A lack of understanding and appreciation for what farmers do is resulting in increased feelings of loneliness among farmers, a new study out of England suggests. Loneliness was found in the study to be linked to depression and anxiety.
Researchers from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research and The Farming Community Network carried out in-depth interviews with farmers, members of farming families and farm support practitioners in England in 2021, a University of Exeter release said.
“The issue of the sense of disconnection between farming and non-farming people has come up repeatedly in our research over a number of years,” said Matt Lobley, professor and co-director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter. “We now know that the loneliness and isolation that can stem from this impacts the mental health of farming people.”
Farmers shared that they felt undervalued and disconnected from society because of a general lack of understanding from the general public about what is involved in farming and the unique pressures they face as farmers.
“In the local village the demographic has completely changed in the past 20 years,” said one male farmer aged 40-49. “And you get sly comments or something from a footpath walker or you quite often get…someone flicking you the Vs on the road, or beeping their horn because you’re in the tractor going from A to B. So you get the sense that the local community isn’t really your best friend. You feel a bit of an alien on your own doorstep.”
One farm support practitioner talked about how the growth of a community following a large housing development led to farmers feeling more isolated because of complaints they received such as noise from cows and tractors, the release said.
Farmers also shared that they feel that their personal stories are being overlooked in media stories about agriculture and environmental issues such as climate change, the research showed.
“Cultural loneliness refers to feelings that arise from a sense of difference with others in the wider community – including feelings of being an outsider or being misunderstood by other cultural groups,” said Rebecca Wheeler, senior research fellow from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter. “It’s concerning to see that this type of loneliness repeatedly emerged in participants’ stories, with many farmers describing or alluding to a strong sense of disconnection with the wider public, and of feeling undervalued and misunderstood by Government and society.”
The researchers recommend strengthening connections between farming and non-farming communities in order to avoid farmers feeling isolated from society.
This could include:
- enhancing opportunities for community engagement with agriculture
- improving public dialogue in relation to food and farming
- promoting local food networks that facilitate more direct relationships between producers and consumers
- a more positive and empathetic approach from government and regulators when it comes to shaping and enforcing policy and legislative requirements, particularly since associated paperwork and inspections have long been identified as key sources of stress for farmers
“All of us rely on farmers three times a day. Sadly, many people, particularly in urban environments, have very little exposure to farming, and as a result often a limited understanding of the challenges involved and the hard work and long hours that are required to ensure food is produced for the country and to a high standard,” said Jude McCann, CEO of The Farming Community Network. “We hope that the findings of this study will help to encourage people to appreciate their local farmers more and to be more aware of what is involved in farming – helping to bridge the gap between farmer and non-farmer, and rural and urban environments.”
‘It’s a lonely old world’: Developing a multidimensional understanding of loneliness in farming, was published in the journal Sociologia Ruralis. This project was funded by the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation.