A study from the University of Exeter and the Farming Community Network has established that a lack of public appreciation is contributing to the loneliness felt by members of the farming sector; with loneliness being linked to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
According to the ‘it’s a lonely old world’ study and project, funded by the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network, a lack of public appreciation and understanding of the work that farmers do and the pressures they are under contributes to feelings of loneliness and isolation within the farming community.
The study involved in-depth phone or video-call interviews with 22 farmers or members of farming families, as well as six farm support practitioners in England, between March and July 2021.
One farming man, aged 40-49, said: “In the local village the demographic has completely changed in the past 20 years. And you get sly comments or something from a footpath walker, or you quite often get…someone flicking you the Vs on the road or beeping their horn because you’re in the tractor going from A to B.”
“You get the sense that the local community isn’t really your best friend. You feel a bit of an alien on your own doorstep.”
One of the farm support practitioners interviewed discussed how she has supported farmers in an area where a large housing development has made farmers feel more isolated from the general community, as they now receive more complaints about the noise from cows and tractors.
Some of the farmers interviewed also expressed concerns in relation to the media; stating that the media undermines the importance of farmers’ roles in food production and the positive actions they are implementing for the care of the environment because they more often link agriculture to environmental issues and climate change.
Professor Matt Lobley, co-director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, said: “The issue of the sense of disconnection between farming and non-farming people has come up repeatedly in our research over a number of years.”
“We now know that the loneliness and isolation that can stem from this impacts the mental health of farming people. Farming people are key workers and we should all have a stake in helping improve their health and wellbeing.”
As such, the researchers recommend that connections between the farming and non-farming communities need to be strengthened, to stop farmers feeling so isolated. This could be supported by enhancing opportunities for community engagement with agriculture; improving public dialogue in relation to food and farming; promoting local food networks; and seeing a more positive and empathetic approach from Government and regulators when it comes to shaping and enforcing policy and legislative requirements.
Dr Jude McCann, CEO of The Farming Community Network, said: “All of us rely on farmers three times a day. Sadly, many people particularly in urban environments have very little exposure to farming, and as a result often a limited understanding of the challenges involved and the hard work and long hours that are required to ensure food is produced for the country and to a high standard.
“We hope that the findings of this study will help to encourage people to appreciate their local farmers more and to be more aware of what is involved in farming – helping to bridge the gap between farmer and non-farmer, and rural and urban environments.”
The paper, ‘It’s a lonely old world’: Developing a multidimensional understanding of loneliness in farming’, published in the journal Sociologia Ruralis, is available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/soru.12399.