Friday, July 12, 2024

Empathy for farmers

Agriculture has long been fundamental to the economy and culture of the Pontiac. In simpler times, not so long ago, most every farm had a small herd of milk cows, a few beef steers, some pigs and chickens and often a pair of work horses, and depended more on the manual labour of a few people than on machinery to plant and harvest crops.But farming has changed radically over recent decades. Once the domain of the rugged individualist who preferred to run their own business, not afraid of hard work, happy to be outdoors working with the soil and animals, farming is becoming an increasingly difficult way of life, here and around the world.Witness the protests waged by farmers in recent days. Polish farmers, upset about produce from Ukraine entering their country tariff-free, spilling 160 tonnes of grain onto railway tracks. Some 900 tractors converging on Brussels where protesting farmers spray police with liquid manure. Five thousand Spanish farmers marching on Madrid. Tens of thousands of Indian farmers marching on New Delhi to demand guaranteed crop prices. French farmers driving their tractors into Paris to protest low earnings, heavy regulation and unfair competition from abroad.These are the people who are feeding the planet. The stresses they feel can be enormous. And the list goes on. The constant pressure to improve productivity. The dangers of operating heavy equipment and handling hazardous chemicals, and the isolation of doing much of it by yourself. Extreme weather undoing a year’s work, unpredictable commodity prices, competition with countries with lower labour costs and environmental standards. With seemingly endless debts to pay, crops in the field and animals to feed, stopping when things get to be too much just doesn’t seem to be an option.As a society, we need to be asking what policies we need to be putting in place to support the farmers who put food on our tables each day. Because something’s got to give. Too often, it is the mental health of the person at the centre of the storm that pays the price.Last Thursday evening, a gathering at the Little Red Wagon in Clarendon offered some hope. It was an expression of empathy for what farmers do, often against staggering odds, and the toll it can take on their mental well-being. It was the opening of a conversation among farmers about what they can do to stay well. It starts with watching for the signs of depression and then reaching out to someone – a relative, a friend, a neighbour, a doctor – someone who can simply listen and hear and understand.One of the amazing things about farmers is their can-do attitude, the ability to handle any problem thrown at them. We are all susceptible to the idea that we can do it all, we can handle whatever stresses the world throws at us, all by ourselves. We’re all John Wayne. But it’s a false notion. We are not meant to live isolated lives in quiet desperation. We are social creatures. We are meant to rely on each other. Doing so doesn’t mean we are weak, it means we are wise.You may be holding all the moving parts of your farming operation together with your own two hands. You may be spending most of the day and half the night alone driving your tractor. But you can climb down out of the cab and talk to someone.And we can each be that someone.If you know a farmer – or anyone, for that matter – who is carrying too much, who is at their wits end, too exhausted to climb out of the hole they’re in, check in with them, find out how they’re doing. You may be the person they need to lean on.

Charles Dickson


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