Lending an ear to farmers who need to talk

Helen Benson of Farming Community Network.
Helen Benson of Farming Community Network.
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“Sometimes we all reach the end of our tether and we just need somewhere to offload what is on our mind.”

These are the words of Helen Benson, the Yorkshire co-ordinator for the Farming Community Network. The charity operates both a national helpline and a team of volunteers who will ‘walk with’ people through problems and anxieties either on the telephone or by a personal visit to their home.

“We had a lady last year whose favourite ewe had just lambed and the lamb had suffered Schmallenberg disease. People ring at that moment of need when everything just feels so bad.

“Very often their problems are multi-layered and the reason why the call has been made isn’t necessarily the underlying problem, it is just what has brought matters to a head.

“At any one time there are many vulnerable families and individuals in the countryside. The consequences of last year’s weather problems still go on and heaven knows what it must be like just at the moment for those farms that have been under water in the Somerset Levels for so long now.

“Many rural areas are sparsely populated and that can lead to some very lonely, isolated people. Young people can feel just as much on their own as those who have far more life experience. A farm apprentice stuck out in a caravan on his or her own during lambing time with no-one to talk to can struggle if they have worries or issues that they bottle up inside.”

These are just some of the reasons why the work of the Farming Community Network is so important. Originally called the Farm Crisis Network, it is a Christian charity that involves a partnership between The Arthur Rank Centre in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, and the Christian Fellowship.

The charity was founded by a farmer called Christopher Jones MBE in Northamptonshire back in 1995 and it currently has more than 300 volunteers who will either visit those who call the helpline or will speak on the phone dependent on what the person who they are trying to help wants them to do.

It provides what they refer to as confidential and non-judgmental support for those in need in the farming community. They don’t tell the person concerned what to do, they merely offer a listening ear and some guidance.

Although the Farming Community Network wants the farming community to be aware of its existence so that it can work towards waving goodbye to a statistic that has plagued farming for years, notably that the industry tops the suicide league table as an individual occupation, much of their actual work is carried out behind the scenes with the minimum of fuss to protect the confidentiality of those who call on the service for support.

The Network will have a presence at more than 20 agricultural shows this year, including the Great Yorkshire Show, says Helen.

“It’s all about getting our message out that we are here and that those who need us feel able to approach us. But our main work is getting on with helping people.

“We have helpline volunteers all around the country and if there is a call received from someone in Yorkshire the details are then passed to us in the county. I then allocate a volunteer who I feel will best be able to understand and empathise with the person concerned Confidentiality is paramount as is the ability to find the right person to talk with the man or woman who needs help. Most of our volunteers are willing, able and qualified to go on-farm and support by way of listening, taking, helping and assisting.”

In order to appeal to the younger generation the Farming Community Network has recently launched an e-mail helpline.

Whilst the Farming Community Network is the listening ear of the farm charity world, the more high profile RABI (Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution) gives emergency and long-term grants to help those in financial difficulty. It also operates its own helpline.

Sally Conner is the regional manager of the charity for the North East that combines most of Yorkshire, County Durham and Northumberland. She is in no doubt that the need for RABI is as great as ever.

“Farmers are proud, independent people who sometimes find it hard to ask for help so we encourage everyone to tell us their concerns about others. Last year right across the country we saw a rise in new referrals from 285 in 2012 to 654 in 2013 and North Yorkshire was one of the hotspots. Wales and the Welsh border counties saw a huge swathe of referrals.

“It would be very easy for us to trip statistics off about where we help, but they are all readily available from our website. We give emergency and long-term grants, we pay for essential household items and specialist equipment. We can also help to fund relief staff, training, home-help and care home fees. We run two residential homes of our own.

“Our work in Yorkshire is becoming even more vital year on year. For those who might feel that just because there are central offices elsewhere in the UK we are in some way second-class citizens I can tell you that is very much not the case. “We continue to help many Yorkshire farmers and their families and new referrals are made regularly. The monies that go to keeping office staff employed form a very small proportion of what is raised through either donations from such as The Prince’s Countryside Fund, corporate supporters or our own events.

“We have a significant role to play in making sure that anyone in the county who needs help through their own stressful time gets it before they really do reach the end of their tether.”

Who to call for help

It is easy to get in touch with rural charities in Yorkshire in times of crisis.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution operates a confidential help and advie line on 0300 3037373. Alternatively, email grants@rabi.org.uk. The Farming Community Network’s helpline can be reached on 0845 3679990 and its e-Helpline via chris@fcn.org.uk.

Anyone interested in volunteering can enquire by contacting the FCN on 01788 510866 or Sally Conner at RABI on 01964 541400.