A new programme that will focus on health and wellbeing in the farming community is set to be piloted in Waterford and Roscommon in 2022.

FARMConnect, an initiative of the Men’s Development Network (MDN), is designed to address the impact that agriculture, as a career and way of life, can have on the health and wellbeing of Irish farmers, and their families.

Agriland spoke to the CEO of the MDN, Seán Cooke, to find out a little more about the initiative, which, he hopes, will be eventually rolled out nationwide.

Under pressure

Irish farmers are always under pressure but, right now, that pressure is building.

Solving the country’s environmental and climate issues seems to rest squarely on their shoulders – and that is on top of the everyday challenges that must be overcome.

Now, and certainly over the next few years, farmers need support; they need to feel empowered; and they need to have each others’ backs.

Against this backdrop, the FARMConnect initiative couldn’t be timed better.

“This is a bit of a pre-emptive strike, to be honest,” said Seán.

Farming initiative

FARMConnect is one of the successful farm health, safety and wellbeing projects under the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) initiative, recently announced by Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Farm Safety, Martin Heydon, explained Seán.

In line with the aims of this EIP-funded initiative, the main objective of FARMConnect is the development of a scalable national programme to address farmer health and wellbeing.

And, based on research released this week, it comes at a very apt time too.

That’s Me I am the Farmer of the Land”: Exploring Identities, Masculinities, and Health Among Male Farmers’ in Ireland revealed that Irish male farmers experience some of the highest levels of adverse health outcomes relative to other occupations – particularly in relation to heart disease, cancers and mental health.

Many of them wait until an illness is at crisis point before they seek help, and see the latter as being the opposite of what being a man, or what a farmer, should be.

Furthermore, according to Teagasc data for 2019, approximately 40,000 farmers in Ireland do not engage with any sector-based services or advisors.

But, if given a safe space, said Seán, men will open up.

“One of the things that we hear a lot is that men don’t talk. That’s rubbish.

“Men do talk if they are given the opportunity to do so, and the space is provided, and if it is safe, and confidential – they will talk the hind legs off anything once the space and opportunity is given to do that.”

FARMConnect, both in its pilot phase and future scaled-up form, will seek to create those kinds of spaces.

And it will also prioritise the ‘hard-to-reach’ section of the farming population.

farmers older farmers
Farmer health and wellbeing must be addressed according to recent research

Although the MDN is coordinating the project, the 15% of farmers that are women will be included too.

FARMConnect – the pilot

Kicking it off, four groups will be set up in each of the two pilot counties – Waterford and Roscommon.

A number of farm advisors will also be involved in this pilot initiative, which is inspired by a model that both they and farmers are familiar with – that which underpins the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s knowledge transfer (KT) groups.

“Some farm advisors approached us and asked if the knowledge transfer (KT) groups could continue in some form,” said Seán.

“Because the conversations at the end of the day were not so much about technical issues to do with the farm, what farmers really wanted was the social aspect of meeting up, talking to each other and supporting each other,” said Seán.

“What also emerged was that there was a considerable issue around people [farmers] making disclosures and people [advisors] not knowing how to deal with them.

The fundamental thing, he said, was that the advisors wanted the KT interactions to continue – albeit on a completely voluntary basis.

And with the MDN well placed to make such a thing happen due to its experience engaging men and farmers in social learning and development, FARMConnect was born!

According to the MDN, 20 skilled and specially-trained facilitators (the advisors) will involve the farmers – supported by a ‘buddy’ system – in a prgramme that will cover four themes: fitness, awareness, resilience, and meitheal – meaning community support.

“We will use the KT approach as a kind of Trojan horse to encourage farmers to take part, but there will also be some project work too, as well as a county farmer health-and-wellbeing event. 

“That will happen near the end of the programme and they will be able to bring their families and friends into this event. We might be able to include things like health checks too,” explained Seán

“We want to establish these networks for farmers – male or female – to come into the room and support each other, to be able to talk and to be facilitated to do so by advisors who are technical advisors who they know.”

When given a safe space, with their peers, men are more comfortable to open up

A highly expert and experienced operational group, representing a broad range of stakeholders in both the agriculture and health arenas, will oversee the pilot programme’s operation and delivery.

Some of the main aims

  • Reduce isolation for farmers, advisors and families that engage in the programme;
  • Improve self-awareness so that farmers can identify behaviours that need to change and to enable a mindset shift around identity;
  • Increase physical activity and fitness levels and improve nutrition;
  • Increase health checks and improve knowledge of the early warning signs so as to be alert to the signs in oneself and in others;
  • Create awareness and improve the use of precautionary measures around key health risks that farmers experience as disproportionate;
  • Create awareness of the dangers and consequences of farm accidents;
  • Improve safety precautions and measures for farmers to take to prevent accidents;
  • Create a safe space for farmers to share vulnerabilities about the pressures they are facing and to discuss them and seek help;
  • Enable farmers to have peer-to-peer conversations about their farming reality and seek assistance from their own farmer network as well as from support services in relation to mental wellbeing; both in-person and online;
  • And more.
  • Stay tuned!