Today, we’re looking back at the milestones we set ourselves when we started The Countrymen’s Club in September.
Silver Dreams is about pioneering new ways to help vulnerable older people. BIG told us that ‘it’s all about learning’, so it’s really important to take stock of what has happened over the first six months of what will be an 18-month project.
A countryside conundrum
We face exceptionally tough challenges to reach out to older rural men who we know have many needs that remain unmet. Building meaningful and trustworthy partnerships between The Countrymen’s Club, referral partners and the men themselves was always going to be difficult in the time available. We’ve presented at many community events, had articles in the local press and in parish magazines, and produced bi-monthly newsletters to keep everyone up-to-date.
For those men who have joined the Club, and we have 16 active members at present, we have quickly seen the benefits of our care farming approach on their wellbeing. The countrymen have reported that coming to the club is important to them because they are able to make new friends, get some exercise, and reminisce about the past. It gives them something not only to look forward to, but also discuss afterwards.
But 16 members is around half the number we were hoping to have at this point in the project. So where are all the countrymen?
First off, we have a further 14 older men waiting in the wings while we unravel the difficulties surrounding rural transport. This was always going to be a hurdle and it is fair to say that we have not quite got over it yet. We have been working with our partners RABI and POPP to develop ways to get countrymen to the farm and there is some potential funding for transport available to those with limited resources. We are also trying to develop a route with North Dorset Community Accessible Transport, but we need a certain number of men available on a predetermined route, and they need to come most weeks. With some countrymen finding it hard to make it each week due to health problems and other commitments, this is still a challenge. We have also advertised for volunteer drivers but have not had success with this yet!
Secondly, we are meeting men with much more complex needs than we anticipated. For instance, some of the countrymen have mobility issues and whilst this certainly does not prevent them from getting about the farm, it does mean that our ratio of countrymen to staff is lower than we thought it might be.
The harsh lives of the forgotten rural poor
So read a headline in The Observer a fortnight ago. Now, we’re no journalists and we don’t always have the gift of the gab, so we’ll let Mr Tobias Jones have a few words:
It’s hard to imagine a time in which it’s been tougher to live in the countryside. It’s not just a question of the usual complaints: that access to services – transport, hospitals, schools, even mobile phone coverage or broadband – is patchy. It’s not just the fact that the countryside is suddenly vulnerable to all sorts of diseases: to ash dieback, to bovine TB and the Schmallenberg virus. It’s that there’s acute poverty in rural areas and it’s a poverty that is seemingly invisible.
At least one-quarter of all farming families live on or below the official poverty line and, as the Observer reports today, many endured a rough 2012. The levels of borrowing that farmers require in order to run their businesses is mind-boggling; it’s not uncommon for farmers to have debts well into six figures. The cost of animal feed seems to rise exponentially each year (an almost 40% increase in the two years I’ve been breeding pigs). The weather means many of us grew nothing other than a bumper crop of slugs last year, while the paperwork required for livestock is byzantine.
This may be true of many farmers, but Mr Jones then gets to one of the most important issues that we are dealing with first hand: rural isolation and the disconnect between the older and younger generations:
Farming used to be a communal activity, involving dozens of people sharing the highs and lows. Now, it can often be a lonely, isolated career. Farmers are often proud, private and practical people; their instinct is that an animal in distress should be put out of its misery. Little wonder that suicide rates among them are some of the highest in the country.
There are many areas of the rural economy not involved in farming. But the situation there is, if anything, even more stark. Whole villages and towns are disconnected from the land that surrounds them. I frequently meet schoolchildren in my small town in Somerset who don’t know that eggs come from chickens. When rustic knowledge has been so eroded, the classic consolations of the countryside disappear and people no longer forage for food or fuel. (Most housing estates don’t have open fires, let alone woodburners.)
He paints a harsh reality, but one that makes us even more determined to develop and extend our reach to those who remain very isolated.