Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution

Talk at St James Colwall, Harvest Festival 2016

To hear the talk as you read:

I am a farmer’s daughter from the Shropshire borders and I am also regional manager for the RABI in the West Midlands area. So I make absolutely no apologies for spending the next few minutes talking mainly about farmers and farming, as when we are celebrating and being thankful for the harvest, I strongly believe that they have a bit of a part in it.  

So let’s start off by putting that into a bit of context – you might need a solicitor 3 times in your life, or the doctor or dentist 3 times in a year, you should probably check your smoke alarm 3 times a month, but we all need a farmer 3 times a day.  This is worth bearing in mind when you are stuck behind a tractor, wondering if it could possibly go any slower.  That farmer is not only feeding and caring for his livestock, he is also feeding and caring for us, and being caretaker for our land.  In the abundant West we are very fortunate and our daily routine revolves around mealtimes and with it our dependency on the farmer. Our social lives also revolve around food – when we meet up with friends it’s for a meal and we invite the family around for Sunday lunch, and don’t let’s get started on Christmas just yet!  So whether it is for the milk we pour on our cereals at breakfast, the sandwiches we eat for lunch or our delicious Sunday roasts, we depend on farmers to make our days tick.  They also help to keep our spirits up – if you know what I mean - who grows the apples for your cider, or the barley for your pint of beer?

But every now and then, everyone’s spirits can be tested.

There is a television programme entitled ‘Escape to the Country’. To many this is their ideal – beautiful landscapes, unhurried life and more. However for those who live and work in the countryside, life can be very different. There are the same pressures of modern life but often in a more isolated state and pleas for help and assistance can go by, unheard.

That is why the work of our rural charities is so important. It was concern over poverty in the farming community that led an Essex farmer to found the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) in 1860. In 1859 he wrote to The Times to rally support to form the institution and to seek funds to distribute to people in need. Queen Victoria was RABI’s first patron and succeeding monarchs followed suit.

The RABI is always there to support farming families when times are tough, not just during a crisis like the flooding we saw in the North West last year.  It could be said that farmers face very unique problems, but they also face the same as everyone else.  They have accidents and illness; they suffer bereavement and losses from actions beyond their control just like the rest of us.  And it is then that the RABI are able to step in and help and support in a wide variety of ways, including food vouchers, yes you heard me correctly, food vouchers; we give food vouchers to those who spend their days feeding us.  A recent government statistic estimated that around a quarter of farming families live on or below the officially recognised poverty line.  We give out grants totalling in excess of £2m each year to farming families, both working and retired.  You may not have heard of us and don’t worry, we are very aware that the farming community is a very proud one and all our work is confidential.

We are not here to pay for farm business costs and assist people staying in a business that isn’t viable, but to make sure that people don’t struggle to meet a decent standard of living

So whilst RABI generally does not help with business debts, we can provide assistance with domestic expenses such as fuel and utility bills. We may also be able to assist with costs of furniture and white goods, disability adaptions in the home, temporary farm help and training grants.

If I may, I want to mention quickly a couple of examples...

We are finding helping more working farmers, as well as those who used to earn their living from the land:

The first example is a farmer who had already had 2 strokes, now suffering from cancer and with his cattle on movement restriction due to TB.  We paid domestic bills, applied for state benefits, paid for an occupational therapist’s assessment (NHS waiting list too long) and we have just ordered a special adjustable bed for him, which will be paid for on delivery.   

Another example is help for a young couple in their twenties, the husband a self-employed farm worker.  Both were dyslexic and struggled to cope with paperwork for the business.  He had got behind with paperwork and debts were building up.  His wife was unable to work due to a severe and recurring illness.  She then gave birth to premature twins. RABI provided grants to help with the cost of travelling to hospital on a daily basis, and for household bills needed due to loss of earnings while unable to work.  Our Regional Welfare Officer helped with applications for state benefits and tax credits and referred them to a free debt advice agency.  

RABI gave out over £36,000 to farmers in Herefordshire last year. But as already implied, much of our work does not involve simply giving out grants. It can be help filling out forms, accessing state benefits, liaising with the Rural Payments Agency to help with BPS payments and referring to specialists for business consultancy advice so this figure is not a true reflection on all that we do.

There will be many farming people out there, who perhaps are not aware of us, or maybe they have heard of RABI but they don’t know what we do. Or maybe they know what we do but they wouldn’t dream of picking up the phone to ask for help.

So encouragement from people in the community is very important. You are some of the eyes and ears, out there in the rural community. Farmers are a funny old bunch, I hope can say that as I’m bred from generations of farmers. They don’t ask for much in terms of standard of living. The needs of their animals are often prioritised above personal needs. Farming is not just a job, it’s a way of life and often farmers don’t know anything different. Many of our beneficiaries would never have imagined that they would need our support. But you never know what life may throw at you next.

You can give them a nudge, or make an enquiry on their behalf. The chances are, we might be able to help. And you know what they say … If you don’t ask you don’t get.

So during this thanksgiving of harvest, remember we are not only thankful for the food – but also for those who produce it. We are thankful for the privilege of living and working alongside the farming community, who work so hard to both sustain God’s creation and provide food for the country.

Again thank you all so much for your support of this event today. We are so very lucky to have such wonderful support from within the rural community, which enables our work to continue.