Farmers in parts of the Yorkshire Dales are facing such squeezes on their income that they are cutting back on food shopping and not paying bills as they struggle to make ends meet.
A report into sheep farmers in the Teesdale area shows farmers are having to get by on incomes as low as £8,000 a year and are often faced with widely fluctuating revenues due to factors completely beyond their control.
Produced by Oxfam in conjunction with the Upper Teessdale Agricultural Support Service, the Challenges Facing Farmers report says many sheep farmers in the area are often unable to afford to repair broken equipment and have to seek employment away from their farms due to a lack of decent returns.
As a result, many are living with inadequate insurance policies and often operate without a pension.
Most worryingly, the study, which looked in detail at 20 sheep farmers in the Teesdale area, revealed that some farmers are exhibiting mental health issues as a result of their tight finances.
Successive governments as well as the European Union have looked at ways to support farmers in upland areas like the Yorkshire Dales, where harsh conditions often lead to poverty for those living and working there.
However, the study showed that, as well as having poor access to basic services, many in the Teesdale area were receiving their subsidy payments late, sometimes by as much as six months.
One extract reads: “This research illuminates how poverty is a severe and stifling condition that is becoming more intense amongst farmers in the Teesdale area.
“What is clear from this project is that farmers want to earn a living from the livestock they raise and are proud individuals who do not want to rely on handouts. However, for many farmers the present structure of the industry means that they do not feel able to invest in their farms or livelihoods, with many having to make ends meet just to get by.”
One of the farmers interviewed for the report, referred to as Anne, said she had been farming in Teessdale for more than 45 years on a 140-acre holding. She highlighted the challenges faced by farmers in the area by outlining the changes in overheads.
“In the 1980s and 1990s we were receiving £40 per sheep, now it’s £70. Fertiliser cost £154 per tonne in 2000 but now it’s up to £380 per tonne.” She added that she and her son had now decided simply not to buy any more until next year.
Her son David said he had continued working on the farm with a broken arm due to times being so hard.
NFU upland group chairman Robin Milton said: “Sadly, these reports don’t come as much of a surprise to me. They show the great uncertainty that now faces hill farmers. The combination of squeezed incomes due to rising costs of livestock feed and rents alongside huge uncertainty over the future targeting of both Single Farm Payment and environmental stewardship schemes is having a profound impact on farmers’ confidence.
“The NFU is arguing that Ministers need to listen more closely to farmers, tenants and graziers when framing the implementation of regulation and payment regimes. Productive hill farms protect national assets – iconic landscapes, internationally important wildlife habitats and the majority of the UK’s carbon storage.
“These farmers need respect as they look after the uplands on a daily basis and make sure these iconic landscapes are maintained and accessible to the public. It is absolutely vital they are treated fairly and rewarded for their hard work.”