The Farming Community Network supports about 6,000 people through business and personal issues every year. Clemmie Gleeson looks at the help it has been offering for 25 years.
Just hours after the recent battering of storms, Farming Community Network (FCN) was experiencing high levels of calls to its helpline.
FCN’s chief executive Jude McCann says: “Normally it takes a few days for calls to come in after events like this.
“At first, farmers are occupied with clearing up, helping the public and other farms, then maybe a week later they have a bigger picture of the damage and cost and it hits just how bad things are, but it’s looking pretty desperate out there already.”
Support from FCN initially comes via its confidential helpline, which is open from 7am to 11pm every day of the year.
It is manned on rotation by a team of about 40 committed volunteers, most of whom have a farming background or links with the industry.
Jude says: “They have a good understanding, maybe through personal experience, or are very familiar with the challenges that farmers have to face.
They are there to listen and understand their situation.
“Sometimes it is just about talking over the issues and finding a way forward or it could be that the person requires a higher level of support.” If this is required and the person asking for help would like it, the case is passed on to a local volunteer.
Usually this is someone within the same county, but may be someone from further afield with specialist knowledge or experience.
Jude says: “For example, if it is an animal health issue, it may be someone who has experience of that, even if they are not the closest.” The volunteer visits and will stay in touch until their help is no longer required.
FCN also signposts to other organisations for additional guidance and practical help.
The primary focus for help offered is for farmers and farming families, but the offer extends to anyone who has links with the farming community, says Jude.
“Farm workers and people who work for agricultural businesses can all access our service.
Essentially, we will help anyone involved in the industry and do what we can.” The range of issues people contact FCN about ranges from business and financial problems to personal issues, relationship breakdowns and poor mental health.
"We will help anyone involved in the industry and do what we can"
Jude says: “Usually there are multiple reasons, which have a knock-on effect and affect other areas.
For example, if they have TB on-farm it will affect cashflow, causing financial difficulties, then may impact a farmer’s mental health and relationships.
It is rare to be just one issue in isolation.” The switch to the Basic Payment Scheme in 2015, weather issues and Brexit have all resulted in more farmers turning to the charity.
Funding for FCN comes in part from Defra, the Welsh Government and a few corporate partners, but donations and fundraising are incredibly important too, with the cost rocketing to £1,500/day to run the charity.
Most of those costs come from volunteer expenses for travel and phonecalls, he adds.
Paid employees include the equivalent of six full-time members of staff, including staff based at the charity’s headquarters in Northamptonshire, seven part-time regional directors who look after county groups in their areas and some co-ordinators who are paid for the work they do.
A recent partnership with Waitrose has seen the supermarket support the charity financially.
This has included helping FCN with the launch of its FarmWell website last year, which aims to give farmers access to resources to help with business and personal resilience.
It also funded a series of events around the country, which saw New Zealand farmer Doug Avery sharing his experiences.
Some 2,200 farmers attended the talks at 12 different venues across England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year, and Doug had toured Scotland the year before too.
Jude says: “Feedback was really positive; people were really inspired by his message.
He was speaking from personal experience of being really down with his farm business struggling after drought and earthquakes.
“We heard about how he pushed himself up and moved the business forward to become one of the most successful farmers in the country.” The work with Waitrose also involves FCN visiting its farmer groups.
Jude says: “We give talks so they know we exist and make sure they are thinking about themselves and their wellbeing.”
To talk to a sympathetic person who understands farmers and rural life, call 03000 111 999.
The confidential helpline is open 7am to 11pm every day of the year, or you can visit fcn.org.uk
Online resources for personal and business resilience can be found at farmwell.org.uk
Families in crisis:
"My sister and family are in deep crisis with a family member. My sister disclosed to me her worries, so I looked online, found your contact number and encouraged her to phone your helpline.
Thankfully you answered her call and assigned her a local volunteer. This volunteer has visited the family farm several times and has gone above and beyond with their help and support, as well as their encouragement to seek professional guidance.
Thank you very much for your help and support to this farming family.”
Difficulties with BPS:
“Most recently our family was waiting for the much needed annual single farm payment. A subsidy that, for a small holding, is the difference between selling up or carrying on.
A systematic error on the rural payment agencies website meant that our application never made it past the submission stage, and after calling the RPA, it was not looking good for us.
I called the Farming Community Network and I have to say, what an amazing enterprise. Everyone I spoke too was understanding, sensitive to the issue, and 100 per cent professional and helpful.
In just one week the dedicated team of volunteers had not only straightened up the RPA issue, meaning, all-be-it late, we will receive our BPS payment. But equally as important the kindness of the volunteers just being there to talk to was by far, a most impressive life-line.”
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