The big thing that Jeremy Clarkson got wrong in Clarkson’s Farm

Our agricultural columnist Agromenes is impressed with how Jeremy Clarkson has shed light on modern farming — but there is one glaring omission that he can't forgive.

The farmer sits in the air-conditioned cab of his tractor, equipped with every modern convenience and with power-steering making his job manually undemanding. Yet he is alone. The easy familiarity of farmer and farmworker has gone, because 300 acres can only yield a living if he does almost everything himself.

It’s this element that even Jeremy Clarkson hasn’t captured. His remarkable depiction of the realities of agriculture, of the weather, the determination of sheep to die and of cows to refuse to be herded, the bureaucracy, form filling and obstinacy of local planning committees — all these are as true to life here as on every farm in the land.

Yet Mr Clarkson is seldom alone. The land agent, Kaleb, the incomprehensible dry-stone waller and Mr Clarkson’s ever-patient girlfriend are all part of the dramatis personae. It isn’t like that for most farmers. Wives are out at work to make up the family income as their husbands drive the tractor, ploughing their furrows and trying to work out how to make ends meet in a world that is changing more quickly than any rural generation has ever faced before.

The tough camaraderie of farms before mechanisation may have been hard and manually much more demanding, but people did the work together. Seed time and harvest were only possible when teams set to and planted the crops, cut the hay or brought in the grain. Haystacks and stooks, sheaves and bales — these were the result of corporate activity, not of one man on his own with a machine.

“On our own for long periods destroys our sense of proportion and makes us prey to every kind of concern. It’s 4am desolation extended throughout the day”

This is the unnatural way in which we farm today. No longer a corporate effort, but, for many, an isolated enterprise with too much time to dwell on the problems of an industry where debt, cash flow and uncertainty can so easily dominate. The effect on mental health is all too obvious. In 2019–20, 133 people in the farming industry took their own lives. In advanced nations, that’s more than double the average for other occupations. It’s easy to blame the Government, the end of production support or the complex proposals to pay public money for public goods. They add to the stress, but the heart of the matter is loneliness. Human beings are not supposed to operate on our own. We are gregarious animals: we hunt in packs, we work in gangs and we socialise.

The pandemic should have taught us how stressful is a life led without others. Lockdown was a destructive affair for so many, particularly the young and the old. Being on our own for long periods destroys our sense of proportion and makes us prey to every kind of concern. It’s 4am desolation extended throughout the day. No wonder that, 1,500 years ago, St Benedict reached out to solitary hermits and taught them to live in a community. He saw how rarely it is possible to lead even the most dedicated life in a solitary state.

Most of us have none of the consolations that uphold the hermit. The realities of life need to be faced in company and it’s a hard lesson for farmers to learn. The nature of the job and the expectation of others makes confession of weakness incredibly difficult. Indeed, it has to be others that make this possible at all.

Farming Community Network, the Samaritans and Rural Support Helpline all agree that intervention needs to come from family and friends who must recognise the vulnerability and break into the isolation. Being willing to watch for the signs of depression and not fearing to ask may well save a life.