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Growing the Growers: Communication and Wellbeing on Farms

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The practical and economic challenges faced by those involved in farming are enormous. But just as important are the psychological and emotional ones, especially when working collaboratively within a group.

A move from industrial to small-scale sustainable farming typically requires significant mechanical and chemical inputs to be replaced with labouring farm workers, so the number of people required for cultivation and crop management is much higher. This means that the family farms, growing collectives, Community Supported Agriculture groups and other farming-based communities who are working to transform our food system, not only face the challenges of small-scale growing, they also face the challenge of how to sustain happy, harmonious and cooperative groups. How can we look after this most vital part of the system – the workers – and help them stay as nourished and healthy as the soil?

Alongside the practical and financial challenges of sustainable food production, family farms or communities working the land may find themselves challenged by the complicated interpersonal relationships of their increased workforce. Communication in the often close-knit groups becomes more significant for day to day operations.

On family farms this can become even more complex when deeply entrenched family dynamics come into play. Succession (the handing on of a farm to the next generation) is an issue which is often overlooked and under planned for. Regularly acting as a catalyst for serious communication breakdown, it exemplifies the fragility and importance of these relationships.

Experience shows that family or collective farming requires a great deal of collaboration and consensus. In her book Surviving and Thriving on the Land, Rebecca Laughton explores ways in which land based communities try and avoid their work being impacted upon by emotional issues. She finds that when some time is dedicated to talking about feelings, the practical aspects of the community function far better.

Some established communities, such as Steward Wood and Brithdir Mawr, hold dedicated ‘feelings’ meetings to support themselves in staying on track in their work. Permaculture teacher and author Patrick Whitefield always maintained that “a project will never fail because the land is poor, it will fail because the people will fail to get along.”

For over two years, I worked with the market garden team at Ragmans Lane Farm on this issue, facilitating a ‘peoplecare’ programme to support their emotional well-being and to build their communication, decision making and negotiation skills.

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The Ragmans market gardeners are a group of four young friends who moved to a remote rural area where they rented land and a house. Their intention was to bring a neglected two acre market garden back to productive life. The plan was to grow high value salads, vegetables and flowers for the local market. Living and working far from their social networks on a fragile new enterprise looked like an optimistic project with huge personal demands on each of them.

Having met the group through my time teaching permaculture at the farm, I offered to work with them through monthly day-long workshops, aimed at supporting them to maintain good communications and remain emotionally well. Initially the idea of giving time to this was met with some scepticism over whether it would be a worthwhile investment. Through a trial session and careful discussions we agreed that a creatively designed programme, with a permaculture approach, could be both enjoyable and provide stability as they developed the business.

We began work on active listening skills, non-violent communication and positive meeting techniques, seeking to enhance their ability to address difficult situations and navigate challenging emotions. One of the growers, Jon Goodman, explained “the sessions facilitated openness and honesty in communication, built strong empathy bridges between us and offered a space in which we could really try to understand what was going on for us.”

At times the sessions challenged the group and personalities clashed, but once conflicts were resolved, the space allowed each individual to become aware of themselves and develop empathy for each other. Natalie Baker, one of the team who moved away to get married and embark on a new phase of life in 2015, reflects that “the programme helped us to survive as friends in the business, which I’m not sure would have been possible, given our intense living situation.”

The overall benefit to the growers is that, despite having had to face some very difficult decisions and situations, they have retained healthy working and social relationships. Jon describes the programme as having led to a “greater resilience and ability to approach problems with a desire for resolution, rather than anger and blame.”

Giving time to attend to relationship dynamics can also be helpful in the complex issue of succession. Dr Matt Lobley and Dr Hannah Chiswell, researchers at Exeter University’s Centre for Rural Policy Research have carried out an in-depth study on family farm succession as part of their report The Impact of the Family Business Growth Programme. The research aimed to establish the issues surrounding succession, looking at both the internal family issues and farmers’ experiences of seeking professional support with the transition.

The research confirmed that the question of when and how the next generation will take the reins is often left unaddressed, with the hand over to the younger farmer (often in their 60s) only happening when illness or incapacity hit. Until this point, a fear of letting go of identity and of facing mortality often prevents the older farmer from opening timely communication that would allow more constructive planning for and implementation of succession. The research also showed that when farmers make the difficult, and often pride-swallowing decision to reach out to solicitors or accountants they can encounter a deeply disheartening lack of awareness of the psychological and practical impacts of the transition.

In the worst case scenario, a lack of succession planning can lead to the most calamitous breakdown in relationships and failure of the business. As was the case with this US organic dairy farm which ended in the sale of all the farm animals and a bitter ongoing feud between father and son.

However, succession need not be difficult and avoiding such painful and soul-destroying situations is certainly possible. Chiswell feels that “communication and planning – having a full family meeting, a ‘business constitutional’ is key, bringing together all the children, not just those who are hoping to run the farm, but the whole family and creating a clear plan and timeline” would support family farms in the process of succession.

The support of professional succession planners is also key, but Chiswell stresses that this only works if the family seeks it – it cannot be imposed. One idea that has come out of the research is to include succession planning in agricultural college courses, so young farmers think of it as an integral part of strategic farm planning. This may further precipitate the earlier involvement of a succession planner.

As cooperative and collective farm models proliferate and small and medium-scale family farms increase again, these businesses will need support to stay harmonious and vital. As Ben Hanslip at Ragmans comments, “a well-functioning happy group of people is fundamental to any project or community. Maintaining group health is the most important work you can do; a programme like the one we have gone through can make the difference between an unhappy, failing business and a successful, thriving enterprise.”

If you would like to find out more, Morwenna and the growers will be running a Q&A session on Saturday 7th May at Feed Bristol as part of Bristol Food Connections.

Photographs: Ragmans Market Garden

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