Hi! I’m Rebecca, and I’m excited to introduce myself to you as Relate NI’s marketing intern for the summer. I’m currently studying my master’s in marketing in Queens University Belfast, having moved to Northern Ireland in January from a small town in Scotland called Banchory. In light of International Youth Day 2021’s theme “Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health” I wanted to talk about young farmers, relationships & wellbeing.
Growing up in North-East Scotland, I was lucky enough to have two sets of grandparents living on farms. To me, a child who lived in a small yet relatively well-connected town, visiting was always an adventure. Climbing on hay bales, playing in streams, horsing around with the chickens, or staring in awe at the terrifying mothers of baby cows – my childhood experience at my grandparents’ houses was always full of fun. What I saw less of was the early mornings, the all-weather activity, and the highly- physical jobs that went into each day. Of course, I was aware of the degree of hard work that went on, but most of it I saw in snippets or just considered it as part of life for my grandparents.
And I wasn’t wrong, hard work is part of everyday life for farmers – but being over-worked can put a strain on relationships for many farmers and their families, especially in isolated rural locations. I suppose I always saw farms as a social place – whenever I visited my granny on my mum’s side there was always a number of people passing through, going in and out for a cup of tea or a bowl of hot soup. When I moved away for university and work I had less chances to visit, but moved home during the pandemic in 2020. At the height of lockdown my family and I weren’t even technically allowed to drive far enough to visit – the 5-mile travel restrictions didn’t particularly consider people living in rural areas. When we did manage to visit we got to sit outside, socially distanced (which was of course, beautiful, I dare you to beat a sunny day in the Scottish countryside), but I missed cramming round the kitchen table and being able to hug my granny when I left.
It struck me how lonely the pandemic must have been for people living in rural areas. Kitchens like my granny’s suddenly quiet, no one else to talk to apart from who you live with – especially if you live in an area with less-than-average internet coverage. Even outside Covid-19, social isolation has been a significant issue among young farmers who have less access to the social events and venues than youths in towns and cities. The combination of long working hours and living far from others can affect young farmers’ self-esteem and ability to connect with others and develop healthy relationships, which we know are inextricably linked to personal health and wellbeing.
The theme of International Youth Day 2021 is: “Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health”. Taking place on 12th August, International Youth Day aims to highlight the importance of young people’s role in transforming food systems on a global scale – including young farmers. Established in 1999, International Youth Day (IYD) promotes young peoples’ voices and celebrates the value of their impact on initiatives around the world.
Deciding on the theme of this year’s International Youth Day, the 2021 ECOSOC Youth Forum (EYF) recognised the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the physical and mental health of food system workers among other issues. This particularly affects young farmers and their loved ones – there are approximately 30,000 farmers and a total of 49,000 farm workers including their families in NI today, whose relationships have been often strained by the effects of work this type of work even before the pandemic. In order to secure a healthier future for our food industry we have to consider how we can support young farmers in building and maintaining healthy relationships so that they can enjoy the positive effects this will have on their wellbeing.
A survey by the Farm Safety Foundation (2019) found “88% of young farmers now rate poor mental health as the biggest hidden problem faced by farmers today….Meanwhile, 89% of young farmers believe that talking about mental health in farming will remove any stigma attached to it – an increase of 9% in the past two years.”
One of the biggest causes of poor mental health for farmers is loneliness and isolation – which has been further impacted by the Covid-19 lockdowns over 2020 & 2021. The geographic location of many farms in Northern Ireland means that youths living on farms have little opportunity to meet other people their own age and form relationships and connections. This can have negative effects of self confidence and self-esteem, further effecting an individual’s relationship with themselves and their ability to socialise and connect with others when they do meet up.
For young farming couples, distance can also present issues but so too can too much time together where individuals feel little opportunity or space to get away or invest in their relationship with themselves. Lack of time & Financial pressures which increasingly effect many farmers are a proven stress factor for relationship distress. Raising children can also prevent additional stresses where you are cut off from family and other support services.
Family relationships too can be hard to maintain with the stress of long, irregular working hours, perhaps an expectation that you must inherit the family farm will weigh heavily on you and can even lead to resentment if you choose to follow a different course in life.
Farming is Northern Ireland’s biggest industry with 75% of land used for agriculture, and young people are increasingly being encouraged to get involved:
The busy lifestyle and rural locations of most farmers often means that they don’t get the opportunity to go to the GP often – so don’t get the opportunity to be referred to or discover relationship support services like relationship counselling. Farm Families Health Checks Programme delivered by the Northern Trust provides screenings of both physical and mental health at community events or farmers markets and refers those who need follow-ups to a GP. Accessing farmers at home seems to be the way forward, reducing the stigma of talking about the health of our relationships by bringing the conversation to the community directly.
To target young farmers, technology can play a role in maintaining relationships. For example, this month the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster attended the first virtual Rural Youth Europe European Rally, allowing young farmers to form both working and friendship relationships across countries. The internet has been a haven for keeping in touch friends with and meeting new people over the last year, and technology can allow young people to foster connections online which can manifest into real-world relationships. Online counselling and wellbeing services are more accessible and can fit around the busy work schedules of young farmers since there is no need to travel to the nearest health centre or hub. Relate NI also has self-help resources which can help you to Relieve the Pressure on your relationships with yourself, your partner, your children or your family.
Coming back to International Youth Day – we can help transform food systems for young farmers here in Northern Ireland by supporting them to develop and maintain healthy relationships. International Youth Day highlights the conversation about how support for young workers & their loved ones can be accessed and improved. With more than 1 farmer per week dying from suicide in the UK, relationships could be a crucial source of support. Whether it’s working on your relationship with yourself to feel at ease when you’re alone with your own thoughts; or nurturing your connections with family and friends in order to feel comfortable talking about any insecurities or issues; relationship maintenance is essential to personal wellbeing.
Close to where I grew up, a study by the School of Psychology NTSAg (Non-Technical Skills in Agriculture) at the University of Aberdeen found that a major issue for farmers was “social separation from family and friends due to the geographic isolation of farms, and long hours of lone working”. This makes me think of how special visiting my grandparents was and how important it is for family and friends to keep on visiting and maintaining relationships with their loved ones in the countryside. Since moving to Northern Ireland, it’s been even more difficult for me to go back up to Scotland to visit – so don’t take this for ed – if you live close enough to make the trip, make sure to take time to visit your family or friends. And if you’re a young farmer, please reach out for support should you need it:
Relate NI’s services may also be of use to you, with a range of accessible counselling and support – enquiries & information available at https://www.relateni.org/contact« Relationships Week 2021 – Where do we go from here? Our new Men’s Heads and Hearts report unpicks complexities of modern dating & relationships »
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