Emotions and the social side of farming need to be considered in the transition to sustainable practices, according to speakers at Oxford Real Farming Conference.
Alongside regenerative practices like soil health and reducing chemicals, farmers also need a “regenerative mindset” to overcome social pressure, isolation and stress when changing from conventional methods, said the panel of experts.
“The social piece is hugely overlooked,” said Caroline Grindrod, co-founder of Wilderculture CIC, a social enterprise that supports livestock and upland farmers in their transition to regenerative practices.
“One thing I see underestimated all the time in the early transition is how much pressure and stress there is around shifting your mindset as well as your farming system,” highlighted Grindrod.
Financial incentives are not enough to encourage sustainable farming, according to Grindrod, and more emphasis should be put on understanding farmers’ motivations and values.
“Money is a poor substitute for passion,” said Grindrod. “It’s about trying to capture what are you passionate about, what’s going to get you up in the morning.”
“The rates of depression and suicide in farming are demonstrating that we need to give this much more consideration,” she continued. “Of course, traditional farmers really don’t like to talk about this. It’s touchy feely and no one thinks that it should matter. But it does matter.”
As sustainable farming is still in the minority, the panel highlighted that those making the shift come under scrutiny from traditional farmers and this adds to the sense of social isolation and stress.
“To start with you’ve got so many people ready to tell you why it’s wrong and why it’s not going to work. You tend to go into your shell a bit,” said Clare Hill, director of regenerative farming at consultancy firm, FAI Farms who work with producers and food brands to address sustainability challenges.
Forming new communities with like-minded farmers can provide a support network and help foster resilience and counter the feelings of isolation.
“I’ve had to make new farming friends to talk to this stuff about,” said Hill. “I would have given up if I had carried on speaking to the people I spoke to before.”
“The more people we have in this movement, supporting each other and having these conversations, the easier it’s going to be on everyone,” Grindrod added. “Because it’s the most lonely and difficult thing when you’re the only one out there.”
Despite the challenges, Cumbrian farmer Claire Beaumont said that it is worth making the shift: “We are unquestionably happier, doing what we’re doing now.”