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No producer – no dairy business (Nov/Dec 2021)

Pressure – both physical and emotional – on producers is currently ‘off the scale’, compounding the problems created by COVID-19 restrictions during 2020. So it’s time for some much-needed self-care.


Producers work hard every day to maintain and maximise herd health and welfare. But this can leave little time for self-care. There’s been little respite for producers during the past two years. And a new set of pressures has emerged during the past 12 months, including rising costs of production – predominantly fuel, feed and fertiliser – a serious shortage of labour, and a huge amount of uncertainty.

“Much of the latter is around the end of the BPS and introduction of new environmental restrictions and schemes,” says Kite Consulting’s Jo Speed.

“As yet, there’s been no grant offering and producers don’t know what’s going to be available, and how much capital outlay they’re facing to meet tightening standards, particularly regarding slurry storage and management.”

She says many producers, unsurprisingly, feeling ‘battle weary’. “One producer described having reached what he called his ‘capacity’. Labour issues and rising costs, coupled with the impact of COVID-19 in 2020, had left him feeling that he’d reached his physical, emotional and mental limit and he just couldn’t take any more. I thought this was a great way to describe – and visualise – how pressures – from all areas and directions – can see them reach ‘full capacity’.”

These pressures can be compounded by loneliness and social exclusion, due to a lack of community support in rural areas, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown. “Many producers said it was just a case of business as usual for them during the lockdown. And yes, in terms of their day-to-day routine, it was. As key workers – caring for their livestock and feeding the nation – they put their shoulder to the wheel. But, since restrictions have been lifted, many are still stuck in that all-work-no-play routine. They’re not getting back to their social activities and that’s worrying,” says Mrs Speed.

“Social isolation and ‘withdrawal’ can be a sign that someone is struggling with anxiety and other mental stress. Yet getting back to socialising is important. It’s respite from the daily grind and the worries going around in your head. And it also offers an opportunity to talk to other producers who are also feeling the same pressures.” Mrs Speed adds that producers need to ‘reality check’ their anxiety (see Figure 1). Because farming is such a practical profession, producers can underestimate how important the mind is. “A healthy body and mind are, without doubt, the most important tools required to manage a herd and dairy business. It really is a case of no producer, no herd,” she stresses.

Social exclusion

“If producers neglect themselves – both physically and mentally – the consequences can be disastrous. And not only for them, but also for their business, their wider family, and their herd management team.”

There’s a lot of talk about ‘wellbeing’, but what does this mean? “There are a few main emotions to feeling good and functioning well on a day-to-day basis,” says Mrs Speed. “Having positive relationships; having control over your own life, or feeling that you have control; and also having a sense of purpose.

“But living in a rural area with the additional challenges of loneliness and social exclusion can affect wellbeing because people may not feel in control; they may feel they don’t have a sense of purpose, being tied to the farm and the business; and may not always have positive relationships, as a result.”

So how can producers manage excessive worrying and the challenging times ahead, particularly from a ‘mind’ perspective? How do you break the ‘worry’ cycle and improve wellbeing?

Mrs Speed outlines five ‘ways to wellbeing’: connect, be active, take notice, give, and learn. “Connecting with the world around you – people, friends, family – is vital. So resist the urge to make an excuse to avoid social events and interactions. Push yourself to ‘get back out there’, even if you think you’re too tired or too busy. It is often exactly the tonic you need and you’re ‘investing’ time in your own wellbeing.”

Being active is also important. “Physical every-day farm work doesn’t count because your mind is still in work mode,” explains Mrs Speed. “Take up a sport you used to enjoy again; walk the dog, or just take up a hobby that focuses your mind on something other than work. Exercising makes you feel good, but concentrating on something else – whatever it is – is a form of meditation and gives your mind a break.”

Noticing the world around you, and beyond the farm gate, can also help to restore perspective. “Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a walk or driving somewhere, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you,” says Ms Speed.

Improve wellbeing

She adds that ‘giving’ – such as volunteering locally, sitting on the parish council or simply just doing something for someone else – can also help to improve mental health and wellbeing. “People who report a greater interest in helping others are more likely to rate themselves as happy. And there’s science to back this up,” says Mrs Speed. “Research into actions for promoting happiness has shown that committing an act of kindness, once a week during a six-week period, is associated with an increase in wellbeing.”

Learning is also a good distraction or ‘meditation’ away from work. “Try something new or rediscover an old hobby. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving or something that will push you out of your comfort zone. Learning new things will make you more confident, as well as being fun to do.”

Fun – rediscovery that there is joy to be had from life – is essential. “It can’t be all work, work, work – no matter how much has to be done or how tough things are. Self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. So drop the guilt and set aside a little time for you.”

Ms Speed adds that there’s also help out there for producers who need someone to share their problems with and talk to. She volunteers part-time for Farming Community Network, a helpline for producers looking for help and advice with financial, emotional and family issue. “And I really can’t stress enough that it’s good to share and talk. If you’re struggling to sleep and anxious all the time – reach out. These can be the early signs of depression. So don’t wait. Sadly, in my experience, many producers leave it until things are past this point and their health, relationships and businesses have been seriously impacted. So pick up the phone. Support is there, so make sure you access it.”

More information and support

Farming and better mental health: Farming Community Network helpline: 03000 111 999 (open from 7am to 11pm) e-Helpline:

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