DURING the pandemic, we saw first-hand that farmers are key workers. We saw how precious and valuable their work is, and how we need to look after them as we emerge from the pandemic.
This is a tough time for many involved in these jobs. The Farm Safety Foundation ran a survey which found that 88 per cent of farmers cited poor mental health as the biggest hidden problem facing the industry — an issue which will only have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and shows no signs of abating. The ONS reported that 133 people working in farming and agricultural trades took their own lives in 2019-20.
In addition, agriculture continues to have the worst rate of fatal injuries of all the major industrial sectors, around 20 times higher than the average five-year annual rate.
And we know rural communities face isolation and serious deprivation. We know that the number of families categorised as homeless in rural local authorities has risen to almost 20,000: a 115-per-cent increase from 2017-18.
We are at a juncture, and the future can go two ways. Will we treasure and support our farmers, provide them access to good health care — especially mental-health care, bolster community support, and campaign strongly for education, equipment, and legislation that enable farmers to do their jobs safely and profitably?
Will our rural areas be active, lively places where the future will happen, full of energy and innovation?
Or will they be areas of rest and recreation, preserved in aspic for those who are able to afford it?
WE ARE looking to build a bold, exciting vision of Britain, a vision fit for the 21st century and beyond. Farming will be, in many ways, the backbone of that. And that’s for four reasons, all of them interlinked.
First, our heritage and communities: as we look towards who we want to be, we need to have a strong foundation of where we’ve come from, who we are, and how we live together. To do that, we need to build and support rural communities which flourish, ones which serve every generation, with access to services and opportunities that unlock people’s potential and bring people together.
Second, providing a reliable source of nutritious food available to everyone: this is, without doubt, indispensable. It is the first priority of every farmer, and it must be an integral part of government policy at every level, from the local to the national.
Third, the climate: it’s not controversial to say that climate change is the biggest threat we face, one that will become a fate if we do not do anything about it soon.
The Government has committed itself to net zero by 2050. The Church of England has gone a couple of steps further, and set 2030 as our target. The NFU has a 2040 target. Net zero will not happen in this country without the farming community.
And fourth and final, our relationship with the rest of the world, our trade deals, and how we show leadership on the global stage: In a post-Brexit era, a time of such globalisation, our farming communities can lead the way on food standards, animal welfare, trade, and exports that make people’s lives better and more prosperous around the world.
These are both the challenges and the opportunities on a very macro scale, where those involved in farming and agriculture have a real role to play.
SO, HOW do we get from where we are now to this vision of rural communities as lively, flourishing, exciting, prosperous places to live and work?
Many of the answers, I believe, lie in traditional innovation in rural communities which equips them to be areas that make use of their history and heritage to meet the challenges and opportunities of today.
This will need to happen in five main areas: food production, housing, community generation (through churches, schools, and other community hubs), communication infrastructure and adaptability to new science and education, and training in and adoption of new technology which is sustainable and economically viable.
BOTH the Church and the farmers have been in this country for centuries, and we plan, God willing, to be here for centuries more. If this country wants to be a leader in the 21st century, it will need to take a leaf out of the farming communities’ book, characterised by adaptability, resilience, and, above all, hope — and a bit of faith.
God tells us that he is with us in all seasons, times of feasting, fasting, of sowing and reaping, and in fallow times.
We can put down firm roots in values and communities, and those roots enable us to be resilient and flexible when any storms come.
This is an edited extract from the Henry Plumb lecture to the National Farmers’ Union given by Archbishop Welby on Monday evening. Read the full speech here.