The bravery of Claire and Julie Parsons dealing with Mental Health Issues
The trials and tribulations of agriculture can have a dramatic effect on our mental health and one Norfolk farmer knows the importance of self-care and being true to themselves.
The Parsons family has seen their business decimated in recent years due to a series of unforeseeable events, clerical errors, bureaucracy and illness. The additional pressure, on top of the long hours and lone working that we accept as part of the industry, has had a profound effect on Clive Parsons, who has undergone a transformation to, in their own words, save their life.
“It got to the point that my wife Julie was scared to leave me alone and I wouldn’t take the shotgun out to the yard because I knew that she would be terrified of what I might do,” they explained.
To cope with the stress, Clive embraced a dormant part of his personality, Claire. While they do not identify as transgender, Claire has become a major part of the Parsons’ lives – able to handle the day-to-day trials that the couple are currently facing, while also being more extroverted and confident than Clive.
“People have been very supportive,” they said. “I think they realise that this is something that makes me happy, whereas as Clive I was sinking. The pressure and stress that comes with farming is often underestimated and while I’m not suggesting that anyone simply put on a dress to solve their problems, this was the way I was able to cope.”
Julie Parsons, who has been with Clive since 2002 and is fully supportive of Claire, as well as being very hands on with the business, explained: “I came home from a holiday with friends, during one of the worst periods we were going through, and found Claire. I knew that this was something Clive had kept penned up and that accepting them like this was far better than the alternative.”
Clive, who took part in the interview as Claire and will be addressed as such from this point onwards, grew up on a 40-acre tenant farm but trained in the culinary trade. They worked as a chef for two years at East Anglia University but explained that they didn’t like being cooped up inside.
“I wanted to get outside again, so I left and used my savings to purchase a tractor and some equipment and started working on different farms in the area,” they said.
In the early-eighties, they ran a substantial baling operating, using ten conventional balers and two round balers to produce straw which was then traded across the country. This was backed up by hay production for the equine market as well as operator and tractor work for various farms in the area.
Looking back, Claire says that the long hours were taking a toll even then. “It’s something that we just accept in this industry but it’s vital to have downtime and a work/life balance. When you’re young, you feel like you’re invincible but it’s an unhealthy precedent to set,” they said.
Livestock has always played a role in the business, starting with Claire rearing cattle for other farms while they saved to establish a herd of their own. While this was gratifying, it added to the workload.
“When you’re in the middle of the potato harvest, you can spend twelve hours carting and then still have the animals to care for when you get back,” Claire noted. “You do it because you love it, but there is a lot of pressure on you.”
Claire continued to build and adapt their business throughout the eighties and nineties, eventually purchasing a five-acre plot of land on which they erected livestock buildings. In 2007, they bought 13 pedigree British White cattle to rear for beef, quickly followed by an additional 12 animals.
“I continued to work for different farms and set about building the herd. By 2015, we had 200 head of cattle, breeding our own replacements,” Claire explained.
It would be fair to say that Claire had found themselves unable to keep up with the many changes that were occurring in agriculture. Their hay and straw baling business had suffered with the uptake of large square baling, being unable to compete with the larger contractors. They’ve also found themselves unable to source the required amount of straw as larger farms and local power stations buy up the product.
In 2014, the first of a series of setbacks occurred. The farms straw pile was set ablaze in an arson attack, a loss of around £20,000 in winter feed and bedding. The fire department was called but they could not extinguish the blaze because of the risk of hot ash and debris spreading it further. Claire explained that it was at this point when they noticed a deterioration in their mental health.
“No one was brought to justice over the damage they caused and the blaze meant that we struggled to look after the cattle during the winter. We managed to secure some replacement straw but it was below the standard of what we lost,” they explained. “People mean well. They try to be positive but you don’t always want to hear ‘it will be okay’ or things like that. When you can’t see a way out, people can make it sound too easy.”
The problem was compounded in June 2015 by tragedy when a low flying helicopter – low enough to have to ascend over the cattle shed – caused the herd to panic. Thirty animals aborted their calves, while another two suffered broken legs trying to escape. Not only did this have an impact on the animal health, Claire and Julie were burdened with the cost of holding onto 20 animals for an additional six months; their distress meaning they could not be sent to the abattoir.
A claim was put into their insurance company but the cost of the event continues to be felt, made worse by a series of bureaucratic errors that has significantly impacting the day to day running of the business. “During our 2018 bovine tuberculosis tests, it came to light that four deceased animals had not been taken off our herd register following the helicopter incident. This meant that the farm was locked down, despite there being no evidence of tuberculosis,” Claire noted.
This again meant that the farm was working through its winter feed, unable to move cattle either to market, the abattoir, or to grazing ground. Claire and Julie explained that it took months to handle the situation but just a few months afterwards, in February 2019, the Rural Payments Agency banned them from moving cattle again. At one point, Claire noted that farm would run out of food within a matter of days.
Unsure of what to do next, they called the Farming Community Network (FCN), a charity and volunteer organisation dedicated to helping farming families in need. The FCN, while unable help the Parsons with the main problem, were able to arrange for feed deliveries. They, along with Yara, also provided a safe space for Claire to discuss their own feelings of depression.
Taking care of yourself
Financially, the business still finds itself in a precarious position, although both Claire and Julie have taken steps to alleviate this. “We have started cross-breeding our Whites with Herefords and Angus’ to make our stock more commercially viable,” Claire said. “We exported our beef but found ourselves in a very competitive market, especially in Japan, and struggled to meet the weight requirements in a shorter 15 month period.”
Claire also continues to work with farms in the local area, especially during the potato harvest. However, their work has been impacted by a prostate cancer diagnosis. Claire explained that this drove home how important caring for your mental health is.
“Stress and worry aggravates cancer, so while they caught it early, it was very aggressive and quickly got worse,” they said. “I ended up going through a gruelling brachytherapy procedure and 23 rounds of radiotherapy to get the cancer under control.”
Now in recovery, although still undergoing hormone therapy, Claire says that the couple are getting through each day by having a sense of humour and by being true to themselves. The side effects of the cancer treatment are gruelling and can make day to day operations difficult, sapping them of their strength. Living as Claire, they explained that they are more open and comfortable than they were as Clive, and feel more able to tackle any problems.
“I’m not saying that putting on a dress is the solution to anyone’s problems,” they said. “This is very personal to me and has helped me deal with the various things that have happened. What I want to show is that it’s okay to be open and honest about our mental health.
“That it is healthy to talk about this. There is support out there and I’ve found it through talking to Julie, who I believe I owe my life to, attending sessions with local transgender groups to help me understand what I’m feeling, and by contacting various organisations who support the farming community.”
Permission obtained from Matthew Tilt. Originally published in the January 2022 issue of Farm Contractor & Large Scale Farmer. Lewis Business Media. www.farmcontractormagazine.com