Financial difficulties for farmers have increased on the back of bad weather, rising input prices and livestock diseases. Demand for help has grown so much that the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (Rabi) has appointed a new member of staff solely to cover Northumberland. Karen Dent reports.
THE dreadful wet weather of 2012, compounded with the spread of disease such as bovine TB, the arrival of Schmallenberg and the leap in costs, have left an increasing number of farmers in financial difficulties.
In Northumberland alone, the rise in calls to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (Rabi) for assistance has led to the charity appointing a part-time welfare officer solely to cover the county.
One of the issues, though, is that not everyone is aware that the charity is there – or they are too proud to ask for help.
Stoker Frater, who farms at Abberwick near Alnwick, is the charity’s county chairman. He said: “There are a lot of people on smaller farms who don’t know this charity exists. People are very proud and it’s difficult to approach them and ask, ‘Do you need help?’
“The public say, ‘How can a farmer be poor?’ You can be sitting on a farm worth £1m but it isn’t giving you any money unless you sell it.
“We get a lot of vicars approaching us and saying, ‘A member of the congregation says such and such is suffering’.
“The weather is so miserable and lamb price is so dismal at the moment. A lot of people are on their own and there is no one to discuss the problems with. The suicide rate in farming at the moment is really up. I’m conscious that some people are suffering. If we can save a life, it’s worthwhile.”
Last year, Rabi made £48,648 in 425 payments in Northumberland, where it has 43 long-term beneficiaries. In County Durham, the charity has 14 long-term beneficiaries and gave £13,500 in grants over 112 payments.
These include regular payment to long-term beneficiaries, who are mostly elderly or disabled, plus emergency one-off payments to farming people of all ages.
Rabi communications manager Philippa Spackman said: “In 2012 it was particularly worrying that more and more working farmers contacted us for help – in the summer two-thirds of all calls to our helpline were from working farmers.
“Most worrying of all, we gave emergency cash and food vouchers to dozens of families in urgent need, and paid thousands of pounds to working, retired and disabled farming people who were either in arrears with utility bills and in danger of being cut off, or could not afford heating oil.
“Many farming families find it hard to make ends meet. According to research by the Commission for Rural Communities in 2010, one-quarter of all farming families already live on or below the official poverty line.
“And in the face of unexpected events such as last year’s weather, steep rises in input costs, the continuing presence of animal disease, or family circumstances brought about by such things as illness, bereavement or family breakdown, anyone can get into financial difficulty through no fault of their own.”
Last year, Rabi gave out £2.1m in help in England and Wales, up by £250,000 on the previous year.
Before Christmas, the Prince of Wales donated £150,000 from the Prince of Wales’s Countryside Fund emergency fund to farming help charities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Rabi received match funding from the Duke of Westminster and NFU Mutual.
In Northumberland, events and donations from the likes of the Duke of Northumberland and Lilburn Estates’ Duncan Davidson raise around £12,000 annually.
Stoker Frater said: “We organised a summer lunch, dinner dance and we had a hill-billy barbecue at Abberwick last year to get funds in.
“We have adequate funds to help people. The head office has quite a substantial portfolio of funds.
“Many farmers do not realise that this help is available, and that sharing the problem with like-minded people always makes the problem seem easier to handle.
“The problem we have is obviously contacting such people in a way that does not make them feel even worse. Most are proud and are working their socks off, then if support from governmental organisations lets them down, the problem gets much worse.
“We need to be sensitive to their situation and not make them feel they have failed, or that people around them think they have failed. Circumstances are different for everyone, so it can be anything from bereavement, illness or just pure bad luck that they find themselves in what seems a hopeless situation.
“It is Rabi’s aim to relieve that and help them on the road to recovery. We all know that a problem shared is a problem halved.”
All inquiries to Rabi should be directed to the freephone number 0300 303 7373.