The sentiment that it is sometimes easier to talk to a stranger than to relatives or friends is one that struck a chord with dairy farmer Hannah Lawrence, who volunteers on the DPJ charity’s ‘Share The Load’ phone helpline. Hannah Park reports.
Ever since she was a child, farming is a livelihood Hannah Lawrence has been immersed in.
Aged 16, she decided farming full-time was what she wanted to do and alongside her brothers, Alistair, 28, and William, 26, Hannah, 25, is now the fourth generation of her family to farm at Great Hares Head Farm, Pembrokeshire, a mixed livestock farm bought by the siblings’ great-grandparents, Llewelyn and Frances Lloyd, in 1940.
A family affair from the word go, the farm continued to grow with Hannah’s grandparents John and Joyce Lloyd at the helm for a time. They were helped by their daughters, Julie, and Hannah’s mum, Diane, who until recently worked as a special needs teacher, and her father, Sandy, who runs a landscaping business alongside farm work.
For the past two years, Hannah has been a volunteer on the DPJ charity’s ‘Share The Load’ phone helpline - A 24-hour helpline manned by volunteers.
But come 2017 and with three ambitious young farmers now at the helm of the business, the decision to invest heavily to facilitate business expansion was made.
New infrastructure includes a 350-cow capacity housing facility and 40/40 DeLaval parlour and herd growth is ongoing. What was a 120-cow commercial Holstein herd 18 months ago is up to 250-head currently, with plans to increase to 350 milkers over the next 12 months.
Cow welfare and efficiencies were key considerations for the new shed design.
Design features include no roof lights to minimise the greenhouse effect, installation of a green bedding system and feed passages on both sides of the building that is protected by an overhang and metre high concrete wall, to keep badgers out and reduce TB risk primely, given the farms location. The farm has also installed a system that snap cools the milk, with the heat recaptured and used to warm water and heating systems.
There is also a 200-ewe flock of Texel cross Suffolk ewes and a handful of pedigree Texel’s run under the Preseli View prefix that Hannah enjoys working with and showing.
Before returning home to work on the farm full-time, Hannah worked part-time as an AI technician, travelling to farms the length and breadth of the county.
For a period, this coincided with significantly depressed milk prices for many and she became increasingly aware of how many farmers were sharing their concerns with her.
Some were downbeat, some were angry while others broke down openly, but crucially, with her family going through the same turmoil at home, Hannah was able to offer an empathetic ear.
She says: “Several farmers opened up to me about how difficult they were finding the situation at that time; it was crippling businesses, and some were visibly struggling to cope.
“As we were experiencing the same thing at home, I could relate to them in a way. I felt connected and perhaps it was comforting in way for them to speak to a stranger, as such, who was going through the same thing.”
It was that, Hannah says, which struck a chord with her.
So, when the DPJ foundation was set up in July 2016, following the tragic death of local farm contractor Daniel Picton-Jones, she was keen to be involved.
For the past two years, Hannah has been a volunteer on the charity’s ‘Share The Load’ phone helpline.
The 24-hour helpline is manned by volunteers who, after undertaking training relating to mental health awareness, can be there to listen or can set up an individual with a counsellor.
Hannah looks after one or two 10 hour slots per week.
“I could be anywhere on the farm, or elsewhere at the mart or anywhere when a call comes in but when it does that is my priority,” Hannah says. “I take some very tough calls, but often picking up the phone is the crucial first step for many people who do so. There is never a bad time [to call].
“I’m just a normal farmer day-to-day and get on with the jobs that need doing like everyone else.
“But I am very proud to be involved in a charity that is doing so much incredible work to break down the stigma associated with talking and asking for help when it comes to mental health in farming.”
And although farming is considered, and is generally accepted, as an isolated profession, that has clearly been heightened thanks to Covid-19 this year.
It has halted, for some, what might be their only human interaction for the week at the local mart or opportunity to catch up with friends and family and local and national agricultural shows and events through the year.
“It’s a tough industry,” says Hannah. “While I haven’t really noticed a hangover from Covid-19 just yet with the calls I get, that doesn’t mean to say there won’t be one. Farming is isolated at the best of times, but even more so this year.”
Hannah actively promotes the DPJ Foundations work on social media, and in a normal year, will attend shows and events across Wales to showcase the work it does.
Keen to promote the work of the charity alongside farming more broadly saw Hannah, alongside her family, organise an open farm day in 2018 to raise money for a DPJ project based around providing health care to the agriculture sector in marts in West Wales.
The family welcomed some 600 people through their gates, from local schools and residents in the surrounding towns and villages, to holiday makers visiting the area at the time.
“It was rewarding to feel like we had played some part in educating some of the children who came along about where their food comes from,” Hannah says.
“Some were shocked that milk was warm when it came out of the cows, it was nice to feel like we had taught them something new to go home with.
“It’s definitely something we would look at doing again.”
Hannah also looks to portray the ins and outs of farming on a more day-to-day basis via her Instragram page, preseli_view_texels.
“It started out as a way to promote the pedigree Texels,” she says. “But it’s evolved into more of an everyday account of life on the farm.
“I enjoy showing the real side of what farming life is, the positives and the negatives, as I think it is important to explain both. There is so much out there in the media now, if we can explain why we do what we do I think that will help to broaden an understanding of farming more widely.”
The DPJ Foundation is a Pembrokeshire-based mental health charity set up to support those in rural communities and in agriculture with mental health difficulties.
It was set-up in July 2016 following the death of Daniel Picton-Jones. Daniel’s suicide rocked the community, and his wife, Emma, realised very quickly the lack of support that was available for those suffering with poor mental health in rural communities.
Emma started the charity from scratch and through donations and fundraising events went onto establish the ‘Share The Load’ initiative, a 24/7 telephone and counselling service for people needing mental health support in rural communities.
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