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Tough times for farmers - many seek debt relief and therapy

Many farmers are battling with harder times now than during the recession of the 90s. A programme providing farmers access to free debt counselling and to therapy had over 100 reach out for help during just its first six weeks in operation.

Finland's farmers are plagued by poor profitability. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

Following a protest "tractor march" by farmers in Helsinki last spring, the government provided 50 million euros in emergency aid to the agricultural sector. This is far from enough, say those working with a Farmers' Social Insurance Institution (Mela) project aimed at helping farmers cope with financial pressures. On many farms, economic difficulties that have piled up for a long time are also taking a psychological toll.

Insomnia, fatigue, unpaid bills

Pirjo Ristola, who is leading the Mela project, says that the level of need for psychological help among farmers came as a surprise.

”Visits to farms resulted in a few farmers being immediately referred to therapy. Many of them have suffered from insomnia and fatigue for long periods. They have bills piled up on the table, loans in arrears, relationships tense. They have too much work, shaky finances and are too exhausted to come to grips with it all," Ristola says. 

Juha Nivala, a financial advisor with ProAgria, an organization that provides specialists and services to rural entrepreneurs, says that in many places the situation is worse than during the economic depression of the 90's.

"Even if a farmer is keeping up on loan payments, there may be hundreds of thousands of debt in bills that are not being paid. In the 90s farmers got into debt because of large investments and excessive borrowing, but now the cause of the problem is poor profitability," Nivala explains.

Nivala says that the impact on his own job has been significant. Last year, only 20 percent of his working time went into his regular job of advising families on the ins-and-outs of passing a farm business to the next generation, while 80 percent went into cases related to debt restructuring.

Agriculture in decline

Figures from Finland's Natural Resources Institute confirm that profitability has been spiralling downwards for farmers.

"The profitability of farms has declined for five consecutive years. Those raising livestock have been especially hard hit," points out the Institute's Jukka Tauriainen. And, producer prices are showing no indications of rising.

Fewer working farms also mean a shrinking safety net for farmers, who have fewer neighbours to turn to in need, a smaller local social network. Of the approximately 100,000 farms in the country 20 years ago, only around 50,000 remain. At the same time, the size of farms and the accompanying investment and economic risks have increased.

"As the number of farms decreases, farmers are increasingly alone," says Pirjo Ristola. "It pays to maintain contact with other farmers, to join associations and participate in hobbies. And, to sign up for occupational health services," adds Ristola.

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