Bishop Helen-Ann calls for Westminster to engage with Northern farming issues

Bring Parliament to the Dales to learn the tough realities of Northern farming, says Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley, who speaks for the Diocese on rural issues.

In the full version of an opinion piece published in the Yorkshire Post, the Bishop of Ripon writes:


"My father once told me a story of going into a field after it had been ploughed and looking at the furrows, and seeing them as if the earth were improvising with itself through the work of the farmer: the rows of tilled soil, and the back and forth pattern which is similar but not repetitive.

Farming works with the seasons and rhythms of the year. 

The farmers I have encountered are smart, adaptable, and passionate about their work. 

They are quietly proud and mindful of the animals and land entrusted to their care. 

They have weathered the storms of ‘Veganuary’ and emerged into ‘Februdairy.’  Social media gimmicks to a certain extent, but they have an impact none-the-less.  It is true that for many people, farms and farming are a bit of a mystery.  You can acquire food without any hint of where it might have originated.  Some supermarkets put up pictures of the farmers with whom they have a relationship, but that is a rarity. 

I was a bishop in the North Island of New Zealand prior to my return home to become Bishop of Ripon.  Living and working in an area that was almost entirely dependent upon dairy farming for its economic health brought me into close contact with many different aspects of the agricultural sector. 

I learnt about kiwi adaptability, and the so-called ‘Number 8 wire’ mentality (remote farms using rolls of wire which would typically be used for fencing to fix all sorts of structural problems).  There is certainly a ‘can do’ culture in New Zealand, and a willingness to experiment and innovate.  

That is the case here in the UK too, as I saw at the Oxford Farming Conference in January (the British farmer using health trackers for his cows being one of my favourites, closely followed by the presentation of an ‘out of the box’ idea for a Dutch floating dairy farm).  While innovation crosses continents, so too do the problems. 

In the region of New Zealand where I worked, the suicide rate in farming families was unacceptably high.  Declining mental health was such an issue that milk-tanker drivers (often on the front line of farming life with regular contact with farms that were otherwise extremely isolated) were given specific training in how to spot the signs of depression. 

We all have a part to play.

The dangers of disconnect between our food and its origins also lead to a somewhat hazy view of what rural communities are like.  For one thing, they are incredibly diverse (tiny hamlets through to small rural towns where the Auction Mart plays a key role).  The challenges they face are however worryingly similar: isolation and loneliness, unaffordable housing, poor transport, broadband, small schools, banks and pubs closing. 

The list goes on.  Often these challenges are hidden or go unnoticed.  Many media outlets view life solely through a metro-political lens, and this means that great swathes of the country are silenced and out of reach.  Who cares if a small village or town declines?  Surely country folk are wealthy?  The answer of course is no!  Wealth and poverty are relative, and poverty isn’t just about the health of your bank balance. 

I’m a trustee of the Farming Community Network, a charity that provides support to farmers and their families. 

Our volunteers (of whom there are about 400 across England and Wales) walk alongside many people who are dealing with mental health issues, financial worries, family pressures, and all number of other challenges, not least the unpredictable weather.  The FCN runs a free and confidential helpline, which is staffed every day of the year from 7am until 11pm.  The need for help doesn’t go away, and if anything it will probably increase in the months to come.  Brexit brings with it all number of uncertainties, so much so that it’s not worth even speculating what will happen. 

Agricultural communities manage uncertainty; you might even say it’s in their DNA.  But the levels of Brexit-related uncertainty coupled with toxic discourse and inadequate leadership on the part of those democratically elected to find a way forward have created an environment where many struggle to survive let alone thrive.  This makes the need for organisations like the FCN vital. 

On the day when my role as bishop was announced, I visited Manor House farm in Rylstone near Skipton. 

The family there have farmed the land for generations.  There was a timelessness about our visit as basic needs were met: sustenance and water to see us on our way, cheerful conversation and words of encouragement.  It doesn’t take much to show compassion to others, and many do just that.  But you have to know and understand a context in order to work with it.  What we need above all, is a more comprehensive rural strategy from our politicians. 

Bring the Palace of Westminster north to the countryside!  Fill a barn with bails of straw, create a dispatch box from crates.  Have your debates in the midst of the lives of those who struggle to find a voice or a sense of being valued. 

Somehow when you are faced with reality, you can rarely ignore it."

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