Tending the flock - The Derbyshire Agricultural Chaplaincy Team
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 December 2019
Andrew Griffiths meets the chaplaincy team who serve Derbyshire’s farming community
A late Monday morning and once again the farming community has come together at the weekly livestock market, held at Bakewell's Agricultural Business Centre. Gathered round the stock ring, farmers do the deals that result from the lonely hours of hard work rearing animals on Derbyshire's hills, dales and moorland. This is the business side of things, the all-important flow of money - but the livestock market also offers an opportunity to connect with farmers while they are all under one roof, a rare enough occurrence in a rural community fragmented by its very nature.
Farmers can be a difficult bunch, and none more so than those who rear livestock in the uplands. This hardy breed aren't usually ones for opening up in front of strangers or 'wearing their hearts on their sleeves', as some of them might put it. When it comes to discussing their feelings or any problems, too often such concerns are swept aside along with the other detritus of the farmyard as they tackle the myriad daily challenges of the farming life. In an unguarded moment many a farmer will admit that while business is at the core of market day, it also has a lot to do with the social side. And while these often taciturn folk are in talkative mood, it might just be a good time to offer a hand and see what other services might be required.
One such is offered by the Reverend Alan Griggs and his team from the Agricultural Chaplaincy Service, a part of Rural Action Derbyshire (RAD), a charity with a mission to improve the lives of people living in the county's rural communities. I met Alan and lay reader Emily Brailsford, chaplain to the Young Farmers, at the livestock market as preparations were underway for the Harvest Festival. It is a service of particular significance to the farming community and is held in the stock ring. It must have a resonance for them that is lost to so many of us now in our urban communities, who have taken one if not more steps back from producing the fruits of the land.
'It is a wonderful time to celebrate, to worship together and to thank God for all that He provides to us through the farming community,' says Alan. 'So we thank them for what they do, and thank God for all that is provided to us. At its core, ours is a listening role,' Alan explained. 'We are a team of chaplains from different church backgrounds with an aim to provide pastoral support to the farming community. That support might be on the phone for a one-off call, or going out to visit a farmer on a regular basis,' he says.
Mental health is an issue that is talked about more freely these days, thanks in no small part to celebrities opening up in the media about their own mental health issues, not least Prince Harry talking about his own problems in a recent ITV documentary. Mental health - or more accurately mental ill-health - is something that will affect one in four of us in any given year. Research by the Farm Safety Foundation has revealed that four out of five young farmers (under 40) believe that mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today. 'It is difficult to gauge whether farmers are more or less likely to suffer these difficulties than any other person in a different sector,' says Alan, 'but I think it is the unique set of circumstances and pressures farmers have that place them at greater risk.' Those pressures include long hours, isolation, financial worries and uncertainty regarding income and funding in the current political climate. The instinct of many in the farming sector is to retreat back into themselves and to keep going and carry on, in a culture where the fear persists that revealing overwhelming emotions will be seen as a sign of weakness, but these pressures are very real. Alan tells me that one farmer a week takes their own life in the UK and statistics like these have persuaded the mental health charity Mind to aim a campaign at the farming community.
Alan describes Brexit as 'the elephant in the room' and there is no doubt that the uncertainty it has created has added enormously to the pressures farmers face. The withdrawal from the European Union and the end of Common Agricultural Policy funding would be challenge enough, but the lack of detail regarding how future funding will be delivered, particularly for hill farming which is uneconomic in itself, has only added to the difficulties. 'I think we can gauge the pulse of the farming community through our conversations, through our role as listeners,' says Alan. 'It is becoming clear that some farmers I talk to are almost worried about telling people they're farmers for fear of the reaction.'
Alan's own varied background gives him an interesting perspective on the farming community: he has worked as a flooring contractor and at an airport, spent time on a Kibbutz in Israel, and was a probation officer in Nottingham for 10 years. He is married to a farmer's daughter and is now a vicar serving in five rural parishes. His concern is that the gulf between the urban and the rural is growing ever wider, and that farmers are being made scapegoats for issues such as global warming. 'There is a disconnection that is unhelpful and I think farmers are misunderstood,' says Alan. 'I started this role four years ago and it has taken that time to really get to grips with farming, what it is about, and why decisions are made as they are in a farming community. We are not suggesting farming practices are perfect, they evolve and will continue to evolve, and farming I know will face the challenge of climate change and will adapt accordingly.'
Herself from a farming background, Emily says that the last time her father-in-law had a day off from the farm was 11 years ago, when she married his son! Her responsibility is towards the young farmers, who range in age from 10 to 26. 'I've surveyed most of the young farmers in the county and one of the things that has come up that concerns them is climate change,' says Emily. 'It is impacting on them because they have parents who have perhaps always done things the same way, and don't want to farm differently.'
We are joined by John Eley, a volunteer in the chaplaincy team. A retired farmer, John explains that his role is to act as a bridge between farmers and Alan and Emily. He was himself a beneficiary of the chaplaincy service a few years ago, and now wants to give something back to others who may be in need. 'I tend to walk around the market, chatting to people and learning who might need a little bit of help,' says John. 'You can often pick out depression, or someone might tell you that they have had a bereavement in the family. Or you can just tell if they are having hard times. People like Alan can't be expected to know as many people as I do. I've had a lifetime in the industry. There can't be many people coming into Bakewell market from Staffordshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire who don't know me by sight if not by name.'
I'm interested to know what John thinks of farming today. Would he do it all again if he had the chance? 'We've had the best of it,' says John. 'We had more fun. They've taken the fun out of farming. It is a lot more lonely than it used to be. There isn't the camaraderie anymore.'
Throughout my conversation with Alan and Emily, I've talked about the difficulties, the isolation, the financial uncertainties and the mental health issues, because that is what makes the story and follows the news agenda. But Alan has always been keen to bring it back to the positive, to celebrate the role of the farmer. The rural community may be fragmented, but nevertheless, it is a community. Alan says, 'There is a connection between farmers that I think is crucial. Part of our role is to nurture those connections, and celebrate them.'
This is a busy time for Alan and his chaplaincy team, which includes the Reverend Professor Stella Mills who works in south Derbyshire. The Harvest Festival is followed by Christmas, and the carol service at Bakewell is something of a fixture in the county agricultural calendar. It takes place in the main stock ring at the Agricultural Centre and attracts around 600 people. Surrounded by tiered seating, the stock ring has the air - and acoustics - of an amphitheatre so that many people must raise the roof.
'And we have a brass band,' says John.
'All the readers are farmers,' says Alan.
'And there are mince pies afterwards,' adds Emily.