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Farmer calls to debt helpline soar as crisis in dairy sector forces them to new breaking point

By Noel McAdam

Published 24/08/2015

Dairy farmers across Northern Ireland have been hit by a global fall in the price paid for milk and milk products
Dairy farmers across Northern Ireland have been hit by a global fall in the price paid for milk and milk products

Distress calls from debt-hit farmers in Northern Ireland are reaching a new high, figures have revealed.

An organisation set up to help farming families in crisis has disclosed calls about financial concerns have increased by a fifth.

Rural Support also said more than half the total calls it is receiving are to do with debt - around 56%.

The group, which was set up more than a decade ago, says it is worried the current crisis hitting dairy and other sectors could force the level of calls still higher.

Chief executive Jude McCann said: "This is reflective of the current pressures and stresses which farmers and farm families are experiencing at this time.

"We are extremely concerned about the impact of the current situation on farmers' health."

The organisation said farming is often portrayed as an idyllic lifestyle of farmers out in the fields in sunny weather tending to their livestock and crops.

Mr McCann said: "But as every farmer knows the reality can be very different. Working long hours alone and added pressures such as increasing levels of debt, increasing paperwork, animal health issues and being dependent on factors outside of your control can often lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety.

"Things can quickly take a turn for the worse and when they do, farmers need someone who will be there to help them through. This is something which Rural Support has been doing for the past 13 years through its listening, guiding and connecting ethos."

Set up in 2002 as a response to the distress experienced by farmers and rural communities as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak, the charity has a network of volunteers working across the whole of the region.

Rural Support says it offers a listening ear and, if the caller wishes, face-to-face meetings on the farm can also be arranged.

"We at Rural Support have noticed a significant increase in the number of calls to the helpline regarding financial difficulties and worries about debt," Mr McCann added.

"Rural Support has experienced a significant rise in the number of calls to its helpline regarding financial concerns. Currently 56% of calls are from individuals experiencing farm financial worries and concerns about debt.

"This is an increase of almost 20% over the last year who are experiencing financial stress. If prices don't improve and with many farmers working at a loss Rural Support is concerned that this number will again increase.

"We want to remind farmers that Rural Support Finance mentors and volunteers are available to listen, discuss options and provide confidential support on any issues that you may be facing."

The organisation decided to issue its statement after the crisis in the dairy industry created repeated headline news in recent weeks.

"It is a very challenging and stressful time for farmers and their families. With global and economic factors, outside of the control of farmers and prolonged low prices, it is a very frustrating time and - with little sign of improvement - many farmers are worried about their future," the statement added.

"Some farmers are increasingly worried about the prospect of losing their farm as it is something that has been built up over many years and usually handed down through generations.

"The farm is not only their livelihood but also their home, it is very difficult to just walk away."

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