Rural Support Brief AERA Committee On Current Pressures Facing Farming

Rural Support Chairman Sam Campbell has led a delegation from the charity to brief Stormont’s Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee on the support needs of Northern Ireland’s farming sector, particularly with regard to the effect of the ongoing commodity price downturn and the resultant financial pressures facing many farm families. Accompanying Dr Campbell were Jude McCann, Chief Executive of Rural Support, Finance and Business Mentor Gillian Reid, and David McConaghy, author of the ‘Health and Social Effects of the Agricultural Downturn” report, which was commissioned by Rural Support.

Issues raised at the Committee included the concern over the mental health and wellbeing of farmers and their families, with those severely affected by the downturn scoring on average 4-5 points worse on the mental health scale used in the research; the mounting pressure on households where the farm business accounts for more than 50% of the farm income; and the stigma currently surrounding mental health in rural areas- with one-in-six farmers unable to speak to someone about their own mental health. The briefing also included issues surrounding income support and the need for increased resources for the charity to meet the needs of the farming community.

Speaking after the briefing, Dr Campbell said, “I’m delighted to have been given the opportunity to meet with the committee and raise these very important issues and would like to thank the Committee for inviting us along- in particular I’d like to thank Robin Swann MLA who I understand proposed that an invitation be sent to us as a result of the publication of our research. Discussion, with the Committee members was stimulating, with recognition across all parties of the importance of the work of Rural Support in providing help and guidance to our rural and farming population.”

“In particular, I am encouraged that the Committee supported our assertion- entirely backed up by the research report published earlier this year- that it is vital that the charity receives financial support from the Department which is commensurate with the situation we are facing. Nobody else in Northern Ireland does the work that we do and an increase to our core funding and a guarantee of support in the medium-to-long term would allow us to plan ahead and meet the needs of farm families and rural dwellers more effectively. Our core grant has not changed substantially since we were founded in 2001 and the needs today are becoming increasingly complex and urgent. Rural Support stands ready to help, but we need support if we are going to do the best job we can- something we are absolutely committed to.”

Also discussed at the Committee was the need for improved cross-departmental work to tackle the health and social needs of rural dwellers and farm families, with much of the need lying outside of DAERA’s remit and with the Department for Health regarding intervention in cases of mental health needs and with the Department for Communities with regard to welfare entitlement and income support. The Committee recognised that the needs of rural and farm families cannot be regarded as falling entirely in DAERA’s remit and that other branches of Government must be aware of the need and take steps to meet it.

On this point, Jude McCann commented, “the Rural Needs Act has enshrined in legislation that there is a duty right across government to take the specific requirements and challenges of rural dwellers seriously and to consider them as a matter of course in policy-making and service delivery. We need to see action reflecting the fact that this is everyone’s business and not simply a matter for DAERA to deal with. We’re immensely grateful for the support we already receive from the Public Health Agency for our Farm Business Mentoring programme, but there is so much more we could be doing to help if we had the resources in place to do it. Rural Support has a proven track record of delivering high quality, value-for-money outcomes for our clients under our current funding regime, but I’m confident this could be boosted hugely if we had the wherewithal to do so.”

Finally, Dr Campbell appealed to anyone in the rural and farming community who is experiencing difficulty to contact Rural Support for help and guidance: ” ultimately all our work boils down to the simple fact that we are here to help. If you’re worried about an issue that’s affecting you or your family, please lift the phone and call the Rural Support helpline on 0845 606 7 607 to speak to us in complete confidence. We know there are a lot of problems out there at the minute and we will try our utmost to aid you as much as we can.