Mental health and farming ; holding hope and grief, joy and despair, resilience and adversity
The inner and outer challenges of farming in today’s world are stark, yet often unspoken. Despite farming being an immensely purposeful and rewarding lifestyle, it is fraught with uncertainties, stresses and tensions, largely rooted in our economic and cultural systems which put farmers at the bottom. The design of our food and farming systems has been based on profit and production, at the expense of people, farmers and the environment. After just a few decades of this industrial productivism, our soils are depleted, our biodiversity in crisis and our climate destabilised. Underneath these overt physical challenges, there are deep disruptions to the inner seasons of a population disconnected from the lands. And deeper still, are the wounds of farmers and land stewards who have been often pushed into a production system that doesn’t align to their values, or provide them a real income/livelihood, especially amidst the skyrocketing cost of living. The mental health crisis ripples through all sectors of society rooted in our disconnection, repressed traumas and modern emptiness - the reality of the issue has been often swept under the rug by hardy farmers who have struggled through so much in recent decades. But now the true impacts and the ruptures in the internal lives of farmers is becoming more obvious, spoken, and surfaced, a crack of authentic light and a call for support amidst the dark shadows of our food systems hidden exploitations.
Image 1: "stay safe and talk!" A recent movement to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in farming communities, Len drove 2000 miles on a tractor through cities and countryside across the UK to help bring the issues to the surface (Farmers Guide 2023)
There are significant ruptures in mental health and the ‘monoculture of mind’ that has come from the industrial food production (Shiva 2006). As our producers of food and stewards of land are so fundamental to the human experience each day, the energy of our food systems ripples throughout all of us, through all of consciousness and across almost every acre of Earth. Historically, the civilisations that look after their farmers, lands and soils are thriving and resilient, and those that do not have collapsed (see Hyams – Soil and Civilisation 1952). As our food and land culture relates to society so strongly, there is a reflected mental health epidemic across society, rooted in the same separation, disconnection and economic reductionism that traverses all dwellers here on Earth. The farming industry has the second highest rates of suicide in any industry, and a similarly high level of depression, anxiety and stress. Farmers often face an intersection of injustices, as they are not only forced into an economic stalemate, with rising costs and falling food prices, but they are also too often blamed for the issues that they are actively trying to solve, albeit whilst surviving and attending to more urgent crises in their lives such as spiralling debt, lack of succession, corporate buy out and many more. Added to this, the average age of UK farmers is 60, and current barriers make it so difficult for young new entrant farmers to get a foot in the ladder, despite the majority of young people wanting more connection to land and to be part of the environmental solutions – to which land work is central.
It is important to accept the paradoxical truth that two realities can exist at once, as quantum physics is evidencing about the nature of life. For example, the mental health struggles, cultural challenges and economic scarcity that is plaguing our farmers is a stark reality, juxtaposed with another reality of the richness and fulfilment inherent to land-work. Both sides of the coin are true, that farming is and can be immensely rewarding, fulfilling and joyful work, AND that it is a monumental challenge, especially in todays context. Working on the land and cultivating a regenerative livelihood is in itself not conducive to ill health, but the structure and systems from which this operates forces a huge strain and burden on our primary producers and stewards.
Some of the happiest, most grounded, alive, healthy and fulfilled people I know are Landworkers. I feel an immense reward, purpose and joy from the day to day land work, and I don’t know what I’d do without it. It is my therapy, my hobby, my passion, and my livelihood. I have also faced mental health challenges this year, as many growers I know have to differing extents. For me these are often rooted deeply, not in the land work itself or farming as a lifestyle, but rooted in economic pressures, responsibility overwhelm, lack of cultural understanding and valuing of producers and battling backwards systems (e.g. planning, legal, regulatory, financial). I have abundant energy physically for my farm because it nourishes me, and I have abundant mental energy for my regenerative enterprise because it stimulates me healthily, and I have a deep soul connection to the land I co-steward. And yet, it can be draining and exhausting at low times, because of all of these wider factors, the systems of power and oppression that dominate the landscape of our inner lives, and the deeply rooted shadows we have to overcome collectively. These pressures can be overcome or dimmed to an extent through collaboration, through sharing responsibility and sitting with the fire’s together. The challenges and pressures can also come to the surface more abruptly in collaboration. There is less ability for an individual farmer to sweep an issue under the rug or to avoid the personal and collective shadows that arise when doing this deep work. People tend to provide mirrors to each other and to the state of society/culture which we are entangled with. This can be challenging, growthful and complex.
How do we overcome these collective and personal shadows, and transform the systems which are depleting even the most rewarding work on earth? Put (overly) simply, we’ve got to name the beasts, face the shadows and stick together through it. We’ve got to also keep the joy, keep the flame burning, and continue doing what nourishes us deeply. I do this work because I love it and working with the land each day brings me meaning, fulfilment and joy beyond comparison to anything else. I can’t even see myself not doing it, the landwork having become a core part of my identity, philosophy, way of being and my culture. There is an element of regenerating our mindsets that is essential in the wider ‘regenerative movement’. I find an endless motivation when I transform my fuel from short-term response mode to long-term vision and prefigurative action steps. The former is short-lived and reactionary, rooted in fear. The latter is ever-burning and will always prevail, based in a love for life returning, and sensing into the more beautiful world of tomorrow. We also need to shift our focus away from the problems, the blaming and shaming, and the crisis bias. These paralyse action and deaden hope. Understanding the problems and naming the shadows is very different to living only in this bias and letting it dominate. It’s a fine line and makes a big difference to our approach and motivation. The crisis mentality has usefully sounded the alarm bell at times for humanity, and highlighted the very serious reality of ecological crisis, but it is no longer empowering us to act. Cognitive awareness and fear will only get us so far in truly acting on these crises. We need to begin bridging to the alternatives and futures that we can choose. This is a paradigm of hope, which breeds joyful and purposeful action, coming together to form active hope, a way out of our heads and into embodied prefiguration.
There is a marked difference in farmers I meet who are regenerating and those who are stuck in the degenerative paradigm (often having been forced into it). The difference is not in their physical set up, equipment or farms, but in their inner landscape having undergone a regenerative shift. Often through a crisis moment (e.g. read Dirt to Soil, Brown 2018) and/or an inflection point in their lives, kickstarting a renewed relationship to land, self and life-work. An acknowledgement and accountability of where we’ve gone wrong and a commitment to healing and restoring. We need to collectively undergo such a regenerative shift, and support those farmers and growers in this work. Of course the mindset shifts are just one side of the coin for regenerating our inner and outer landscapes. We must engage proactively and collectively with the wider cultural, economic and power systems at play – and campaign to reverse these so that landworkers, producers and other essential workers are valued rather than hindered. Much of this is rooted in the notion of sovereignty and empowerment. Farmers, eaters and communities have been disenfranchised from land, from food, water and basic needs – all of which are now ‘farmed’ out to global corporations and left to a rigged market built for profit not health/life. The autonomy piece is reflected in the personal sphere too, and a central part of the mental health eipidemic in growers and society. Farmers (and humans) generally thrive off a level of autonomy. Farmers tend to have more of this empowerment inherent in their work than most 9-5 ers, and it is usually more interwoven with lifestyle, family, home etc. And yet, so many factors have been removed from our autonomy in recent decades, as land and food became commodified and we became like factory workers on an industrial line rather than valued members of community growing food/medicine/nourishment. Reclaiming autonomy through food sovereignty is a huge part of the pathway towards inner and outer landscape regeneration. This work is being led by movements like La Via Campesina and Landworkers Alliance – support, and activate your hope in doing so!
Diagram 1: The Regenerative Shift (Hutchins and Storm 2018)
Beyond the larger systemic engagement and active hope, there are on the ground strategies that I have learnt for transforming burnout and keeping balance amidst a weight of responsibility and unknowns. Summarised below are some tools and useful frames:
· Following a regenerative action cycle – rather than continually living in Summer (outer, doing, action-only), I can paradoxically get more done and do it more effectively and joyfully if I attune my body to its natural tendencies, mimicked in the seasons and the reflective time of winter (see diagram 2)
· Being realistic about commitments and ‘slowing down the yes’. Saying yes to that which regenerates life internally and externally.
· Regular checking in with vision, mission and values to keep on track and connect to the north star that we’re working towards.
· Deep collaboration with people and nature
· Awareness that this in intergenerational and collective work; I can only do so much as an individual and in this lifetime, but the ripples are wide in ancestral time and collective space.
· Continually improving (imperfectly!) on taking accountability, authentic communication and living values – this gradually builds a sense of groundedness through integrity and an empowerment through taking responsibility for something – be it a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing ! And when these intentions go amiss, then harvesting the learnings with compassion.
· Beginning the shift away from entitlement and scarcity instead towards service and gratitude. Seeing this work as giving back to the gift of life in joyful service, and coming from a place of gratitude rather than lacking or endlessly wanting more.
Diagram 2: Regenerative action cycle (Storm and Hutchins 2018)
Health of our food (and bodies) is linked inextricable to the health of farms and farmers. This is an invitation for farmers and landworkers to listen into their inner seasons and have compassion for them in each other. To voice them, bring them to the surface lovingly for transformation and collective liberation through a regenerative shift. The underlying mental health struggles and need for inner regeneration must be brought to the fore of the wider regenerative movement. We will perhaps always have struggles, whatever life path we choose. Its important in this time to recognise this and recognise our agency to choose our struggles, and opt to live and transform them for the regeneration of life. An age old choice between love and fear may determine the success of the regenerative movement as a whole. A ‘normal job’ may in some cases have less stress, more predictability, economic viability or sense of comfort on the surface. And yet the struggles here will be in the loss of purpose, fulfilment and connection which cannot come from work in contradiction to life. Despite the systemic challenges and complexity of our inner seasons, there is a bubbling hope and excitement for new entrant farmers and old farmers alike embarking upon a regenerative shift - and the joys, purpose, conviviality and land connection we are rediscovering in our great re-enchantment with life. Regenerative agriculture is truly the most exciting field to be entering in the coming years and decades. Its hopeful, impactful, rewarding and exciting. It’s a road to healing, and will for sure have some bumps in it, as we traverse courageously through the fire towards the cultures of conviviality, health and thriving.
Hyams, E., 1952. Soil and civilization (Vol. 73, No. 5, p. 417). LWW.
Brown, G., 2018. Dirt to soil: One family’s journey into regenerative agriculture. Chelsea Green Publishing.