With the number of calls at a record high, the Farming Community Network is helping farmers to overcome personal and business challenges. Danusia Osiowy meets chairman Graham Lilley to find out more about the charity’s work.
A willingness to say yes to opportunities which have come his way has steered Graham Lilley to tackle a number of challenges throughout his career.
It is this same philosophy which has seen him take over the reins fromTenant Farmers Association chief executive, George Dunn, in January to become chairman of the Farming Community Network (FCN).
The charity, which operates throughout England and Wales,is open 365 days a year, offering farmers support through financial, physical and psychological hardship.
It is operated via a 400-strong team of volunteers, all of whom are either farmers or individuals associated with farming and understand the problems facing agriculture today. Hailing originally from Warrington, Cheshire, Graham has spentmuchofhis careerworking alongside farmers.
Having worked ona dairy farm in Cheshire until he was 18 years old, his plan was to complete an agricultural course at Reaseheath College.
“Then my dad got involved,”explains Graham. “He arranged an interview for me at Barclaysbank ashe told me there was no money in farming and I got the job.” That was in 1973. Twenty-two years later he was tasked with establishing an agricultural team within the bank, a project he took great enjoyment in. “The role meant collating all the accounts under one division and managing a dedicated team of people,” he explains. “I jumped at the chance as it was always my core interest and all the enthusiasm I had for agriculture I channelled into my career.”
At the same time as this happened so did a 12-year involvement with the Hertfordshire Agricultural Society, initially as treasurer and latterly as chairman.
After 31 years,Graham left Barclays and worked for Swedish bank Handelsbanken looking after food-related businesses as a corporate bank manager before going toClydesdale Bank, setting up a regional outlet in Hertfordshire.
Although taking early retirement in 2013, Graham, who moved back to Cheshire in 2012 with his wife Karen, did not want to stopworking. “I first heard of FCN as they were establishing a group in Hertfordshire and they asked if we could give them a free stand at the county show, which we did.
“I never approached anybody about it but I knew they were there from a distance. That is one of our challenges – the fact we are one of the biggest secrets on a showground.”
Before retirement Graham contacted the FCN group in Yorkshire to enquire if it needed any volunteers. Soon after Graham joined to help neighbouring farmers and, within 12 months, was elected regional chairman in 2014.
“I was responsible for making sure a 20-strong team were okay. The volunteers are a mixture of doctors, nurses, accountants, farmers and skilled workers delivering help as and when it was needed.
“They do as much as they want and expenses are paid. The rest is goodwill.”
Today, Graham’s role sees him develop the charity over the next 12 months in terms of raising awareness, managingits financial challenges and continuing to help farmers.
“I wanted to put something back into society, and what better way than to do something I am really passionate about and that suitsmy skills.”
Alongside the chairman, there is an area co-ordinator, chaplain and a secretary.
The area co-ordinator is always the first port of call who will establish the nature of the caller’s problem.
“A volunteer intheareais identified,” says Graham. “It will be a mixture of their location and the skills they can bring to the role alongside how this correlates to theneeds ofthe caller.”
Once the correct volunteer is selected they call the individual back to arrange ameeting.
“It is the best way of understanding the person.You are dealing with a person who has taken a very big step in picking up the phone to call the helpline and speak out.
“The volunteers offer pastoral care, often just over a cup of tea and a chat.
“We don’t give advice to a problem, we sign post individuals to the help that is available.
“This might be in the form of accompanying them to a meeting with the bank.
We attend to support the farmer as another set of eyes and ears to help them digest the information they are being given and facilitate conversation between the farmer and the bank manager if needed. All decisions are made by the farmer,not us.”
While financial hardship is a common issue the charity is dealing with, so increasingly are a variety of health issues, including mental health.
“We have received an increased number of calls from individuals whose loved ones are suffering from dementia – they might want to know how they go about getting relief workers, what support they can get and what the legalities of illness mean.
“There have been six suicides in Yorkshire in six months and we are supporting families through the most incrediblydifficult times to cope with everyday life in the aftermath of their loss.”
With that in mind, there is no finite time dedicated to each case but rather, all are judged on an individual basis, he says.
“You have to be able to sit down in your chair and dedicate quality time to listen to the people who call.
It isn’t a hurried job and you never know how each case is going to develop.
“Often you aren’t talking about your multi-thousand pound mixed farm business, it is about your upland man who is struggling to cope, or a family which has fallen on hard times.”
Although farmers are notoriously proud people, Graham is confident the taboo of asking for help is slowly breaking.
“As the reputation and recognition of what FCN can achieve grows, we are seeing more farming families approach us for help.
“The current cashflow issues are prompting conversations and as trust develops with our volunteer and the farmer, more underlying issues which need to be addressed come to the fore.
“It is never easy to ask for help but we will not be judgemental, we listen well, try and understand the personal predicament and most importantly we have a warm heart.
“We have a capable and approachable group of volunteers and you can rest assured any discussions will be held in strict confidentiality.
The first approach is the hardest to make, but it is the most important step and a problem shared is a problem halved.”