As part of our Exploring Mental Health in Agriculture series, supported by Lloyds Banking Group, National Farmers Union deputy president Stuart Roberts discusses how measuring happiness and satisfaction among East Anglia’s farmers could be a vital first step in addressing the mental health crisis in agriculture.

The success of the British agricultural industry is measured by a variety of metrics: livestock populations, weight of yield, units harvested, profitability and so on. And it is the strength of these figures which prove British agriculture is among the best in the world.

When it comes to suicide rates and the safety of our farmers, however, the numbers tell a different story. The Farm Safety Foundation estimates that one agricultural worker per week dies by suicide in the UK, while a 2019 study from the Health and Safety Executive found that farming has the highest accident incident rate of any industry. With a fatality ratio of 9.2 per 100,000 workers – compared to the national average of 0.45 – these figures mean working in agriculture is the most dangerous occupation in the United Kingdom.

Maximising the physical and mental wellbeing of East Anglia’s farmers is an urgent priority – and one of the most important steps to improving this is to measure it. A happiness index could therefore prove invaluable when addressing mental health in agriculture, according to one farmer and union leader.

Stuart Roberts is deputy president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and a third-generation arable and livestock farmer at Hammonds End Farm in Hertfordshire.

“I was brought up on a family farm,” Mr Roberts says. “My grandfather started farming here just after the Second World War.”

Mr Roberts studied Agriculture at Aberystwyth University before embarking on a career which saw him gain experience working for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Food Standards Agency and the British Meat Processors Association. Today, in his role at the NFU, he is responsible for health and safety, carbon neutrality, infrastructure and water, while also chairing the union’s governance board.

“I came back to the farm in my early forties to take over from my father about seven years ago,” Mr Roberts says. “I’ve always enjoyed farming, but I also like getting involved in wider politics and policies, learning how the farm fits into the food production system.”

The NFU – which Mr Roberts describes as “more of an employers’ organisation than a trade union” – has 56,000 members and a physical presence in every county, with branches and a group secretary in each.

“It’s a very diverse industry and therefore an organisation that can give it a voice and champion the best interests of British agriculture is an important thing,” Mr Roberts says.

“The NFU is also there to provide leadership for the industry. The subject of mental health is a good example of where we can use our voice and visibility to confront some challenging issues.”

One critical function of the NFU is to apply government pressure. “We’ve been lobbying for greater resources in terms of mental health nurses and facilities for rural mental health in the NHS, which are currently being overlooked.

“Because of our size and scale, we have a phenomenal convening power. We can bring together ministers and charities such as You Are Not Alone (YANA), the Farming Community Network (FCN) and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) and help facilitate what they do by providing forums, training events and conferences where they can share best practices.

“That for me is leadership – admitting that we don’t have the solution to everything but we can convene people who will collectively come up with solutions.”

Mr Roberts suggests one solution of his own, involving measuring the happiness of our agricultural workers in order to start treating it as a priority.

“At the moment, we measure productivity: how many tonnes of wheat per field or how quickly animals grow or ultimately how profitable we are,” he explains. “But these numbers may not be true reflections of how well our farmers are doing.

“As an industry, mental wellbeing is something we have never measured. Perhaps it is more difficult to measure than crop yields, but we need to step back and evaluate the satisfaction of the workers in our industry – a happiness index.

“Going forward we need to spend more time thinking about how we do that. Ultimately, we want to ensure a good quality of life for our farmers.”

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