The textbook image of the strong farmer, battling all weathers and all tasks, is not the reality, said Mairead McGuinness, MEP, at last week’s Embrace FARM Resilient Farmer conference.
The European Parliament Vice-President showed with her insights at the Portlaoise event that she is more in touch with real life in Irish farming than many other politicians.
In brief, she catalogued the pressures that can beat a farmer down, and urged them to look after their mental and physical health, and not let fear or pride prevent them seeking help, when pressures mount.
Putting it another way, maybe farmers should lower their expectations of the industry they work in, for the good of their mental health, because high expectations are sure to be disappointed.
It’s an area McGuinness has spoken eloquently about before, not least in 2016, when she summed up the farmer’s dilemma as follows: “There is something very rotten in our society today, if those who produce food are so desperate on their farms that they are committing suicide.
“We do have to ask ourselves what state we are in, that we have to eat food three times a day, and those who produce it are so desperate.”
In many ways, things are probably worse now.
Brexit is one of the more recent new pressures.
“The uncertainty it has created and the constant fear about its impact on the farming and food sector is testing farmers’ resilience,” said the MEP.
She added “climate shaming of farmers” to the list last week, saying it is a new pressure on farmers, without helping to advance climate change mitigation.
The MEP also warned that rapid expansion in the dairy sector since 2015 brings its own inevitable pressures.
Labour shortages are adding to these pressures.
And she warned that in some communities, growing tensions between farmers in different sectors and regions could drive them apart.
There’s more, that the textbook “strong farmer” must battle against. She reminded them that farming is a dangerous occupation, with a high level of accidents resulting in death and injury.
Farms are also lonely places, where people often work alone.
Economic survival is a struggle for many, borne out by statistics showing that — even in the most prosperous Irish farming sector — the milk price paid to dairy farmers in recent years ranged from 25c to 40c per litre. Across that milk price range, for an Irish farmer producing 400,000 litres of milk annually, his profit ranged from a low of €8,170 to a high of €56,170.
It’s hard to cope economically with that kind of volatility. Pig farming also regularly goes from boom to bust.
In most of the other main farming sectors, income is more consistent, but at such a low level that it is EU income support that keeps farmers afloat.
It’s an old story in Irish farming, and perhaps it is the low expectations after decades of precarious incomes that helps farmers through the inevitable ups and downs.
But they should heed the warning from Mairead McGuinness that an accumulation of issues like tiredness after a lambing or calving season, leading to inability to sleep, coupled with fears for the future, coming on top of all the other challenges, could push people over the edge.
Or something could come out of left field like the hurt when a child decides not to take on the family farm, when the time comes to pass it on.
That could even catch the people who relish farming for all the battles and challenges it brings, even if they know it is a hard way to earn a living.
Those people may prefer to accentuate the positive and shut out the negative.
But, for ordinary people, it’s no harm to highlight the vulnerabilities of farmers and the need to help build their resilience and to provide supports.
Last week, Mairead McGuinness rightly complimented and thanked Norma and Brian Rohan of Embrace Farm for enabling that, by organising the Embrace FARM Resilient Farmer conference.