Agriculture consists not only of land, animals and crops but first and foremost – of people

On 12 December 2023, the first conference under the Agro Woman initiative took place, focusing on the mental wellbeing of male and female farmers. The event was attended by representatives of both agricultural producers as well as science and business. The agricultural sector is filled with various challenges, e.g. with respect to market volatility, vagaries of the weather or uncertainty in terms of income and crops. Women, who have to simultaneously deal with responsibilities on the farm and those arising from the traditional role of a woman in family life, are particularly exposed to stress and occupational burnout.

The health and wellbeing of farmers constitute an important element of sustainable agriculture. While the farming community often addresses the ways of ensuring animal welfare, much less attention is paid to the importance of good wellbeing of people working in agriculture. The conference participants were unanimous in stressing that it is worth speaking out about mental health problems, which are still treated as taboo among farmers. The aim of the conference was to discuss farmers’ mental wellbeing and present effective practices that can facilitate supporting the farming community in dealing with such difficulties.

Agro Woman is an initiative intended to foster women’s entrepreneurship as well as promote their image and role – not only at the farms, but also in organisations and companies across the entire food responsibility chain,

said Karolina Tarnawska, Vice-President of the Board of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture & Food in Poland, during the opening segment.

Therefore, we strive to provide substantive support for women in terms of finance, business management, foreign languages and development of soft skills,

she added.

Farmers, just like other professional groups, are exposed to various pressures, mainly social, economic and psychological ones. However, farmers represent the very group that takes care of our food system. In order to ensure that this system is healthy and sustainable, the environment in which farmers operate also has to be sustainable,

emphasised Monika Stanny, PhD, DSc, Director of the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IRWiR PAN), in her opening lecture.

The social challenges faced by farmers, their families and the entire rural communities require innovative solutions. Some of the major challenges arise from an ageing population, depopulation of rural areas and various pressures that affect family-owned farms. Farmers around the world, including in Europe, struggle with similar problems in this regard, but there are local differences in respect of the severity and specific nature of challenges related to mental wellbeing. As part of the “FARMWELL – Improving Farmers’ Wellbeing through Social Innovation” project, IRWiR PAN identified three most significant challenges surrounding farmers’ wellbeing in Poland: with regard to the availability of healthcare and social services, the access to the Internet and new technologies, as well as the issues of the generational replacement and the succession of farms from one generation to the next. The above matters are intertwined with a fourth challenge linked to social trust and cooperation among farmers.

The low level of social trust, which is a major challenge for farmers that affects all of the above areas, is part of a wider problem, namely low social capital. However, it is important to note that the issue of social trust is not evenly distributed, as the level of neighbourhood social capital is much higher in rural areas than in urban ones,

said Elwira Wilczyńska, PhD, of IRWiR PAN, during her speech.

The degree of farmers’ trust towards people they know well, i.e. family members, friends and closer acquaintances, is very high, but in relation to strangers or public institutions, such trust is either low or non-existent. As a result, farmers try to deal with problems and emergencies independently, even if public services are available,

she added.

Unfortunately, the availability of specialist psychologists is limited, especially in peripheral areas and those affected by depopulation. As a consequence, people who want or need to use the services of such professionals have difficulty reaching them. This factor negatively contributes to the growing scale of the problem.

Another challenge discussed during the conference was linked to poor digital competence of older generations of farmers as well as their low awareness of Internet-related risks. Elwira Wilczyńska, PhD, pointed out that despite its positive aspects, the use of the Internet leads to limited interpersonal initiatives (including meetings of all kind), which in turn increases the degree of isolation of the older generation from the rest of society. Younger people running farms recognise the benefits of new technologies and highlight the low availability of service technicians who are essential in the event of equipment breakdowns in rural areas. Greater availability of such services is crucial primarily because of the need to both minimise the downtime of machinery and equipment as well as limit the resulting losses.

Intergenerational relations and succession are of great importance in the case of family farms, especially due to a strong emotional charge. In this respect, the farming community has to face global trends such as declining fertility rates, rural depopulation and poor availability of services. Farmers are forced to compete with large agri-food operators and businesses – highly productive and rich in capital. In addition, farmers constantly struggle with adversities such as extreme weather events, animal diseases or strong fluctuations in agricultural prices. Another problem is associated with numerous, ever-changing legal and administrative requirements (excess bureaucracy), which result from several cumulative factors, including the war in Ukraine, a sharp increase in production costs or the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. The necessity to adapt to the European Union’s regulatory framework related to the implementation of the European Green Deal is also a significant factor in this regard. What is more, agricultural work is highly demanding in terms of time and physical effort, does not guarantee adequate rest, time off or holidays and involves a considerable risk of work-related accidents and occupational diseases associated with farming. All that contributes to the reluctance of young people to choose a life on a farm.

The perspective of farmers was presented by Anna and Łukasz Haase – owners of a 300-hectare farm, who have been managing a 2,000-hectare family farm for over 10 years. It specialises in crop production and is run under a sustainable agriculture system based on regenerative practices.

We never know how much we will produce and at what price we will sell. Even though we try to do our job as well as possible, it always involves a considerable amount of uncertainty. We invest a lot of money, and bad weather is all it would take to lose our entire investment,

said Łukasz Haase.

We also try to deal with climate change, for example by switching to a more sustainable production model. Unfortunately, we have no control over crop prices or input costs. This pressure lasts all year round.

According to this duo of farm owners, it would be beneficial to develop regulations aimed at protecting farms against worsening climate phenomena, e.g. the increasing incidence of drought. The current agricultural insurance system is structured in such a way that the conditions of insurance are not precisely defined, making it very difficult to receive a payout. In addition, the waiting time for a visit from an insurance commission is so long that farmers often have no choice but to undertake agro‑technical measures on the affected field before the commission’s arrival.

In the event of, for example, a hailstorm, we usually want to harvest and save whatever remains on the field, but we have to wait for the assessors, which often takes long time even though they should arrive immediately,

emphasised Anna and Łukasz Haase.

It is up to a farmer to decide whether to salvage the undamaged crops from the field. This creates a great deal of uncertainty. The increasing frequency of such adverse weather events calls for systemic solutions.

A solution that facilitates responding to climate-related challenges is farming under the sustainable agriculture model, including the use of regenerative practices. As Anna and Łukasz Haase pointed out, adhering to the current model, e.g. buying additional stock of fertiliser without analysing the actual demand, would not yield the expected results. Production under the sustainable model becomes more profitable, as it allows to minimise costs. Thanks to regenerative practices, the farm owners have also started to manage water and optimise its use, thus ensuring the highest possible quality of the soil. According to them, this is the only chance for farmers both in Poland as well as in other European countries to maintain their businesses and keep production at the right level.

One of the challenges in agriculture is the issue of farm succession. This is influenced by not only demographic factors, but also economic ones – the income and living conditions of a given farmer and his/her family. Young farmers play a key role also in terms of agricultural innovation.

Problems concerning succession depend on many factors, such as the size of a farm and whether it is intra‑urban or peripheral. In the case of a large and thriving farm, finding a successor is rarely difficult, as it is usually possible to find someone who is willing to work on such a farm. The problem arises when it comes to transferring capital, as this process involves another challenge related to the instability of the law,

said Anna Haase.

The regulations introduced by a family foundation established some time ago in response to this issue have been changed and are no longer favourable to farmers, which further adds to the problem of their low level of trust in public institutions. Farmers who had requested creation of such foundations have now opted out of this idea. That entire situation illustrates the instability of the law,

she added.

Small farms generally do not experience any difficulties with the transfer of capital, but instead struggle to find successors, as not many people want to work there due to economic reasons. In the rural areas, there is also the phenomenon of the so-called “apparent succession”, whereby a farm is formally and physically handed over to a younger generation, but the most important decisions are left in the hands of the seniors. This situation often results from strong attachment of older farmers to the land. Their entire life revolves around the farm – working on it is their priority to such an extent that they never go on holiday. In addition, owning land gives them a sense of security. Therefore, such farmers tend to lose the meaning of life as soon as their land is passed to the next generation. What is more, this issue also affects younger people who take over farms. As seniors continue to make decisions despite the formal handover, their successors lose the sense of agency and suffer from occupational burnout. Generational differences are also noticeable in the attitudes of the young, who prefer to move to a city, where they can find work and suitable living conditions without having to endure the hardships of farming.

Farming requires a lot of work. However, running a farm under a family model increases the chance for a farmer to find a substitution. This applies especially to farms with livestock, where farmers need to be present on-site to look after animals. In such a situation, when a farm is managed jointly with several other families, it is much easier to find a temporary replacement and, for example, go on holiday. We are the first generation to do so, as our parents still find it difficult to leave their farm and go away to relax,

noted Łukasz Haase.

We also try to make the most of the Christmas period, which involves relatively less agricultural work. We shut down the business before Christmas Eve and do not resume work until after the first week of January. Another example is having free Saturdays, which we have been able to carve out for ourselves. This has a positive effect on the wellbeing of both farm owners and workers. Introducing such changes in terms of farm management makes it possible to minimise the risk of depression among people working in agriculture,

he stated.

Running a farm in a family model allows farmers to easily stand in for each other, which not only gives owners the opportunity to go on holiday, but also brings economic benefits. In addition, having a single machinery park and a shared storage base helps reduce costs and increase profitability. However, there is also a downside – professional cooperation with family may lead to work-related problems being brought into one’s home. The solution adopted by the Haase family in this respect is to locate their house at a considerable distance from the farm. This enables them to separate work issues and family matters – at least to some extent.

And how does the situation of farmers look in other European countries? The answer to this question was provided by Carolien Spaans, Agricultural Counsellor at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Warsaw.

The Netherlands is currently facing a number of challenges in the field of agriculture. One of them is associated with nitrogen policy, which means that we need to make the transition to a much more sustainable agricultural model,

said Carolien Spaans.

The shift towards sustainable farming also involves increasing the role of women in agriculture, as they are more innovative and change-oriented than men. This is one of the reasons why the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture has a dedicated women’s group aimed at further empowering women in agriculture and bringing about the change needed to strengthen their position within that sector.

The Ministry of Agriculture also directly supports and funds various women’s groups, e.g. the “Food and Women”. What is more, the Dutch agricultural association comprises a dedicated team of women whose tasks include organising leadership workshops and training courses for women.

We are also engaged in raising men’s awareness of how much the agricultural sector is dominated by a male perspective. This can be observed, for example, in job advertisements, where both the language itself as well as the hiring criteria are tailored to the expectations of men rather than women. Another issue is the succession on farms, which are most often formally owned by a husband alone and not jointly, i.e. by both spouses. This is because farms have traditionally been inherited by sons, not daughters,

added Carolien Spaans.

Agricultural sector in the Netherlands has to deal with similar problems in terms of mental wellbeing as other European countries, including Poland. The main challenge is to encourage farmers to openly talk about matters such as wellbeing or occupational burnout as well as the general psychological condition of each individual. This is also one of the goals of the Agro Woman initiative. Additionally, it is necessary to raise the awareness among people in each farmer’s surroundings so that such individuals can learn how to read the signals indicating the mental state of farmers and how to properly support them and react in a given situation.

The conference was concluded with a panel discussion featuring:

  • Anna Borys, Corporate Relations Director at McDonald’s Poland, coach;
  • Łukasz Haase, farmer;
  • Michał Krysiak PhD, psychotherapist, Agriculture Sustainability Manager at Bayer Sp. z o.o.;
  • Carolien Spaans, Agricultural Counsellor at the Embassy of the Netherlands in Warsaw;
  • Monika Stanny PhD DSc, Director of the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development of the Polish Academy of Sciences;
  • Karolina Tarnawska, Vice-President of the Board of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture & Food in Poland;
  • Małgorzata Bojańczyk, Director of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture & Food in Poland, moderator.

Monika Stanny PhD DSc summed up the scientific perspective on the problem of farmers’ mental wellbeing.

A sustainable and healthy food system depends on the quality of life of farmers, which means that their social, psychological and physical wellbeing needs to be properly balanced. Unfortunately, the issue of wellbeing in the agricultural sector is very poorly researched in Central and Eastern Europe, mainly due to the very nature of this phenomenon, she said. Gathering information about this matter involves gaining the trust of the people covered by such research, which is a difficult task that requires both time and the selection of appropriate methods and tools. In order to solve the problem related to wellbeing, it is necessary to integrate many areas into one systemic approach based on different policies aimed at supporting farmers.

Anna Borys emphasised the importance of addressing the topic of climate change and the associated public expectation for farmers to make the transition to sustainable production. It is essential that businesses support farmers in this regard and thus make it easier to carry out such a transition.

Handling challenges linked to wellbeing can be facilitated by the improvement of managerial and leadership competencies. This, in turn, is supported by instruments such as the Academy or the Sustainable Agriculture Guide, both developed by the Association, as well as audits and company codes. Meanwhile, the long-term partnership between business and farmers contributes to reducing the level of uncertainty. In Poland, there are some farms with which we have cooperated for 28 years,

she stated.

Michał Krysiak, PhD, talked about the psychological aspects that affect farmers. They suffer from a great deal of loneliness in the face of a multitude of daily decisions, which translates to both physical and psychological exhaustion. The high intensity of such emotions leads to problems such as occupational burnout, depression and anxiety disorders.

These problems are experienced by farmers all over the world. Solutions such as digital agriculture, which ensures increased predictability in agricultural production, or new varieties of crop plants with higher resilience to weather variability, can be of great help in this respect,

he said.

It is also important to normalise conversations about mental wellbeing so that anyone who needs support can receive it much more easily.

During the panel discussion, Karolina Tarnawska announced further activities which will be directed at the farming community as part of the Agro Woman initiative.

As the Association, we intend to launch a dedicated mentoring programme for female farmers. We are still in the process of shaping the programme so that it not only takes into account the expectations of women from rural areas, e.g. in regard to commuting, but also offers the possibility of participate in meetings online, which may be a more convenient solution with respect to fostering open discussions with mentors,

she said.

The discussion was wrapped up by Łukasz Haase.

Above all, a farm has to generate income, as farmers and their families live off such money. The second, equally important, issue is to ensure food production. Farmers have many decisions to make, which involves significant pressure and stress. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the major changes currently taking place in the agricultural sector. As a result, farmers are never sure whether they have made the right decision, he said. Agriculture used to be more predictable than it is today, which translates into an increased level of stress. To a certain extent, stability is introduced by contract farming, which enables more efficient planning based on agreements with crop buyers. Similarly, new technologies allow us, for example, to improve planning and monitoring of the crop life cycle or make better decisions thanks to data from weather stations. Initiatives aimed at women are also crucial because people are so focused on work that they have fewer opportunities to talk and simply cannot find the time to exchange knowledge or have a conversation,

he added.

The agricultural transition towards sustainability involves not only changes with regard to agronomic practices or the production model, but also social aspects. Agricultural production has to be profitable for farmers, but it should also respond to the expectations of different groups of consumers, including women. By means of the Agro Woman initiative, the Association for Sustainable Agriculture & Food in Poland has undertaken to support women and promote their role so as to ensure that a career in agriculture is attractive to them, gives them satisfaction, provides the opportunity to fulfil their ambitions and brings economic results that are appropriate in terms of each person’s competencies and level of commitment. Currently, the Association focuses on launching the mentoring programme for women in the food production sector – as part of the Agro Woman initiative.

The “Psychological Wellbeing of Farmers – the Perspective of Agricultural Producers, Science and Business” conference made it clear that in order to properly develop tools to support the fulfilment of all the abovementioned goals, there is a need for:

  • the broadening of knowledge through research on mental health among farmers;
  • additional systemic solutions and funding, including greater availability of services in rural areas;
  • tools supporting women, e.g. a mentoring programme or training platforms;
  • transfer of knowledge to young people who are starting a career in farm management, including the dissemination of wellbeing-related knowledge in trade schools and universities;
  • good risk management on farms and diversification of production;
  • cooperation between crop buyers and suppliers;
  • involvement of both industry and general media in promoting the topic of psychological wellbeing so that it stops being regarded as taboo among the rural community.

Agriculture consists not only of land and crops but first and foremost – of people. Only mindfulness towards persons involved in farm management and the conscious recognition of the value of their work will give us the opportunity to fully grasp the challenges faced by farmers. The good mental wellbeing of male and female farmers is an essential element of the sustainable agriculture model, based on cooperation, understanding and openness,

concluded Małgorzata Bojańczyk, Director of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture & Food in Poland.

Agro Woman, an initiative of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture & Food in Poland, aims to not only establish a platform for women to share their experiences and stories, but also create a space for discussion about innovation, management, the role of sustainability in agriculture as well as the challenges of the future. The initiative’s substantive patron is the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development of the Polish Academy of Sciences.