It’s a blindingly sunny Tuesday in February when I visit the Growing Communities farm in suburban East London. Head grower Ximena Ransom meets me at a bolted gate set into palisade fences. Under the gaze of a nearby tower block lie beds, boxes, greenhouses, and polytunnels where Ransom and colleagues grow fruit and vegetables for the 1,139 Londoners signed up to the organisation’s weekly produce box scheme.
After feeding the farm cat, she gives me the tour. In the main greenhouse, seedlings sprout in neat trays while green salad bursts from the dirt underfoot: mizuna, rocket, kale. Ransom names each of the patches as we pass, describing with satisfaction how tangy some of the leaves can be.
It’s easy to romanticise farming and growing, especially on an unseasonably warm day surrounded by rows of well-tended greens. And yet, despite farming’s wholesome appeal, the industry remains one of the most difficult for those with anxiety and depression. Waiting for global markets to bump or slash the price of crops or herds, farmers often work long hours under huge financial pressures. Typically, many also live in rural, isolated areas. A survey released last month by the Farm Safety Foundation (FSF) found that four in five farmers under 40 say poor mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today.
Uncertainty surrounding Brexit has placed an extra burden on the industry, as UK farmers rely hugely on income from exports. Last year, the Secretary of State admitted that if Britain can’t persuade the EU to give us a free trade agreement after Brexit, this will put “considerable strain” on farmers. Last month, the president of the National Farmers’ Union was much more succinct: she said that leaving the EU without a deal would be “catastrophic.” The union also reported on Sunday that distressed farmers have made dozens of calls to crisis networks, with some being placed on “suicide watch.”
The Farming Community Network (FCN), one of the charities behind the volunteer-led phone line Farming Help, has also reported an increase in calls from young farmers in recent years. Callers struggle with rural isolation, family breakdowns, mental health issues, and succession. The charity says there is a significant possibility that farmer wellbeing will worsen after Brexit, and whatever deal we get, it expects workload at the charity and the phone line to increase.
FSF’s campaign specialist Stephanie Berkeley also sees Brexit as a huge threat to the mental wellbeing of Britain’s farmers. She tells me: “There is massive uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need to be aware of the people that it might be affecting and how it might be affecting them, and looking out for signs and symptoms.”
Jonathan Glen is an agricultural student at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. He started work on a dairy farm aged 18, when he travelled to New Zealand to gain experience for work back home on his family farm in Ireland. It was here that he first experienced symptoms of depression.
“It got to the point when one goes into a depressive spiral, for want of a better word,” Glen tells me. “Your thought train becomes very irrational and it’s very hard to find reason and logic in things. I was actually planning on quitting my job and coming home and almost thinking of leaving the dairy industry altogether.”
Fortunately, Glen was able to speak to a friend about how he was feeling.
“They turned around and said, ‘Yeah me too.’ I thought, ‘That's strange, you mean this is normal?’ They said, ‘Yeah, I feel like that sometimes, I suffer from depression,’” Glen recalls. “So, I twigged there that actually there might be something wrong here. From that conversation—opening up about how I was feeling with somebody else—that helped me find out what was going on and start the process of managing this condition.”
Jennifer Down works on her husband’s farm in Devon, as well as raising their children and volunteering at a local school. Like Glen, she experienced depression—she was diagnosed about six months after the birth of her daughter. Then about a year ago, she was diagnosed with bulimia.
“I didn't have much energy,” Down says of the period in which she was depressed. “I wasn't going out and doing anything—I stayed in my pyjamas most days. I would have a shower but I just found daily life a struggle. I put it down to being a new mum but then the more I thought about it, while my husband went back to work, I thought, ‘Maybe there is something not quite right.’”
Farmers are at risk of mental illness due to the nature of their jobs, and with the added pressure of Brexit, this could worsen dramatically. Aarun Naik is a Liverpool-based psychotherapist, but he worked in agriculture for years before retraining and many of his clients now are farmers. Naik says that leaving the EU without a deal would be “disastrous.”
He tells me: “We'd be looking possible bankruptcy in some cases. Others might have to make a decision whether to carry on farming or not, especially those in more disadvantaged rural upland areas where there’s nothing else to do. For families whose farm has been in the family for generations, that's a huge sense of loss and grief to come to terms with something like that.”
Unlike crises like the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001, Brexit has been a long time coming, but Naik says farmers are worried about how the industry will cope if it has a similar impact.
“The 2001 outbreak was highly distressing for farming communities, seeing herds that have been built up over years having to be decimated,” he explains. “We saw increase in mental health [problems] and concern about suicides that came after that.”
There was a ten-fold increase in farmer suicide during the outbreak.
Although her mental health has improved in the last year, Down is also worried about Brexit. She tells me she doesn’t know how it will affect her.
“It's always at the back of our minds but we're calving at the minute, so I haven't got time to sit down and think,” she says. “We're trying not to dwell on it. We know it's coming, but we just don't know what's coming yet.”
Glen, meanwhile, hopes to move back to Ireland for work after he graduates.
While times are hard for Britain's farmers, organisations are working to erode stigma surrounding mental health in farming and provide agricultural workers with the support they need amid Brexit uncertainty. FSF’s “Mind Your Head” week ran for its second year last month.
Of course, farming can also be a source of self-esteem and meaning. As Naik points out: “For most people, it's not just career. The difficulty, often, you have to balance against [the fact that] it's a lifestyle, it's a way of life that can bring many benefits.”
Glen says that farming actually improves his wellbeing: “Bizarre as it sounds, I get quite a spiritual connection to it—it's something I'd almost do for free. Living things depend on you. If you do it well, then things prosper.”
Down, too, loves her work.
“I like the feeling of being free when you're out and about,” she says. “You’re always in the open air, seeing animals develop, growing, and having their young.”
Growing Communities ran a volunteering scheme last year. Six of its eight volunteers experienced mental health issues in the past; they all said that growing and tending to the land helped them cope. Luckily for volunteers, Ransom, and everyone on the box scheme, Brexit is very unlikely to have an impact on Growing Communities’ work: last year some 85 percent of veg traded through the scheme came from UK farms.
Back on the tour, Ransom takes me out to other smaller greenhouses. Inside, bare apricot trees climb the back walls. Outside, the beehives are quiet. She apologises. It doesn't look like much at the moment, she says.
In fact, the farm looks great—especially in the bright morning sun. But it doesn’t change the fact that those facing losses after Brexit will need the government’s help to survive.