January 9, 2020

I poshly call it my ‘sabbatical’. For the past year, I have been in France studying organic agriculture. (The ‘bio’ sector here is way ahead of ours.) Before crossing the Channel I was anxious about integration, assimilation, fitting in. Needlessly, as it happens. I talk to my farming neighbours in deep France about exactly the same things as I talk to my neighbours in Herefordshire profonde. The weather. The state of the crops/livestock. The price of wheat… The local farmer who’s killed himself.

More than one French farmer a day, by some estimates, takes his own life. (And it is almost always ‘his’, which is part of the problem.) Suicide down on the farm is not an international league table one wants to top: in the UK, the agricultural suicide rate is a mere farmer per week (still more than twice the national average). But then we have fewer farmers, 138,000 as opposed to France’s 450,000.

In France, the topic of agricultural sector suicide is currently on the lips of tout le monde, because farmers are part of the national fabric, because of the success of the recent film Au Nom de la Terre, directed by Edouard Bergeon, which recounts the life of farmer Pierre Jarjeau, from 1976 to his self-killing in 1996. It is painful watching: all the more painful because it is true. It is the story of Bergeon’s father.

The reasons for the grotesque suicide rate in agriculture? They are all there in Au Nom de la Terre, and they begin with money.

There is none. In the 1970s, a farmer with a small herd of milk cows, say 30 Jerseys, could make a living. In 2020, a farmer with 300 Holsteins will struggle to make a penny/cent profit per pint. Personally, I do not know any farmers who work fewer than 80 hours a week, or for more than the national minimum wage.

Modern farming is a bonfire of the economic sanities, where prices are continuously driven down by supermarkets, who then take the wolf’s share of the remaining price of the packet on the shelves. The farmer’s conventional answer to the cheapening of food has been to increase production. The Bigging-Up has required pushing machine and man and land ever harder. More hours! More acreage! More technology! (Pierre Jarjeau in Au Nom de la Terre invests in a state-of-the-art, automated chicken shed, financed by the sort of easy credit everybody from City suits to EU bureaucrats like to slip farmers.)

Oh, but the cost of it. A modern tractor retails for in excess of 100k, which causes a farmer to lie awake at night, not counting his sheep but his repayments.

And the miraculous technology goes wrong. Just one piece of kit failing — such as the automated feeders in M Jarjeau’s hen shed — can bring the whole precarious Ponzi scheme of your farm’s financing crashing down to earth.

Modern farms are kept going only by billions of euros/pounds of subsidy. A Welsh sheep farmer on the Brecon hills, for example, will get about 80% of his farm income from subsidy. Sounds great. But farm subsidy is a double-edged plough-blade. The basis of subsidy has shifted so often, it is dizzying — farmers have been paid to produce, then not produce, then for the number of head of livestock, then for their acreage — which makes long-term planning impossible. Also, laugh not, but the form-filling of contemporary farming takes hours per day. Online. With rural broadband. I once spent three hours ‘pre-notifying’ a single pig movement electronically via the eAML2 system. (That ‘eAML2’ speaks volumes.) It was time wasted. Meaning money lost. A perpetuating circle of poverty. No forms filled = no subsidy. Fill in forms = no farming done.

It’s all rules and regulations down on New Macdonald’s farm, with its ever-expanding office. The majority of farmers voted for Brexit. Why? You should have tried dealing with the sprouting of tape from Brussels.

More surreptitiously, subsidy strikes at the soul of the farmer. Farmers like to think of themselves as the last heroic individuals, hard people doing a hard job. But the past 50 years have turned us into slaves on subsidy which, to be brutal, is a state handout.

And we are at everybody’s beck and call, the kites at the end of the string. My grandfather, who farmed for 50 years, used to call farming ‘crisis management’. (Actually, he said rather more earthily, ‘It’s one bloody thing after another’.) The job is by its very nature somewhat tricky, because it is the attempted control of nature. So farmers expect the variable weather, even the plagues such as foot-and-mouth. (Mind you it hurt, the suffering of the animals, the black pyres of their culled bodies.) But my grandfather did not expect his product price to be affected by global markets, City investors speculating in land, inconstant supermarkets paying a pittance and then paying late, Instagrammers influencing what’s in and what’s out on the national plate, ‘re-wilding’ urban journalists launching a culture war against sheep, or politicians in far away places making legal ties that bind.

Stressed? You bet. Then there is that dark corner of the mind that knows, just knows, that the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to have an accident, or to become ill. Can’t work? Farm goes under. (Farming, by the way, has the worst safety record of any job in the UK, with stress frequently the causal factor. According to the Health and Safety Executive farming accounts for 1% of workers but 22% of all worker fatalities.)

Farmers tend to toil in isolation, as befits ‘rugged individualists’. But these days it is entirely possible to spend days in a tractor cab all by oneself, isolated not just from people, but from the very land you work. Technology has led to robotic remoteness from the soil. One of the perks of farming used to be the sheer joy of being out and about with the birds and bees. Well, 10 hours in a tractor cab, watching a computer screen, with the air-con on is hardly connecting with nature. Anyway, more than 50% of the farmland birds have gone in the past 50 years, and wild honeybees may be extinct.

Add alienation to the farmer’s woes. Today farmers supervise open-roofed units of production instead of husbanding fields. Symbolically and poignantly, in Au Nom de la Terre, M Jarjeau suicides by drinking a cocktail of pesticides and herbicides — the very proofs of the new industrialised agriculture.

Farmers don’t talk about the money, the isolation, the alienation, because it is not exactly what manly ‘rugged individuals’ do is it? And, anyway, farmers don’t have time to talk, because time is money…

Of course, we could all give up farming. Surrender. But who would feed the people? What else would we do? If the farm has been in the family for generations, there would be guilt, grief, and the feeling of failure.

And you wonder why the string on the kite is sometimes self-severed?


Where farmers can go to for help:
Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (R.A.B.I.), 0808 281 9490, [email protected]
Samaritans, 116 123, [email protected]
The Farming Community Network, 03000 111999, [email protected].