to farming communities in local venues, such as livestock markets and pop up venues rather than farmers and their families having to visit more formal environments. Jon’s vision is to create a new organisation in which private, public and voluntary sector organisations work together to provide confidential advice around physical health, mental health, legal advice and business health to farmers and their families in their day to day lives.

"We know farmers are not the best at looking after themselves...they'll put the priority of their stock over themselves", says Jon. “I was brought up in a rural background. It was a hand to mouth experience but it was a very good upbringing."

Jon says farming is close to his heart but, he says, he knows the reality compared to the idealised version on a sunny day.

Leaving the farm when needed during busy periods like lambing can be a real challenge for farmers. The Farming Health Hub aims to address this problem by blending with farming schedules, allowing farmers to access services that will cover the difficulties of a farming life from all angles, and targeting the main areas of difficulties faced by this community, such as physical health problems, legal issues and financial worries. These difficulties can pile up, and mental health problems amongst farmers are also on the rise, which is a very important aspect of what the Hub aims to address.

In his presentation at the information day, Professor Lobley went into depth about how rife these problems were becoming, with suicide figures referred to as being just the tip of the iceberg. He explained how the areas targeted by the Farming Health Hub are all interconnected, and how difficulties within these areas can all create factors that can contribute towards mental health difficulties for farmers and their families. Known causes of long term stress have been widely studied, and factors were listed as unremitting highly pressurised work, relationship problems, loneliness and persistent financial worries. Working alone, insufficient time with family, insufficient time to complete work, dealing with increased paperwork and regulations were also listed as contributing factors to stress, all of which are features of modern farming.

With rising costs, the potential impact of Brexit and the introduction of the new Agricultural Bill, pressures are rising. £5,500 was the average loss sustained by an agricultural enterprise in England in 2015/2016. With 59 being the average age of the 'principal' farmer, pressures to keep up are self-explanatory.

In quotes from the survey one farmer in the south west described farming as "physically and mentally exhausting", whilst another said they "can't afford to employ anyone so the working hours are very long". Inability to take a holiday was also widely referred to.

However, a strong group within the survey came across as still optimistic about farming and enjoyed their jobs, with farmers surveyed describing the life as "exciting", "a privilege to be a food producer" and "a pleasure to work in the country".

Audience member Cornwall NFU Chairman Jon Perry spoke positively about the future of farming in the south west, saying he genuinely believed farming will be in a lot better place in a few years time when we're on the other side of the current political climate. "It's about getting through this time period now", he said.

Martin Howlett, a mixed livestock farmer and Chairman of Cornwall RABI, said. “Life within the vast majority of family farms revolves around the day-to-day routine of tending stock, seasonal periods of calving and lambing, plus the harvesting of crops – all of physical & demanding work. Financial impacts of markets, weather and disease threats, each add to the challenges of cash flow within the farm business.”

“But it is so often to the detriment of health and wellbeing of each and any member of the family team, that can so easily jeopardise the whole farm business. Having access to a Farming Health Hub here in Cornwall is most welcome and ultimately a lifeline for agriculture”.

Since coming up with the original concept at the end of last year, Jon has been liaising with a wide range of organisations in order to develop the idea and get it off the ground. These include the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution; the Prince’s Countryside Fund; the National Farmers Union; Cornwall Young Farmers; Exeter University; Cornwall’s Public Health team, NHS Kernow and GP’s; Cornwall Development Company; auctioneers, banks and insurance companies and local churches, to test interest in setting up a new Community Interest Company and Partnership Board to lead the new initiative.

Jon said support and involvement of the private, public and voluntary sectors was vital if the idea was to be taken forward.

“The Hub is not being developed to replace or compete with existing organisations but to compliment and provide a single source of support and information for the farming community,” he said.

The project is currently at the development stage and may at first rely on good will to get it off the ground. Jon is planning to firstly run a pilot project in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the idea. How the Hub will work is a work in progress and will depend on each individual location that they hope to visit, but Jon has been researching current similar projects that are running on a smaller scale, such as the health check service at the Bakewell Agricultural Centre and the Sedgemoor Farmers' Health Clinic.

He’s also researched the Farming Health Hubs in Northern Ireland that use mobile vans to reach their customers.

In an interactive session at the information day audience members were invited to consider how their organisation could potentially contribute to the hub, with most organisations willing to get involved.

Next steps are creating a partnership board and securing funding, says Jon.

More information on the Hub can be found at the project's website here.

With thanks to South West Farmer for allowing us to reproduce this article, which first appeared on their website on 15th March 2019:

Date: 20 March 2019