The figures are stark: In 2015 total income from farming crashed 29% to £3.77bn – its lowest since 2010. No sector was spared, and the pain was exacerbated by the slow roll-out of Basic Payments, themselves hit by the strong pound in September 2015.
Unsurprisingly, farmers turned to their banks for help, last year borrowing a record £17.1bn; 8.4% up on 2014. According to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, half of farms are no longer making a living from farming itself, and 20% generated a loss in 2015/16, even before accounting for family labour and capital.
However, it’s rarely just one problem that prompts farmers to seek help, says Charles Smith, chief executive of the Farming Community Network. “The biggest single increase in the reason for people calling us has been the delayed Basic Payments. But there is never just one problem: Farmers waiting for payment go through a lot of turmoil,” he explains. “There’s been a sharp increase in cases of depression – it’s almost inevitable when there are financial problems. Nearly half of all calls come from concerned wives and partners.”
So what support is available? In the first instance FCN offers a sympathetic ear, with just over 400 volunteers across the country. “About 60% of calls for support come via the helpline and some can be dealt with quite quickly over the phone. But most will result in a farm visit. We will sit down and find the cause of the problem, make a plan and walk them through it, every step of the way – whether that’s visiting the bank manager with them or helping with paperwork.”
Between 1 December 2015 and 14 April 2016 FCN received 1,362 calls to its helpline – many about Basic Payment. That was five times more calls than during the same time 12 months before. Of the cases the Rural Payments Agency had registered as representing genuine hardship, 84% had been taken up by FCN, with partial or full payment secured on 505 cases, resulting in a total of more than £8m being paid out.
Despite this success, Mr Smith doesn’t foresee a rapid upturn in farming circumstances. “Our concern now is how the inevitable changes which face the industry as a result of leaving the EU will affect the welfare of all farmers and farming families.”
There is also a regional slant to the help farmers require. “The greatest number of calls we receive is in the South West, mainly because of TB. Many farmers have reached the point where they just don’t know which way to turn.”
The practical and pastoral support offered by FCN sits neatly alongside the other main farming charities: R.A.B.I (and RSABI), which offer financial assistance for those in need, and the Addington Fund, which provides affordable housing for farmers and farm workers, as well as emergency grant aid. “Forage Aid also did splendid work during the floods – we all work very closely together,” says Mr Smith.
In the first six months of 2016, R.A.B.I paid out over £1m in grants, considerably more than the £872,022 paid out in the first half of 2015 – partly due to the impact of flooding in December 2015, as well as animal disease. Grants typically go towards disability equipment and adaptations, housing repairs, and domestic bills, with around 90% of beneficiaries no longer working due to ill health, disability or retirement.
Ian Bell OBE, chief executive of the Addington Fund, says the past year has seen an increasing number of farmers in need of help. “It’s across all sectors, but some people in the pig and dairy industry have got to the point of no return,” he says. “The financial strain is starting to tell and it is affecting people working in the many industries that support farming, too. In 15 years at Addington I have never been so worried about the general well-being of our farming community.”
To contact any of the above farming charities call the confidential helpline on 03000 111999.
One farmer who has benefited from R.A.B.I assistance is Greg – a self-employed farm worker who had hereditary kidney disease and needed a transplant. “I got terribly tired and would fall asleep as soon as I got in from work,” he says. His wife Carol offered to be a donor but that meant they would both be off work and without an income at the same time.
R.A.B.I helped them apply for state benefits they were entitled to and provided grants for household bills. “Without R.A.B.I we’d have gone into debt, from which we’d have struggled to recover,” says Carol. “R.A.B.I gave us a cushion to support us through the operations.”
Greg adds: “It’s hard to ask for help – pride gets in the way and farmers are a proud bunch. But I’d say to anyone in the same situation just ask. With R.A.B.I’s help we’re now back on our feet.”