Angus Woods: Off-farm social activities are key to warding off the mental and physical dangers of isolation

We are very lucky to live in a very scenic and accessible part of the country here in Wicklow.

We have the mountains on one side, the sea on the other and Dublin is less than an hour away.

This gives us great opportunities for non-agricultural interests, but many of us farmers can be slow to use the activities available to us.

We have rented land on the Roundwood road, which is a hive of activity every weekend, with groups of cyclists heading up into the mountains for a ride.

Since they cycle two or three abreast on the roads, many road users tend to get a little frustrated and annoyed. I do not know. In fact, I admire them. The idea that they meet regularly to cycle up mountains, stop for tea or soup and enjoy each other’s company in a positive and active environment is something I admire.

Farming can be lonely and farmers can feel isolated while trying to cope with all the challenges we face on a daily basis. Many farmers do not see anyone all day once their family leaves for school and/or work each day.

Isolation can be dangerous, physically in the event of an accident and mentally by having too much time to think about potential problems.

There are many farms across the country that 20 years ago had at least one “worker” or the next generation working there, but now don’t, leaving the farmer to do everything by himself. The presence of the worker gave the farmer time to attend meetings and social events during the day, knowing that he did not have to deal with a mountain of work that evening when returning home .

Covid and the many lockdowns have left many farmers feeling cut off from society. Even funerals in the countryside are nothing like they were socially in pre-Covid times.

I have always had an interest away from agriculture. When I returned home to start farming in the early 90s, I quickly realized after a few trips to the market that I needed something positive and non-farm in my week. I took up the sport of rowing again and no matter how tough a week I had on the farm, once seated in the boat the only thing that mattered for the next moment was how fast the boat was advancing.

Farm life can be exhausting if we let it. I find that I work more efficiently and productively on the farm when I have to go somewhere else after work. Likewise, some jobs can take forever if there is no deadline to complete the evening.

The reality is that non-family help is, and will continue to be, increasingly difficult to find. In the past six months, two of our local agribusinesses have decided to take early retirement, and David Sheane, who was brilliant at repairing anything metal or steel, while building race cars , sadly passed away.

Now that calving, lambing and sowing are complete, I am really looking forward to renewing friendships and taking on new challenges. The worst of the Covid lockdowns didn’t affect life on the farm, but life off the farm has changed.

The reluctance to meet others still holds people back, as does the simple habit of being away from the farm for an hour or two.

A trip to the market (or discussion group) doesn’t really count. Even though you can chat and dine, ultimately it’s still part of the job and it’s likely that you’ll only converse with other farmers there, possibly reinforcing everyone’s personal view of the world (and how everyone has it for us farmers!).

I always love meeting non-farmers and hearing their views on farming, farmers and everything else. With the current debate on the environment and food production, it’s always good to get a sense of what non-farmers are thinking and maybe present a different point of view, without the need for rage and the polarization of Twitter or Facebook.

Few farmers spend time listening to consumers and their thoughts on food and food production. In fact, many farmers rarely go to supermarkets to shop for food.

Despite the challenge of running a farm and the family commitments, I think the benefits of off-farm interests far outweigh the disadvantages.

As summer approaches, the opportunities to do things off the farm are increasing, but we have to seek them out. Usually this just involves a bit of local research.

We must strive to find a balance between work and play, otherwise burnout will be a major problem for many farmers, even the most financially successful.

Angus Woods is a dry cattle farmer in Co Wicklow.

Joel C. Hicks