In 1971, a Pennsylvania hospital began a radical trial. Patients undertaking the same routine operation were randomly allocated two different types of rooms in which to recover. One had views of deciduous trees; the other a brick wall.
Ten years later the researchers concluded something extraordinary. The patients who looked out onto trees recovered faster, needed fewer painkillers and suffered fewer complications. Nature, the study concluded, heals, even if you are looking at it through a window.
Farmers spend much of the year surrounded by the natural world. But this power of nature to heal is at odds with the chilling statistic that approximately one farmer a week dies by suicide, double the national average.
It seems increasingly clear that the price of modern industrial farming has not just been ecological. A human cost has been paid too.
A 2022 study by the Farm Safety Foundation found that 92 per cent of UK farmers under 40 cited poor mental health as the biggest problem they faced. It seems increasingly clear that the price of modern industrial farming has not just been ecological. A human cost has been paid too.
It was this human cost I began to hear about when I moved out of London with my young family to Suffolk and took on the running of my husband’s small family farm. I found farming in a very different place from when my grandfather had been tasked with feeding a nation made hungry by war.
Now farmers faced accusations of ecological mismanagement from an overwhelming urban population, while UK food had become the third cheapest in the world, with households spending less than a tenth of their annual income upon it. A huge proportion of all food produced was either lost or wasted and farmers received a fraction of the price at which their food was sold, which reflected neither the ecological cost, nor the human cost, of making it.
Many of the farmers I met had decided they could not go on as they were. This was not just because soaring input prices, chemical resistance and the removal of public subsidies following Brexit meant high yields no longer meant high profits. It was also because they had witnessed what this way of farming could do to a family, a community and a farmer’s mental health.
This was the cost borne by the dairy farmer who told me what it felt like to shoot a Holstein bull calf, which would otherwise have sold at market for less than the cost to get it there. The intensive pig farmers broken by a decade worth of disease, animal death and debt.
The council farmer who had found cow carcasses rotting under hedgerows because the previous tenant could not afford the cost of the knackerman. The arable farmer whose older brother had taken his own life because of the trap the farm now represented.
I have come to believe that regenerative farming might also be able to heal an agricultural mental health crisis.
These farmers were part of a new generation looking for change through a transition to regenerative farming. As I heard their stories and saw their farms, I began to understand something unexpected. This way of farming did not just mean regenerating the soil, hedgerows and trees, or the number and variety of creatures that lived above and below the ground.
It did not just mean ecological resilience through growing a diversity of crops, keeping living roots in the ground and minimising disturbance of the soil. It did not just offer them financial resilience through minimising inputs. This way of farming also regenerated the farmers’ relationship with the land, the food they produced upon it and the community around them too. It did not just restore the farm. It restored the farmer.
We, as consumers, increasingly understand that our choices affect the land our food is grown on. But they also affect the people who make it, too. Regenerative farming might be able to do more than provide nutritionally dense food that benefits, rather than depletes, the land. I have come to believe it might also be able to heal an agricultural mental health crisis, too.
Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution by Sarah Langford (£16.99, Penguin) is out now.
This article was originally published in the autumn print edition of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine for free here.