An interesting perspective about how the NI agri food sector operates was offered by Gyles Dawson from Rural Support during an event at Balmoral Show last week.

“The agri business sector is propelled along by an engine and that engine is the farmers and farm families on the ground,” Gyles said.

“Like any engine, if you don’t maintain it and look after it then it is not going to give the output that you need it to do.

“We need to make sure there is enough resilience built into those people on the ground to keep that agri business sector propelling along,” he said.

Rural Support is involved in various initiatives with local agri businesses, including training to help their staff identify farmers who may be struggling and need support.

Gyles explained that the Boots on the Ground programme is about helping people “ask the right questions in the right way”.

“You should not be afraid to ask those pertinent questions like ‘are you thinking of taking your own life?’

“When you ask that question to someone who is thinking in that way, you are giving them permission to open up to you,” he said.


In his address, Ulster Farmers’ Union president William Irvine said farmers have always faced challenges, but he suggested “a tsunami” of issues has arisen in recent years.

“Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the pandemic has all challenged our industry hugely. Put against that, wider society wants us to answer all the environmental challenges. Agriculture can play its part with this, but we can’t do it all on our own,” he said.

Liam McCarthy from ABP said he sees succession planning as a common cause of stress for farm families.

“You would see it in farmers of a certain age. They would tell you their farm has been in the family for three or four generations, but their sons and daughters don’t want anything to do with it. Those things result in tears,” he said.

Bovine TB

Arguably the biggest issue that contributes to stress on farms is bovine TB and Downpatrick farmer Damien Tumelty offered a sobering account of a breakdown in his herd of Dexter cattle.

“In February 2022, we had a bullock that showed up in the abattoir with TB. It was a total shock to us because we had been TB free for years,” he explained.

The incident started a series of herd tests where dozens of reactors showed up each time. Eventually, DAERA gave Damien the option of full buy-out and he reluctantly agreed.

“We had 150 head of Dexter at the start and the last 60 animals went away on 7 November 2023. It wasn’t easy. It does have an effect on you.

“We had to go without any stock for four months. All winter, our yard was exceptionally quiet. Four months was a long time to think about where the future lay for our family,” Damien said.

“That’s where Rural Support came in. They came out for a visit once a week for 10 weeks. They understand exactly where you are coming from, and they have people with expertise in all areas.

“Getting farmers to avail of Rural Support is a major step because what you get back is ten-fold. The level of service was fantastic,” he said.