Q&A – Katie Major, FCN volunteer & Britain’s Fittest Farmer contestant

FCN Volunteer Katie Major has reached the final of the Farmers Weekly ‘Britain’s Fittest Farmer’ competition, which will be held later this month (17 September).

We spoke to her to find out more about her motivation to become a volunteer, how she got involved in the upcoming competition, and why physical and mental health are so closely connected.

Katie describes herself as an ‘empath by nature’, so it’s no surprise that she’s a popular and committed member of The Farming Community Network team of volunteers. Although not ‘born’ into farming, she has been drawn to the industry since she was a teenager, and the varied roles she has undertaken since have given her a solid understanding of the challenges that individuals in the agricultural community face.

Throughout her life Katie has enjoyed sport, participating at a high level in several disciplines. Taking part in Britain’s Fittest Farmer is allowing her to highlight the importance of staying physically fit and active to a wide audience, and ensuring that she puts in some miles and workouts herself in the run-up to the event in Essex on 17th September.

Q: What’s your background in agriculture?

A: I didn’t grow up on a farm, but spent my secondary school work experience placement at a local dairy farm, which sparked my love of all things agricultural. Once the placement finished, I continued to work there over weekends and holidays.

I spent 3 years studying at Harper Adams University, and since then my working life has been varied, but very much centred around farming and fitness. I spent 4 years running my own personal training and fitness consultancy, and since leaving college I’ve worked in animal feed security, dairy processing, and I’m currently loving my role as Agriculture Manager for red meat processors Dunbia.

Q: How much did you know about FCN before you considered becoming a volunteer? What made you want to get involved?

A: In October 2020 I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer. In the initial stages of trying to cope with the bereavement I remembered FCN visiting my workplace at the time to explain how they helped the farming community. It occurred to me that I now had first-hand experience of a very painful and life-changing situation, I could perhaps give something back to a community I love, and take my mind off my own troubles for a few hours each week.

Q: What do you like most about volunteering for FCN?

A:
When I started training to become a volunteer, I knew it was going to suit me because the training content and support was really flexible, and fitted around my job (back at the dairy farm) at the time.

I’m regularly the first voice anyone contacting FCN via the national helpline (03000 111 999) will hear. It’s open 365 days a year from 7am – 11pm and every single shift is different. People call to talk about all sorts of things, from financial problems to relationship problems, and often callers are phoning with concerns about a friend or neighbour.

For the most part, we are there to listen, but if our support offers the caller an opportunity to do something proactive to improve their situation, then that’s a huge win for me.

I think the appeal of the helpline, aside from callers knowing they are speaking to someone who understands the farming industry, is the anonymity. In some respects FCN works almost silently –  nobody makes a song and dance about the issues they come across, or the support they give. They simply offer a sounding board, a small bit of respite to anyone struggling or working their way through a difficult time.

In a lot of ways, volunteering is like physical exercise. It takes you out of your own world for a little while, and lifts your mood because it’s a positive act.

Q: So exercise has a positive impact on your mental health?

A: Absolutely. Physical and mental health are totally and utterly linked. I think it’s of paramount importance to keep yourself physically sound because your mental health is a reflection of your physical health.

Life in general is a lot sweeter if you’re physically and mentally fit. It builds confidence, and you’re less likely to miss out on opportunities to make your life as fulfilled as possible.

Most importantly, physical exercise relieves stress, and we all know how stressful our industry can be. People assume farmers are fit because they’re outside, jumping on and off tractors and moving animals around. That may be true – although there’s still so much paperwork to do that too many hours are spent behind a desk – but that is part of their job, and while they’re at work, the stress is always present. It’s vital to get away from the farm sometimes; spend time with different people, or take in a different view.

I haven’t exercised as much as I’d like to recently because the summer is full of shows which take up lots of preparation and long days. But now I’m back to long walks, cycling, the gym, and some home workouts, and I’m feeling the benefits.

Q: Why did you decide to enter Britain’s Fittest Farmer?

A: A friend of mine from university persuaded me. I’d watched its progress for the last few years, and liked its aspiration to make people think holistically about their health. I’m always up for a challenge, and having done a lot of sport over the years I thought it would be right up my street (which it is) but the standard is incredibly high!

Of course the £1000 prize would be most welcome!

Q: What’s your preparation for the final?

A: Just praying really! No, of course there’s quite a lot of preparation required. I got through the physical qualifying heat in June at Cotswolds Farm Park, which was tough but fun.

Next comes the interview stage, where we will discuss mental health in farming, and our suitability to become an ambassador for mental health in the industry, and I’m looking forward to an interesting, and hopefully collaborative, conversation.

The final is all about speed, power and endurance. I played rugby and rowed at a high level for several years, so I know about endurance. I wish my category was 30-40 years rather than under 40s though – I think there’s probably a big difference between my speed and that of a 19 year old! (There are 3 categories – men and women under 40 and mixed over 40s).

The challenge on the day is an assault course at Tom Kemp’s Farm Fitness gym, which is described as ‘blistering’!

Q: How important are events like this one in addressing mental health issues in the farming industry?

A: Anything that helps to highlight mental health issues and raise money to address them is vital. Perceptions are definitely changing though. Twenty years ago, mental health was a taboo subject at best, at worst derided. Young people are more open, probably as a result of mainstream media’s efforts to normalise mental health issues, and it’s important farming isn’t left behind.

Businesses and organisations are encouraging and promoting good mental health in the workplace almost as a matter of course, but farming is isolating by its very nature, making its community harder to reach.

By highlighting the connection between good physical health and mental resilience, I think Britain’s Fittest Farmer is certainly laying the foundations for a happier and healthier future and it deserves a huge amount of support. As do I, wish me luck!

The final of Britain’s Fittest Farmer takes place on 17th September 2022 at Tom Kemp’s Farm Fitness Gym in Essex. FINAL: 17 SEPTEMBER 2022, TOM KEMP’S FARM FITNESS GYM, ESSEX

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