Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Farm Safety: Discussion

Ms Norma Rohan:

Good evening everyone. I thank the committee for inviting us to be here this evening.

This evening's topic for discussion in the committee is farm safety and I will begin by telling members about how and why Embrace FARM was founded, and this involves telling our story.

I am from west Limerick. I come from a large family of eight children and grew up in a small house with my siblings, parents and my father's brother and sister. It was a typical Irish extended farm family. Ten years ago, I met and married a pedigree Holstein dairy farmer. As farms do not move, I now find myself living in lovely Laois. As newlyweds we were in our own little happy bubble, we were renovating the old farmhouse and I found myself pregnant with our first child very quickly. We were happy out on our journey and welcoming the start of our own little family. Our daughter, Julie was born, and life could not have been any better at that stage. We were navigating our way through having a newborn child, but all was good. I arrived home from hospital on a Sunday, it was Father's Day and Brian’s birthday. Two days later, that happy little bubble was shattered into smithereens on our family farm. Brian’s dad Liam, a champion ploughman and community activist, was involved in an accident on our farm. He was rushed to hospital and placed on life support. Those machines were switched off three days later. That began our journey into trauma and grief.

For me personally, to have no control over that journey was something I found very difficult because my everyday life was now consumed by my husband's grief and his family's grief. Brian wanted to be strong, to be the fixer in the family and to take on his father’s role, but he was obviously hurting and in shock. He blamed himself for what had happened on our farm, as he was not with his father at the time of the accident. "If only..." and "Why didn’t I..." and "Why didn't he..." were a common theme and a common conversation in those days. We coasted along, keeping our heads above water emotionally, trying to deal with something neither of us had ever been through before.

It was a true test in the early days of our marriage.

Our neighbours and extended family were the best to help, particularly as they are in all farming communities. They milked our cows and did bits around the farm, but eventually they had to go back to their own lives. Approximately 18 months later, we started to look for outside support that was specific to farming, but there was none to be found. After many conversations, we decided to set up our own charity, Embrace FARM, which provides a support network to those affected by farm accidents and supports both the bereaved families and survivors of farm accidents.

The HSA can provide statistics on how many people die each year on our farms and give the breakdown on the cause of death. Embrace FARM talks about the people behind those statistics. We put a person to each one of those numbers and speak about the true toll of the devastation caused. These farmers are more than just a number; they each leave a legacy behind them, none more so than to their families.

I would like to tell the committee about some of the people we encounter in Embrace FARM. We meet women, at all stages of their lives, widowed and left behind to pick up the pieces, both emotionally and practically. They face legal and financial difficulties. There may be no will in place and they may not have access to the farm business bank account. They face succession issues. What does a young widow do with the farm? Older widows may have an adult child to take over, but a younger widow with young children faces the dilemma of what to do: whether to farm it, lease it or sell it. Should she hold onto it for her children? Will they want to farm it in ten or 15 years' time? There are so many questions to answer, but her husband is no longer there to help her figure it out.

On the issue of farm enterprise regulations or schemes, some widows are very familiar with the workings of daily farm life, but others are not. How do they begin to navigate the myriad of paperwork in respect of meeting deadlines for schemes, regulations to be adhered to and decisions to be made? One lady told us of how she used to see what the neighbour was at. For example, if she saw that he was spreading slurry on a particular day, she knew she needed to get that done. Another lady told us how she was fined by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for missing a deadline on a scheme that she did not even know she had to apply for. Today, we were contacted by a widow who is looking for prayers and good wishes because she is facing a farm inspection.

These women are faced with their children's grief. A mother's primary concern will be for her children and how they are coping. The trauma a child goes through in witnessing their father or sibling being killed on the family farm is something that requires specialised help to get through. In some instances, there is further family breakdown. There are opinions on what a widow should do with the farm. Her parents in-law will not be happy with her decisions and grandchildren face a further loss of contact with their grandparents because families fall out. We have seen instances of injunctions being taken out against parents-in-law. Thankfully, that is rare, but it does happen.

We encounter parents who have lost their children in traumatic circumstances. Not always, but usually, it is the dad who is operating the machinery when such accidents happen. I doubt that any of the members here today can even contemplate what the farmer goes through every day following such an incident. One dad told us of presenting at the emergency department with chest pains. After many tests had come back clear, it was obvious to all that the dad had a broken heart following the loss of his son. The guilt and sense of responsibility that these dads have are no match for any amount of judgment they may face. It is their life sentence.

We encounter adults who mourn the death of their father, the loss of their mentor and the person they worked with each day. They try to take on their father's role within the family. Sometimes it is welcomed by the other family members, and other times it is not. Even if it is welcomed, it brings an added pressure. Even if there is a will in place, there may be division in the family, as some may not be happy with the contents. All of this is stress and pressure that is added to a person's grief, while they continue to farm, meet deadlines and rush against the weather.

We encounter men, and sometimes women, who have to adapt to living each day with a life-altering disability following an accident. They need the strength to battle through the health system to have their voices heard. Many are farmers who have lost a limb or sometimes, two limbs. There is very little in the way of helping the farmer to adapt to the situation they find themselves in to be able to continue to farm. Prostheses need to be changed regularly and there is a very outdated system in respect of how often a farmer can do that through the public health system. The prosthetic is needed to enable the farmer to live as normal a life as possible and to carry on working their farm to the best of their ability. When that is not in place, frequently, the farmer has to give up the enterprise they are involved in, often since childhood. Addiction, depression and suicide ideation are common among survivors of farm accidents. Living with daily pain does take its toll. Can you imagine what phantom pain must feel like, when your brain thinks the limb is there when its not? Farmers believe themselves to be custodians of the land, who pass it from one generation to the next. For them to not be generation that can hand it on better than they got it, takes it toll on them. A farmer who survives a life-altering farm accident feels obligated to put on a brave face, just because they survived. The trauma of the accident, immediate recovery and rehabilitation not only affects the survivor, but also their spouse, children and extended family. Everyone has to adapt to a new way of living.

Embrace FARM supports all of these people who unexpectedly find themselves on a journey of loss and trauma. To help the well-being of our farm families, Embrace FARM has built a community of support in response to their needs. Embrace FARM creates a space for people to connect and share their story with people who truly understand the devastating impact a farm tragedy has. We currently support about 300 farm families in our peer-to-peer support network.

Embrace FARM has recently been successful in being awarded European innovation partnership, EIP, funding to enable us to put in place a structure of one-on-one support for farm families impacted by tragedies on our farms. This will expand our services to include other types of sudden trauma, like suspected suicide on farms, and will enable us to support more farm families. This funding is for one year and will enable us to get the work off the ground. We extend our thanks to Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and the officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for this initiative.

As a point of note, I would like to mention that Embrace FARM is a registered charity in full compliance. For the second time we have been shortlisted for the Good Governance Awards in the charity sector. We pride ourselves in the correct running of our charity to the best of our knowledge. Our annual remembrance service has been adopted by the group in Northern Ireland, which hosted its first service of remembrance on the 24 October. The Farming Community Network in the UK will host its first service of remembrance on 7 November. Up until now, Ireland was the only country to formally acknowledge the death of farmers in a national remembrance service. It has done so since 2014. Approximately 600 people attended the service this year, and during Covid times, in the region of 45,000 viewed it online. The service is also broadcast on RTÉ.

While Embrace FARM's focus is on picking up the pieces after tragedy happens on our farms rather than on farm safety preventative measures, we can talk about the impact of farm tragedies on our farms. All of the health and safety experts that we have spoken with over the years tell us there is no one silver bullet to fix farm safety. In recent years, I have noticed how the fixes are all shifting onto the behaviour of farmers. I am no health and safety expert, but I feel this is a bit unfair. While the farmers must take responsibility for their actions on the farm, they are not the entire agriculture sector, but one part of it. There are people in these Houses and in Brussels who make legislation, officials in the Departments who enact that legislation and wider groups of processors,organisations, private companies and media outlets, among many others, who are also involved in the agriculture sector. Their behaviour and our behaviour need to change.

If there is to be a cultural change in agriculture around the behaviours of farmers when it comes to farm safety, then that behaviour needs to change in the entire sector. Legislators must put the farmer first, not just the product they are producing. Without the farmer, there is no product.

We are all able to sit here today because a farmer has provided food to sustain us. Officials and processors, when doing their inspections, need to look further than just the farm gate and the operation of the enterprise. What about the farmer's well-being? The media need to stop printing images that condone unsafe practices. These are just a few things.

All of us in the agriculture sector need to change our behaviour, not just farmers. The farmer is just one person. We, the agriculture sector, need to help farmers, not just shift the blame of farm safety to them without looking at ourselves as well. Farmers are a resilient people and want to do their best for their land and animals. I know in my home, as it is in many farmhouses, the animal and the human are treated as being as important as each other. Even today, farmers face having changing regulations and climate action demands forced upon them. Farmers want to do their best, with the help of others in the sector, but they do not want to be the only ones making sacrifices and changes.

I ask members to take a minute to remember a farmer in their localities. I have no doubt each member will be able to recall someone who has lost his or her life tragically on a farm, whether through a farm accident, suicide or even a sudden medical event. I would like members to think about that person and now the person's family who are left behind to pick up the pieces. What happened to that farm family and the farm? Sometimes bad things happen after a sudden and traumatic death on a farm. These are usually driven by grief and trauma that is not being dealt with. It can take many forms, including anger, resentment, isolation, depression, substance abuse, family breakdown and suicide. It does not always end like this, of course, but for some farm families it does, and this is where Embrace FARM would like to help our farm families before things get very bad.

With me today are Mr. Brian Rohan, a dairy farmer from County Laois who is also co-founder and chairperson of our board of directors, and Ms Catherine Collins, our development manager. I thank members for their time. We welcome any questions they may have.