New project helps farmers take back control

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Farmers are being encouraged to use a new two-minute tool to reassess the health of their business, work-life balance and financial affairs in easy, manageable chunks.

Developed in conjunction with a group of farmers in Cornwall, Two-Minute Farmer addresses all the complexities of modern farming life, but in a straightforward and practical way. It allows farmers to assess 10 elements of their daily lives which affect individual success and wellbeing, identifying areas for improvement and linking to a knowledge hub to help make positive changes.

“We started out by holding informal meetings in a local pub and what emerged was that everyone needed different things – the complexity was immense and it is only increasing,” explains Harriet Housam, who led the project with support from Stephens Scown and Agri-tech Cornwall. “What was also clear was the mental element of feeling overwhelmed, so we created the Tractor Wheel of Life to consider the key questions which affect farmers’ business and physical wellbeing. In this way we can break big complex issues into two-minute chunks so they’re less overwhelming.”

The 10 elements of the wheel are;

  • Future planning (including succession)
  • Production
  • Paperwork (and compliance)
  • Money (and finance)
  • Environment
  • Lifestyle (physical and mental wellbeing)
  • Communication (having a network and local relationships)
  • Assets (do you make the most of your farm’s assets?)
  • Management
  • Skills (technical and soft skills)

Farmers score each element out of 10, with zero meaning that area requires the most work and 10 indicating an area of complete satisfaction. They then plot those scores on a wheel chart to see if it creates a balanced wheel – which will roll easily – or a very spiky one, indicating that there are problem areas to address. “A healthy and resilient business is all about balance,” says Miss Housam.

“And the feedback on the tool has been really good. It has helped farmers to step back and make real positive changes – to impact on someone’s life like that is really rewarding.”

Having proved the concept in Cornwall, Miss Housam now wants to roll it out across the UK and to create an app. This could also be used to collect anonymous data on regional trends in how farmers are faring, which could then feed into suitable knowledge exchange in regional roadshows. “Farmers are already using the Wheel as a baseline for meetings with consultants and accountants, and we’re working with a range of partners to provide support like the Farming Health Hub.”

This brings together private, public and voluntary organisations to provide advice, support and guidance to farming communities on all aspects of their physical, mental and business health. “With the likes of RABI and FCN at the top tier, the Wellbeing in Farming Forum in the middle, and informal farmer meetings at the base, there are clear pathways for information to be passed both up and down,” explains Miss Housam.

Sarah Counter, who runs Land to Sea CBT and the Farm Fit project with Fairwinds Cornwall, says that collaboration between different farm health organisations is vital to reaching farmers in need. “We’re only really now starting to engage in a narrative about mental health in farming, and little tools like the Tractor Wheel of Life are really helpful. It’s a light-touch approach, using farming language, which can get people to think about things a bit differently,” she explains.

“A lot of people are faced with stress and worry, as well as trying to have a work-life balance while meeting all of the demands in farming. If you break it down into smaller chunks it can feel a lot more manageable.”

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Panel – The farmer’s perspective

Nick Dymond is a pig and arable farmer near Truro, Cornwall, and was part of the original pub meetings with Miss Housam. “It’s a brilliant concept and I think it’s really helpful to farmers,” he says. “With all the pressures that everyone from time to time struggles with, it’s useful to step back and see the help and support that’s out there. About 90% of farmers don’t recognise the very wide skillset it takes to run a successful farming business – often they’re very good at some skills but need prompting to identify areas of weakness and address them.”

When Mr Dymond filled in the Tractor Wheel of Life, he was expecting a well-rounded result. “I was pretty confident that things were pretty much up and together but I soon realised that my Wheel wasn’t very balanced,” he explains. “It made me realise that work life balance was a big area to focus on.”

It also made him re-evaluate his farming system, to trust his instincts more and implement regenerative farming. “Sometimes you need to take your foot off the gas a little bit and work with mother nature. Financial pressures often prevent farmers from changing, but by getting more balance the financial pressures sort themselves out.

“The farm can be a demanding mistress – it takes all your time and all your cash and still asks for more. Taking part in Two-Minute Farmer was the kick I needed,” he says.

Having had two hip replacements at the age of 50, Mr Dymond decided he needed to slow down and spend more time with his family. “I didn’t want to keep working 80-90 hours a week and damage my new hips.

“My kids were teenagers and there was so much I’d missed out on – the farm had just got in the way. Getting into regenerative farming and taking things a bit easier means I’m much happier and no longer stressing and worrying all the time.”