Retiring from the farm can have a massive impact on farmers’ mental and physical health.
It can seem the lucky ones are those who can still live on the farm site, do a few odd jobs, run some errands or help out at busy times. Indeed, the ones who end up moving away from the farm can feel isolated and purposeless.
Because she has worked in support roles helping individuals and families cope with dementia, and because she also lives in a rural area and has retired farmers in her own family, Jill Rennie is all too familiar with the mental health and other struggles that people can face when they leave the farm.
She just happens to live in Scotland, but maybe the Atlantic doesn’t make such a difference. You be the judge.
“People say farmers never retire, and the ones that are still able to be on the farm or can still be involved in the farm in some way are not affected by the isolation because it’s still real life. They maybe have mobility problems, but they can still go out and feed the sheep or whatever,” says Jill. “People who don’t have access to the farming life, and have had to sell the farm for whatever reason, you’re taking their heart and soul away from them, and this is when mental health issues can happen.”
Jill began to think about how she could help bring these people together, and came up with the idea for a retired farmers’ social group. At the time, she was working for Alzheimer’s Scotland, liaising with communities, businesses and different groups to help them become more dementia friendly.
“The way that dementia works is that people remember things a long time ago; things more recent, they struggle with,” says Jill. “I thought, why can’t I just bring these people together because I could see the benefit of bringing someone with memory problems to a group with people who haven’t got memory problems when they are from the same era, and talk about the same things. It stimulates the person with the memory problems to feel part of that group. They don’t have the stigma of worrying about their memory because what people are talking about is very real to them.”
Alzheimer’s Scotland agreed to let Jill develop a pilot project to try the idea, but first she approached some farmers and others involved in agriculture that she knew personally to see what they thought about the concept. “I needed to see what the farming community thought of the idea, because farming is an isolated way of life anyway and so for people to actually come to a social group is daunting,” says Jill, who was surprised that everyone she talked to was enthusiastic about the idea, including a regional manager at the National Farmers Union of Scotland.
Jill managed to get a small amount of funding to help launch the social group in early 2018, which has grown from about eight participants to a mailing list of over 30. She has managed to keep getting small grants and local sponsors to assist with costs such as hiring transportation for trips, honorariums for speakers and free meeting room rental, volunteering her own time to co-ordinate, manage and facilitate the group.
The social group isn’t limited to just farmers. Anyone with an interest in agriculture is welcome to join in, and the group includes a seed merchant and ex-managing director of an agri-company.
The group meets once a month to chat about farming today and reminisce about their farming past, often inviting speakers or taking field trips out to farms and other destinations, some of which aren’t ag-related, like an ammunitions factory.
The group always comes up with the ideas for the field trips because many of them still have connections in the industry. Last year they visited a farmer who had an impressive collection of old farm machinery, and another who had turned his farm into a tourist attraction where he made and sold his own ice cream.
At 63, Jim Young is the baby of the group and the farm visits are definitely a big attraction that allow him to sustain his connection with farming. Jim took over the family beef and sheep farm from his father in 1991 and unlike many farmers has no regrets about retiring 20 years later at the age of 60. “I have no children and made the decision about 20 years ago that I would retire at 60,” he says. “An opportunity to sell the farm came along and I took it.”
But even though retirement from the farm was a conscious decision on his part, Jim says he looks forward to the group. “It gives us an opportunity to meet like-minded farmers and talk about days of old, and some of the old artifacts, bits and bobs of machinery and things that we bring along.”
The group recently visited a local agricultural college and it’s hard to say whether the farmers or the students enjoyed it more. “The farmers were really interested in the robotic milker and one of them said to me, ‘I never thought I’d see one of these in my lifetime,’” says Jill. Meanwhile, the students were fascinated by their visitors’ tales about the way they used to do farm work, which prompted Jill to bring the group to a Young Farmers’ Club agricultural show as an intergenerational learning opportunity.
“The young farmers were fascinated,” says Jill. “I got one of the guys to bring along some old tools and they were interested in what they used them for and what the farmers had to say. We had members of the public come to the tent and at one point, one of the farmers had four children beside him with their granny, and she came to me later to say how the kids loved it so much more than being in school because it was like living history.”
It’s one of the ways Jill sees retired farmers being able to add more meaning to their lives and pass their knowledge and experience on to the next generation. “I’m very interested in motivating people. Just because you’re older and have an illness, doesn’t mean that you can’t do things and don’t have a lot to give,” she says.
“Certainly, working with dementia, it’s challenging to find ways to stimulate someone, especially if they are quite far on in the illness, but I think this sort of group helps give them the tools to move forward in their life in a very subtle way.”
It’s not always easy to get people through the door the first time. Jill gets many phone calls from spouses or family members who are sure their retired farmer would love the group, so she often spends time on the phone or meeting with them in person to chat about what it is. After the first time, she doesn’t have any trouble getting them to come back.
“I’ve seen people who have been quite withdrawn and quite low who have become outgoing and happy again,” says Jill. “A big part of that is the spirit of the whole group. They take care of each other. If we go on a trip, for example, and somebody is not as mobile as the others, they will rally around and pick that person up.”
Willie Dunlop didn’t have any hesitation about joining the group once he’d read about it in Scottish Farmer magazine. Willie farmed his 114-acre dairy and sheep farm for 32 years before selling up 22 years ago at the age of 55. Though many people considered him too young to retire from the farm, Willie says he made the decision partly because he had lost his father at age 56 and brother at age 54, and with his only son severely allergic to hay, he had no one to take over the farm.
Willie kept busy working for an agricultural supply company until he officially retired at 65. “I’ve been going to the meetings ever since I read the article,” he says, adding he now has people to talk to who share his passion for old tractors. “It’s interesting to hear other people’s memories about farming, to hear the guest speakers and get to visit local farms.”
Lots of interest
Jill has promoted the group with a regular newsletter and done media interviews for stories that have appeared in national farming magazines and on Scottish TV. The publicity has meant a lot of phone calls and emails from farmers across the country wishing they had a similar group they could go to, and wondering how they could get one going in their local area.
“I’ve been really moved by some of the calls,” says Jill. “I got an email from a farmer way down south and he’d read about the group in the Scottish Farmer magazine, and said that sounds great, I can totally relate to that, where’s the nearest one to me? It broke my heart that I couldn’t say oh, there’s one close to you.”
Jill is working on trying to collaborate with organizations like the National Farmers Union of Scotland to set up an association or group that could offer startup advice and support for people wanting to create their own retired farmers’ social groups. “It would be nice to get to the stage where you could look online and just click onto retired farmers for some pointers and resources,” she says.
In the meanwhile, she’s happy to offer advice based on her own experiences, and says the most important thing is to have a few core people who are interested in the idea, and a person who will commit to driving it forward.
Jill has put in a lot of volunteer hours with the social group and says she would like to see the idea spread and help as many people as possible because she’s seen the positive impact of the group herself.
“I have seen the change in the people who come to the group and it’s so rewarding to see them laughing and chatting together,” she says. “I have been close to tears sometimes. One man said to me, ‘you’ve changed my life.’ That’s just so powerful.”
Even researchers studying how resilience and isolation affect people come and talk to the group, because it is so unique. “I am happy for people to do that, but not everybody wants to speak about those sorts of things,” says Jill. “It has to be approached subtly because it’s a generation that just says, that’s the way it is and there’s nothing I can do about it. They are very stoic about things.”
The intention from the very beginning was that eventually the group would be self-led and independent, which finally happened in January 2019. “Right from the start, I said to them, I had the idea, you’ve delighted me by coming along, but it’s your group, you tell me what you want to do and I’ll try and facilitate it for you,” says Jill. “I always envisioned that they would take ownership.”
Jill’s goal for the group was simply to bring people from agricultural backgrounds together to socialize, do some activities, get outdoors and reconnect with actual farms again. The fact that the group meets face-to-face, rather than online or via other technology, is what makes it work so well, she says.
“They get a lot of benefit from being in each other’s company because a lot of the time they are on their own,” says Jill. “There are lots of people involved in health and social care in particular who think that technology is the answer (to connect people) but human beings are meant to interact with other human beings. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work to meet via technology, but when you have people sitting in a group there’s a lot of chat, banter and laughing. I don’t know how you would get that if everybody was sitting in their own house looking at a laptop.”
And, ultimately, that’s the goal — to make the group members feel comfortable enough that they can forget their aches and pains for an afternoon and enjoy each other’s company, says Jill. “It’s lovely to see the lightheartedness and hear them reminiscing about how they used to farm.”