With a firm desire to work in agriculture, Robyn Hogg talks to Emily Ashworth about living with epilepsy while trying to find her place in the industry.
At first glance you would not think the Hogg family is anything other than your typical close-knit farming family unit, as they gather around in the kitchen laughing and joking with one another.
But what has brought the Hoggs closer than most was youngest daughter Robyn’s epilepsy diagnosis when she was just nine years old; a hidden condition and one which isn’t widely talked about across all industries, not just agriculture.
Farming 263-tenanted hectares (650 acres), the Hogg family have farmed at Laverock Hall for 140 years and now, seven generations later, Robyn’s family has diversified in to birdseed.
It is this business which has ended up providing Robyn with something to do back home, given the fact she cannot drive and her seizures can be set off by a variety of triggers, many of which are taken for granted when living what you could consider a normal, everyday life.
Robyn says: “Being too hot, too cold or too thirsty could cause an episode. Anything which would make you feel a little off colour could cause a seizure.”
Living with four types of epilepsy, it has been an uphill battle for Robyn to educate people about her illness, however she secured a place to study Agricultural Business at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) in Cirencester in 2016 and has built some positive relationships over the years through speaking openly about it.
“There’s nothing really available in terms of support groups,” she says.
“There are some for parents of children with epilepsy or adults, but I fell somewhere in the middle.
“It is an invisible illness and, because you cannot see it, it does not have any impact. People say ‘she will grow out of it’ but not many people do.
“After my blog appeared in Farmers Guardian, I got a message from a postgraduate who was also at RAU. He has epilepsy too and we go for coffee most weeks now to talk about how things are going and if I feel ill, I know he is there and vice-versa.
“We do not talk about things in our industry. Look at the male suicide rate in farming for example. I think it is because people in farming are proud.
“But if you are suffering with epilepsy, it is easy to fall into pits of depression and severe anxiety.”
More than 500,000 people in the UK have epilepsy and Robyn admits she is one of the lucky ones who responds well to medication.
But it has still been a rocky road in terms of trying to carve out a career for herself.
She says: “I originally wanted to be a barrister but we talked about it as a family and decided if I had a seizure in court, I would not be respected.
“It was also impossible to find an agricultural placement with university because I cannot drive, so I had to find a business based one and ended up in Amsterdam for five months.
“I felt really well though because I knew if I got ill I would have to come home, so I ate healthy and was not drinking. I even met another girl from Leeds there who had the same type of epilepsy as me.”
Between studying, Robyn works at home and is trying to help build Laverock Hall’s online presence.
“I can do most things on-farm,” says Robyn.
“I am in the shop a lot though which I enjoy because I have worked there since I was 14. I know everything there is to know about pigeons and chickens.
“I am always looking for information to help grow the business and put a younger perspective on it.”
It was Robyn’s dad, Chris, who started to make bags of mixed bird food and the business grew quickly. Plus, they are unique in terms of being one of the only farms to grow and manufacture their own bird feed products. The family grows a range of crops including beans, wheat, barley, oats, and linseed and over the years, they have fully supported Robyn in trying various job opportunities and diversification ideas.
Valdine, Robyn’s mum, says: “We have said it is not what you cannot do, it is what you can, and because Robyn does not look ill, people do not take the illness seriously.
“We thought about putting a shepherd’s hut on-farm to run a beauty business, for example, but found out lavender triggers Robyn’s epilepsy.”
After taking beauty night classes for two years thinking she would be able to work from home, she realised she would be ‘unemployable’.
Robyn says: “I then came back to farming because Dad said, if you are not well at least you are somewhere people will support you and I honestly do not mind doing all the labour work.”
About seven years ago, Robyn found herself in a period of negativity after her friends started to talk about what cars they were going to drive and what A-levels they wanted to choose.
She says: “I was thinking ‘I cannot drive, I cannot farm, what can I do’? Mum and Dad bought me two cows, which are more like pets really, but it got me outside and gave me a little purpose.”
Robyn then started to work on a neighbouring farm too, a mixed farm where she works mostly in the grain store, drying seeds, carrying out moisture tests and weighing trailers in and out.
“I know Dad is making jobs for me whereas when I am over there working for a different company, I know they actually need me,” says Robyn.
“And I enjoy being needed, rather than thinking Dad is finding things for me to do.”
As Valdine says, she believes her daughter is like a ‘mountain climber’, continuing to live her life to the full despite her epilepsy and the reality her condition could, in fact, worsen.
Valdine says: “If you have a huge seizure, it is the equivalent of running a marathon and it takes it out of you.
“Sometimes she does not know who people are when she comes around and it is like a reset button has been hit – once you have had one, you will not have one for a while.”
Robyn also reveals that initially the epilepsy was only in one part of her brain, whereas now it has spread across all of it.
But it clearly is not Robyn’s style to dwell, as she speaks of future plans and the overwhelming love and support of her family.
“It is a case of I have no other body,” she says.
“What else can I be but positive? I have grown up on-farm, I am lucky to be at the university I chose and I have a nice, happy home and a loving mum, dad, brother and sister.
“People with epilepsy can, of course, still farm; we can do whatever we like and in all honesty I think the stigma is reducing, although mental health awareness is something we all need to think about.
“Farming is lonely for a lot of people and being inside your own head too much can make epileptics or healthy people think dark thoughts.
“I think epilepsy adds to who I am and makes me an empathetic person who values some things which others take for granted. Sometimes you can use things which may be against you to make yourself a more well-rounded person and just because I have a neurological condition does not mean I canot achieve what I want to do.”