Loneliness in farming: Understanding the role of social and cultural factors, By Dr Rebecca Wheeler and Prof. Matt Lobley
‘Farming is not just a job, it’s a way of life’ is a common refrain among the UK farming community. The phrase says a lot about how farmers view the occupation, inferring the centrality of farming to not just their everyday lives but also to the construction of their identities. It is a way of life often imbued with romantic notions of a bucolic idyll - and many farmers will indeed talk about the pleasures and benefits it affords - but it can also be very physically and mentally demanding, involving long hours, low financial returns, and a multitude of business-related pressures. As we discuss in this article, it can also be a very lonely occupation, with farmers and farm workers increasingly working alone, often in remote locations.
Partly as a result of these challenges, the personal costs of farming can sometimes be high and recent research has highlighted concerning levels of mental health problems across the industry (RABI, 2021). The fact that more than one farmer a week in the UK takes their own life (ONS, 2020) is a shocking signifier of the issue. Loneliness and social isolation have been identified as contributors to poor mental health within agriculture (e.g. Davies et al., 2019; Furey et al., 2016), but have not previously been explored in any great detail, particularly in the UK context. In this blog we talk about some of the key findings from research which set out to better understand how people within the farming community experience loneliness and social isolation, and the role that farming-specific cultures, environments and identities play in these experiences.
The research was conducted by the Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) at the University of Exeter in partnership with the Farming Community Network (FCN), a charity that provides personal and business support to farmers and their families through a network of volunteers from within the farming community. The key methods used were:
- An online workshop with 11 farm support practitioners in December 2020 to help identify some of the key issues and inform the design of the subsequent interview questions.
- In-depth telephone/video interviews with 22 farmers/members of farming families and 6 farm support practitioners, conducted between March and July 2021. Participants represented a range of ages, genders, farm sizes and farm tenures.
Further details about the methodology and participant characteristics can be found in our summary research report).
Loneliness is not of course a phenomenon unique to farming and some of the factors that our participants identified as contributing to loneliness are relevant to anyone whatever their occupation (e.g. bereavement; relationship breakdown). There were, however, a number of farming-specific factors commonly cited as contributing to, or exacerbating, the issue within the agricultural community. These factors can be described as relating to three different types of loneliness: social; emotional; and cultural loneliness.
Social loneliness essentially arises from an individual not having the social connections or opportunities that they would like. In farming, social loneliness is often connected to factors such as:
- Long working hours, partly driven by challenging economics and pressure to keep the family business going
- Lone-working, which is felt to have increased over the years due to increasing mechanisation and fewer people working on farms
- Lack of social opportunities, as it can be difficult to take time away from the farm
- Declining business related contact, including due to reductions in the number of traditional meeting places/events such as livestock auction markets
- Geographical isolation associated with rural locations, poor broadband connectivity and transport links
Emotional loneliness can be described as an absence or loss of meaningful relationships, of people who you can talk to and confide in. It is thus more about the quality rather than quantity of relationships and might be felt even when the individual appears to be surrounded by friends and family. Certain features of farming life can feed into this type of loneliness and affect how it is experienced. These include:
- Business-related stress, especially where the individual has sole decision-making responsibilities
- Family tensions and expectations associated with the family business (e.g. farm succession)
- A lack of home/work boundaries, which can make it difficult to discuss personal problems with family members
- Relationship difficulties, often related to the long working hours involved in farming
Cultural loneliness refers to feelings that arise from a sense of difference with others in the wider community, perhaps feelings of being an outsider or being misunderstood by other cultural groups. Farmers are a distinct cultural group and, as such, many farmers described feeling a strong sense of disconnection with the wider non-farming public. Issues contributing to a sense of cultural loneliness included:
- Changes to local communities and associated tensions and misunderstandings regarding farming
- Perceptions of a wider public disconnection with, and undervaluing of, farmers and farming
- Contractions in the size of the farming community (linked to wider agricultural restructuring processes in which farms have got fewer and larger over recent decades)
- Public pressure around issues such as climate change and other environmental problems
- Policy demands, inspections and regulations, which can create a sense of being unfairly burdened and scrutinised
Men and women typically carry out different roles within farm businesses/households and their experiences of loneliness often differ. Traditional gender roles often still hold sway, with women frequent left juggling multiple home, childcare, and business related tasks alone whilst their partners are out working on the farm (also alone). Both men and women can therefore find it difficult to find the time and opportunity to socialise with others and suffer from loneliness, though often for different reasons.
The role of farming culture
There are certain aspects of farming cultures and identities that underlie drivers of loneliness and affect how the issue is perceived and addressed. For example, ‘hard work’ is frequently seen as an accepted and valued part of what it means to be a farmer, and this can press farmers to work harder whatever the situation, making reducing the long-working hours that contribute to loneliness in farming challenging. Family business structures and intergenerational living arrangements, which are common in the agricultural community, can create or intensify family tensions and contribute to emotional loneliness, whilst stoicism and persisting taboos around mental health within farming can amake it difficult to confide in others and seek help for personal issues.
Implications and conclusions
Experiences of loneliness in farming need to be understood in the context of farming cultures and environments. Certain values and expectations around work and family responsibilities, as well as practical and economic factors, can make it difficult for farmers to feel socially and emotionally connected to others, leading to or exacerbating feelings of loneliness and related mental (and physical) health problems. Addressing these issues requires both practical farm support and cultural change in some areas, for example around attitudes to work and time off. The presence of cultural loneliness highlighted in our research suggests there is also a need to improve farmer-community relations, for instance by building opportunities for local engagement and strengthening education around food production, farming and environment. A number of other recommendations for government, farm support organisations and the wider farming industry can be read in our research report. Above all, however, farming-specific support for people experiencing loneliness within this community is essential. Our participants were unanimous in their praise for the work of the Farming Help charities (including but not limited to FCN) and it is vital that such organisations, as well as other peer support networks, are properly funded so that their invaluable work can continue.
Strengths and limitations
Our research has provided deeper understanding of the experiences of loneliness and related mental health issues within the farming community. The qualitative nature of the research allowed participants to voice their own stories, whilst also enabling commonalities in experiences to be explored. We are, however, able to say little about the extent of loneliness across the UK farming community as a whole from this study alone. More work is also needed in order to understand some of the details and nuances involved (e.g. whether particular forms of loneliness are more associated with particular farm types/sizes/locations etc. than others, and why) and to assess the effectiveness of different types of intervention for this particular community.
Davies, A.R., Homolova, L., Grey, C., Fisher, J., Burchett, N., Kousoulis, A., 2019. Supporting farming communities at times of uncertainty: An action framework to support the mental health and well-being of farmers and their families. Public Health Wales and Mental Health Foundation.
Furey, E.M., O’Hora, D., McNamara, J., Kinsella, S., Noone, C., 2016. The Roles of Financial Threat, Social Support, Work Stress, and Mental Distress in Dairy Farmers’ Expectations of Injury. Frontiers in Public Health 4, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00126
ONS, 2020. Suicide by occupation, England and Wales, 2011 to 2020 registrations.
RABI, 2021. The Big Farming Survey: The health and wellbeing of the farming community in England and Wales in the 2020s.