In London the despair of others frequently impacts our lives. Several times a month, the Tube tannoy announces that someone has ‘fallen’ under a train. One high rooftop bar – the Coq d’Argent – near the Bank of England has become notorious since six stressed City workers leapt to their deaths1.
Myriad factors account for why individuals commit suicide, from lovesick teenagers to alcoholics and depressives to those who cannot cope with their bills or a toxic atmosphere in the office.
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However there is a quieter suicide epidemic, which is largely ignored because it’s occurring not in big cities but in the agricultural flyover parts of many nations. The closest many of us get to these people is a perfunctory chat in a farmers’ market. Fans of the The Archers radio serial may also recall the suicide of the moody gamekeeper Greg Turner2.
The suicide rate among farmers is twice that of the general population in the US. In India some 18,000 farmers kill themselves each year. In the UK one farmer kills himself (and it is mainly males) every week, while in France it is every two days, and every four in Australia. The causes are often similar despite such differences as Chinese farmers (who only enjoy rights of usufruct) having their land snatched by spivvy developers3.
Paradoxically, stereotypes about farmers as rugged individualists partly explain why the suicide rate seems abnormally high. They often work for days alone. Many farmers care more about their herds of cows than about their wives and families.
Farmers’ livelihoods are subject to the vagaries of disease, drought or flooding, not to speak of fluctuating market forces4. Wet weather, for example, means a dearth of silage, more expensive concentrate substitutes, and a gap between these rising input costs and the falling price paid for milk, of which there is a global glut.
Then there are consumer trends, which are influenced by advertising and marketing. Joining the EU massively altered British eating habits. Out went tinned spam, condensed milk and peaches, and in came a desire for freshness, experiment and variety. The age of pasta dawned. Tastes also constantly evolve, with richer people preferring brown to white bread, in a reversal of medieval habits. What does a cattle farmer do if, as in France, meat consumption is falling by more than 2% a year? What happens if milk-fed veal falls into general social opprobrium?
Rotten rural broadband provision does not help farmers diversify into cognate businesses such as farm shops, Airbnb or yoga retreats. Farmers are subject to constant checks and regulation, which makes it hard to simply switch from dairy to grains when the former become unprofitable; the EU will block anything that adds to a surplus of cereal farmers or insist on the EU’s ‘madness’ of three-crop rotation. As self-employed people, farmers have to deal with a constant barrage of paperwork far beyond completing VAT forms. Some of them are only farmers because of a sense of familial obligation, to keep a tradition alive, which must be frustrating if they are heavily in debt and can barely scrape a living. If the farm fails, then they invariably lose the family home too.
Farmers are often culturally ill-equipped to talk about mental health problems. Unlike an injured animal, depression cannot easily be fixed. Small and tight communities discourage sharing anything that might incline ‘the others’ to regard you as a wimp. Adequate psychiatric help is often simply not available in remote areas, though there are now a few dedicated charities that focus on farmers’ mental health such as Sowing the Seeds of Hope in the US and the Farming Community Network in the UK. Prince Charles also does sterling remedial work with his Prince’s Countryside Fund, while the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution has long since diversified its welfare from helping former farmers in their dotage.
What are farms for?
Debates about the role of the state versus the free market are indirectly related to the tragic fate of some farmers. Farmers argue that they are the weakest link in the food supply chain, despite producing our foods in primary form. In the UK they earn £9 billion from the £200 billion spent annually on food. For sure they enjoy much public sympathy, but that same public is acutely sensitive to price when wages are stagnant, especially as the poor spend proportionately more on food.
Both the EU and many national governments have decided to act5. What the EU does in this area is significant since 40% of EU legislation in the last half century concerned food. The capable Irish European Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is moving the EU away from a subsidies model (roughly €58 billion a year) to helping farmers organise as cooperatives and cartels. This will assist them in eliminating abusive contracts and late payments by big food processors and supermarkets which have them over a milk churn. The EU Parliament and individual governments have recently given farmers licence to form cartels so as to coordinate production and negotiate collective contracts. In establishing a new ‘Estates General of Food’, President Macron seeks to prevent price wars permanently devaluing farming revenues. Like many of his predecessors, he regards farming as symbolic of French life.
All of which appalls free-marketeers, some of whom regard small-scale farming as a branch of the heritage industry and an over-mighty minority lobby which should be wiped out by free trade in food. Why grow expensive asparagus in Norfolk if you can import it more cheaply from Israel or Peru?
There are also other civic and cultural factors. Should we passively allow automated agri-businesses to create undifferentiated cultivated spaces, with not a human in sight except in the central control room, and certainly nobody playing a banjo or fiddle (as cultural historians insist)?6 Our blood-and-soil rural romantics are curiously silent about that dystopian prospect. And while others prattle on about robots picking strawberries, in reality, in 2009 Imperial College London sold off Wye College to developers. There, since the 1890s, aspirant farmers have learned their craft and in theory they would have learned to operate drones and robots.
But look, the free marketeers aver, at what happened in New Zealand after a new Labour government abolished farming subsidies in 1984 after being confronted by a legacy budget crisis. Agriculture is big in New Zealand, for though it only has four million inhabitants it produces enough food for forty million. The new government created a trust to advise farmers on whether it made sense to continue in the sector, and ‘exit grants’ for those who decided to quit, though only 1 per cent of farmers did so. Yet after diversifying land use and developing new products, farming has thrived, with for example 2,200 milk-based products instead of the 35 produced before these reforms. While chocolate cheese may not be to everyone’s taste, New Zealand wine certainly is7. Whether you regard this as a demonstration of free market fundamentals or, as it was, a series of decisions by government, is a matter of emphasis.
What is certain is that Brexit will bring another wave of uncertainty to our farming communities, even if exporters are currently benefiting from a collapsed pound and earnings in Euros. What is going to happen is clear. Cheap migrant labour will vanish in intensive market gardening, unless anyone fantasises that our indigenous unemployed are going to start work at 4 in the morning. So will £3.5 billion in CAP subsidies (55% of farmers’ income), though the Treasury says it will maintain spending until 2020. Few farmers are reassured by that. Like consumers, farmers are also concerned about food and animal welfare standards, which may be under threat once new trade deals with non-EU states are in place. For sure, food is produced cheaply in India, but let’s see how microbiological ‘Delhi belly’ works in Leeds and Luton where it is unknown.8.
Despite the urging of the National Farmers Union to vote Remain, 54% of British farmers voted Leave9. This was especially true of livestock and potato farmers aggrieved about EU regulation, especially of pigs, and arable farmers keen on neonicotinoids and glyphosate that the EU wants banned. Horticulturalists voted Remain because of their reliance on 80,000 migrant daffodil, fruit and veg pickers. Of course, how farmers voted may have had less to do with their sectoral interests. Experts claim there is also a complete absence of a comprehensive and holistic food policy as we adjust to new realities10.
All of which is merely to ask what our farmers are for – in civic and cultural as well as narrowly economic terms – at a time when a significant minority of them have clearly and tragically exhausted every answer. I mentioned I was writing this piece to a friend who runs a smallholding in Norfolk.
“Oh yes,” she said, “we read about farmer suicides all the time in the local paper.”
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