'Please don't come around, we're having a bloody nightmare'

March 7, 2003

Hammered by BSE, foot-and-mouth and the recession, British farmers are battling to survive. Matt Lobley and Matt Reed spoke to farming families in Devon feeling the pressure

The past few years have been terrible for the Smiths, a farming family in North Devon. After the link between vCJD and BSE had been made, sending the beef industry into freefall, the economic recession bit hard.

First, the Smiths cancelled their holidays, cancelled their satellite TV subscription and stopped replacing their cars. Then they cancelled their pensions and used their savings to channel all their money into keeping the farm afloat. Finally came foot-and-mouth disease and the squad from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who arrived at the Smiths' farm to kill all their animals.

When we met the family, keen to learn how they had changed their lives to cope with the situation they found themselves in, Margaret Smith couldn't bring herself to talk about what happened the day the men from Maff arrived. She just pointed out where the bodies had been piled before the pyre was lit. With her hands, she indicated how smoke from other pyres had drifted across their sheds and how, in turn, the smoke from their own herd went across the sheds on to another farm. She did manage to describe the sympathy of her neighbours, even when the remains of her cattle settled on their cars.

The Smiths' story was one we heard time and again while researching The Farmers on the Edge project. This was one of the first studies to look at how British farm households had reacted to the catastrophes of BSE, economic recession, foot-and-mouth disease and bovine tuberculosis. It uncovered bewildered families turning in on themselves as they battled to survive in unprecedented isolation.

Our research, funded by the Countryside Agency and carried out with colleagues from the Centre of Rural Research and the University of Plymouth, focused on a relatively remote area of North Devon. We surveyed farms drawn from a larger sample surveyed 20 years ago by Michael Winter, professor of rural policy at Exeter University. We expected the results to be grim. A recent report in the British Medical Journal revealed that British farmers were more than twice as likely as the general population to contemplate suicide and called for their mental health to be monitored in the aftermath of foot-and-mouth. But this disease was just one in a long line of problems that has beset farming families. By the late 1990s, farming incomes were lower than they had been during the recession of the 1930s, while the effects of BSE were still rippling through the agricultural industry as export opportunities remained lost. In the area of North Devon we studied, movement restrictions on farming families because of foot-and-mouth were often reinforced later by those put in place to control bovine TB.

Matt Reed, who conducted most of the fieldwork, was often the first "outsider" to visit the families after the end of foot-and-mouth.

Sometimes, he wasn't welcomed. One farmer simply responded: "Please don't come around, we are having a bloody nightmare here." Another farmer, John Mattern, recalled the raw emotions of that time: "There were people in tears and one thing and another, but I mean it wasn't no good getting like that. I knew I didn't have (foot-and-mouth disease in my herd) but you dreamt you had it every night, and every morning when you looked at everything it was a greater period of stress, you know, than if you did have it."

Despite the traditional appearance of the area, the farming community had lost much of its cohesion. The once common practice of neighbour helping neighbour had all but disappeared except in emergencies. Even membership of the National Farmers Union - often seen as near compulsory 20 years ago - had fallen dramatically as farmers increasingly felt that it no longer represented them or their best interests. As one farmer pithily remarked:

"The NFU - bugger them."

Members of farming families have also withdrawn from holding civic positions, standing down as school governors or parish councillors. This is perhaps partly a cause and partly a reflection of the few farmers who know the names of their non-farming neighbours. It is also indicative of the harsh realities of life on the modern family farm. One young farmer, whose family had adopted a strategy of working longer, harder hours to survive, reflected: "It's got worse really in the way it's more pressure, pressure all day, seven days a week. You just can't shut it off, you know. This is the trouble when you've gotta be there and see to everything. AndI that's the problem, innitI it's pressure, mental pressure."

Despite the hardship, we did not find any examples of extreme poverty. Many were reluctant to admit to "going without", such as skipping meals or turning off the heating, although others acknowledged they had delayed household expenditure for the sake of the business. In some families, women took on additional work, while in others pension plans were cancelled and savings used to make ends meet. One family supported its adult children on the pensions of the retired parents.

And the farmers we interviewed are not about to give up. Most were committed to remaining in farming, or at least staying on the farm. "A lot of people said, you know, when foot-and-mouth came round they wouldn't be going back to it (farming)," said Alex Sim, one farmer we interviewed.

"Well what're we gonna do? What's the alternative? There is no alternative is there? It's a farming area, farming people, and we've got to get on with it."

Having survived foot-and-mouth, people such as Sim are now coming to terms with a new less forgiving countryside. For many, this has simply meant trying to survive by avoiding risk of any kind and working long, hard hours. Such an approach may aid short-term survival, but an unwillingness to seek external capital and to take chances may have implications for survival in the future.

Some are in danger of succumbing to a downward spiral leading to depression and more isolation. A local minister told us: "There are a lot of people in these communities who fall by the wayside, and one of the problems with depression is that people tend to isolate themselves. When you have not seen someone in the community for some time, you stop worrying about them."

Isolated farmers increasingly lack awareness of strategies that carry a lighter personal cost - strategies they might previously have learned about from others. The informal links that are important for a successful business are withering away. Our research suggests that networks of friendship, association and civic participation were far more confined compared with what had existed before the recession and foot-and-mouth. At a time when, more than ever, farmers are being called on to become rural entrepreneurs, many we spoke to were unable to conceive of a clear future direction.

A first step to recovery must involve overcoming isolation, rebuilding networks and gaining the time and space necessary to plan ahead, away from the constant seven-day-a-week pressure of running the farm. The very factors that have enabled many to survive - the willingness to work excessive hours and to forgo personal wants - now threaten their ability to reconnect to the wider rural economy and society. Policy-makers should also recognise that the road to rural entrepreneurship is not straightforward and that measures designed to help rebuild moribund social associations and provide opportunities for business mentoring may be just as significant as grant aid. Many of the farmers we met have looked over the edge and have returned; their longer term survival now rests on the ability of all concerned to recognise the personal and social costs of survival as much as the economics of farming.

An interview with one family makes it clear what the price could be.

John Mattern: "The phone was going constantly really, wannit, everybody was ringing everybody. I mean it was fine for the first three weeks, then after that it got to be a real pain, didn't it really."

Joan Mattern: "Yeah. You just wanted to be left alone."

John Mattern: "The last thing you wanted to speak about was foot-and-mouth again. I mean, there was foot-and-mouth, so we didn't move for three months. I didn't even go to the end of the lane for six weeks."

Matt Lobley is senior research fellow and Matt Reed is research fellow at the Centre for Rural Research, University of Exeter. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not necessarily shared by the Countryside Agency. All names are pseudonyms.

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