Stressed, misunderstood, and lonely: the farmer's lot is not a happy one

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The Independent Online
Bathsheba Everdene caused terminal havoc when she sent a Valentine's card bearing the message "Marry Me" to the lonely farmer next door, not realising the depths of his misery. Farmer Boldwood may be just a character in Thomas Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd, but his predicament is far from fictional.

John Jones is real (though his name is not). He did not need such a tease to prompt him to wedge a gun barrel against the roof of his mouth and prepare to fire. His wife had died, he had money worries and, perhaps most tellingly, no one to turn to on his remote sheep farm.

What stopped Mr Jones from pulling the trigger that spring evening was the sound of an animal in distress. Ironically, his job - the very thing that was causing his misery - saved him. "It was then it struck me I really needed help," he says.

A leaflet he remembered seeing in his local veterinary surgery lead him to the Samaritans Rural Outreach programme, a network of helplines which combines practical support with confidential emotional advice. He doubts he will get a card on 14 February (women claim farming is too insecure and back off, he says), but at least he is involved with his community and not without companionship.

A farmer's lot is not a happy one, it seems. The Samaritans say that male farmers, along with medics and vets, are twice as likely to commit suicide as other professionals. For farmers under the age of 45 it is the second major cause of death, after accidents. This can be partially explained by farmers' ready acceptance of death in their daily work and in the accessibility of potentially deadly prerequisites such as guns, pesticides and privacy. It follows that farmers' wives are also under stress; their suicide rate is 20 per cent above average.

The Samaritans, concerned that farmers were not calling for help, decided to target them - starting with one of the most isolated areas, Herefordshire, in 1992. The rather dryly-titled County Rural Initiative coordinating the different bodies working on the problem has now been extended to almost every county in England, Scotland and Wales.

Under the scheme, more than 250,000 cards have been distributed in markets, auction rooms and GPs' and vets' surgeries. They list useful numbers to call such as the National Farmers' Union, the Samaritans and Citizens Advice. As well as the cards, the scheme ensures that local events - organised by anyone from the WI to the Young Farmers or the Church - are properly advertised and co-ordinated. Talks and videos are also run to show how to combat stress.

Janet Pugh, until recently the Samaritans' Rural Outreach coordinator, notes the main causes of farmers' unhappiness:"Fewer people work in teams, there is urban/rural conflict and people in rural areas are feeling marginalised. These days, farmers are seen as the bad guys: cutting down trees and hedges, operating bird scarers, leaving mud on the road. And then there's the animal rights issue. But many farmers are planting trees and care about their animals. Much of the problem is down to misunderstanding."

She cites the case of a newly-rural townie who complained to the RSPCA that a farmer she passed on her way to and from work was keeping his cows on concrete. It transpired that the commuter was only seeing the cows at their twice-daily milking and not in the field where they spent most of their time.

Government agencies such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Department of Health have also acknowledged the problem by joining the Rural Stress Working Group - chaired by Nick Read, an Anglican chaplain and senior technical advisor to the National Farmers' Union.

"Networking is the main issue," declares Read, "because the problem is so dispersed and nebulous. The only reliable figures by which we can gauge the underlying malaise come from suicide statistics which, for farmers, have been high for the past 20 years or so.

"We've established a database and have just applied for charitable status. If it's granted we'll launch a national Rural Stress Information Network."

But some people don't believe that farmers can be helped by outsiders at all. Nicola Mayer, who ran the Humberside Rural Stress Project fo the East Riding Health Authority, strongly believes that help has to come from within the farming community. "The farmers I talked to used words like `proud', `self-reliant', `insular' and `macho' to describe themselves, and felt that people outside their profession did not understand them. Some of them would not even turn to a neighbouring farmer for help, or their doctor, and felt that outside agencies offering help were inappropriate and an imposition.

"In Germany, farmers don't have a suicide rate anywhere near as high as our because farmers there help each other. It's beginning to work here, but there are still a lot of barriers to break down."

One farmer who was able to help himself was Derek Kidner. His wife had abandoned him, leaving him with three young children and a dairy herd in a sparsely-populated location. He was desperate for help. So he reached out and found it, in the form of a young, divorced mother called Pauline.

"His advert for a housekeeper was the reason I was driving on a dark November evening through deepest Somerset," recalls Pauline in her book Life with Bluebell. "We got on right from the start. My son and I moved in, and we soon became a family."

Pauline is now Mrs Kidner and the couple not only run a farm but have coped with near-bankruptcy (thanks to the sudden imposition of government milk quotas) by turning their home into a wildlife rescue which doubles as the Somerset Levels Visitor Centre.

A more structured remedy for loneliness in the countryside lies in specialised introduction agencies such as The Farmers and County Bureau run by farmer's wife, Patricia Warren. She discovered 15 years ago that there was no agency catering for farmers.

"The farmer's son who has left school and gone straight on to the farm is not meeting the farmer's daughter across the way because she has gone away to college and doesn't come back. I have found that ladies reach a higher educational standard than men, who maybe go to agricultural college and that's about it. I also get a lot of ladies who want to go back to their country roots but want someone with a degree like themselves: I haven't got them on my books."

She caters for up to 2,000 clients. "The people I deal with are not outgoing city people, though farming is not the ridiculously closed circle it was in the Fifties and Sixties, largely because so many farmers' wives go out to work."

However, Mrs Warren, who met her husband at a farm sale, has found that many wives without this escape route are leaving: "Dairy quotas have made life hard. Husbands become obsessed with the farm, don't have time for the family and don't want to know about holidays. Things come to a head and the wives don't want to cope any more with the long hours, hard work and lack of financial security."

However, none of this deterred the country postmistress whom Ms Warren put in touch with a lonely Falklands sheep farmer. Later an airmail letter arrived containing a picture of the couple, happily married with a baby daughter.

The Samaritans, general enquiries: 01753 532713.

Farmers and Country Bureau, Mere Farm, Bakewell, Derbyshire DE45 1LX: 01629 636281.

Country Partners has interviewers around the country: 01432 851441.

Country Link has a nationwide network of groups of country-lovers: 01327 260512