Landlines: Farmers brood on problems on their own

THE advice to farmers and others who feel that they can’t take much more is to talk to someone about their problems. How difficult that is to do is indicated by recent suicides, local and national, where people have reached the end of their tether.

These tragedies confirm yet again that no one, no matter how close to the afflicted, can know what is going on in someone else’s head.

But there is increasing evidence from a range of organisations dedicated to offering help and support that the worst summer in a century, a horrible harvest, livestock health and feeding problems and the combined effect of those factors on income and cash flow is pushing some who already had problems over the edge.

It might seem strange in an age of too much information available about too many people, with Twitter, texting, emails, Facebook, IPads, mobile phones glued to ears, and more, with every cough and splutter reported as it happens, that some of us remain reticent and keep troubles to ourselves.

But we do and, according to every organisation that deals with them and tries to help, farmers and rural workers are among those most likely to brood on problems alone.

George Dunn, chairman of Farm Crisis Network, said farming tended to be a lonely business with long hours, potentially dangerous working conditions, daily crises and nature at its worst as well as its best. It is also, he might have added, still a macho culture where strong men don’t talk, never mind cry.

Farm Crisis Network was established in 1995 as a response to, even then – 1995 was a good year for farming – a suicide rate among farmers well above the national average. Support over the phone, or face to face, is offered. Email and texting can be used by those who find talking impossible.

Other organisations offering support are the RSABI/Gatepost, the RABI, the Rural Stress Helpline, the Samaritans and You Are Not Alone -sadly, too often, that is exactly how some people feel. The first step is to believe that you’re not alone and talk to a willing listener.

It is possible to believe that the appalling weather and its knock-on effects have not only increased the number of rural suicides, but contribute to the annual number of farm accidents and fatalities.

I’m not comparing World War One battlefields, mud and trench misery with farming – especially at this time of year as we approach Remembrance Sunday – but apparently endless rain and mud gradually knocks the stuffing out of the most optimistic. Talk to any farmer near you for confirmation.

The same conditions cause frustration, bursts of anger, and mistakes with machinery and livestock as well as more difficult and potentially dangerous working conditions. Although the number of farm-related deaths during the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) recording year of 2011/12 was “average” at 33, there have been three more deaths reported in the past two weeks since the report was published.

One, as noted last week, was a 76 year old man who fell into a feed mixer, another was a 67 year old, hit by a vehicle while moving cattle, the third a man of 41 in a quad bike accident.

Of the 2011/12 fatalities, 16 were farmers, seven worked on farms and six were members of the public. The number of major injuries rose on the year from 354 to 362; “over three day injuries” rose from 594 to 671. Farming’s five-year average of fatal injuries is 11.3 per 100,000, only mining and quarrying coming close with 10.4.

The HSE, which records in detail, found that 21 per cent of farmer or farm staff deaths over the past five years were caused by moving vehicles, 19 per cent by falling or moving objects, 12 per cent by moving machinery, ten per cent by falls, eight per cent by animals and five per cent by drowning or asphyxiation.

It’s a grim catalogue no matter how we look at it. Graeme Walker of HSE said: “Too many lives continue to be lost or damaged … We all have a responsibility to reduce workplace risks and make everyone more aware of the dangers of cutting corners.”

Not least of their worries should be a recent finding by the St John Ambulance that only one worker in five has the slightest knowledge of first aid. I also suspect that on most farms emergency first aid equipment or supplies is in short supply. We all think it won’t happen to us.

A final thought in a depressing autumn, for all sorts of reasons including those dealt with above, is that we still have the annual juxtaposition of hill farming hard luck stories and silly prices for rams and I don’t just mean a £90,000 Blackface.

A few days ago no sooner had I watched a television item about the serious plight of hill farmers in the north of England – many threatened with going out of business, etc. - than I picked up a farming paper with a report of £47,000 paid for a Swaledale ram and another item about £8,400 paid for a collie.

Even in these parlous times I had to laugh – slightly hysterically, but laugh.