Mental Health in Rural Agricultural Communities
People who have chosen to work in the farming and ranching communities have a persona of being solitary, private folk. Stoic would be an appropriate definition, working from the wee early hours until sundown, with tradition and pure grit their only tools.
However, several independent developments are culminating together to create a perfect storm making life increasingly more difficult for farmers.
The median age of the US farmer is now 55, with fewer people willing to take on family run ranches or agricultural businesses. This forces growers to continue to run their productions longer until they are forced to sell family land, or maybe the operation entirely.
Additionally, prices for commodities are fewer than they’ve been in years, adding to the stress many farmers face. Milk prices are far below the cost of production. Dairy farmers are getting around $15 per hundred pounds of milk, but “hundredweight” cost approximately $22-$25 to produce. This negative cashflow is so abundant that dairy cooperative Agri-Mark recently sent out suicide hotline numbers along with the milk checks out of concern for the safety of it’s producers.
This action is not without reason, either! The New York Times ran an article last year about the astronomical increase in the rate of suicide among food producers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85 out of every 100,000 farmers (fisherman and forestry workers) are likely to commit self-inflicted death. They remark in the article that some will actually take out a life-insurance policy beforehand in a way to help their families out of foreclosure, banking on the Willy Loman course of action.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.org), the human body can take episodic stress fairly well, without much consequence. However, chronic stress (continual stress over a longer period of time), can lead to physical and psychological harm. They say that stress does not always lead to depression or suicide, however it is often a large contributing factor.
What Are People Doing to Help?
So, does all this (the lowest buying prices in years, reduced workforce replacements with no end in sight, and record numbers of farm foreclosures) mean that it’s just something that the farming community is going to just have to adjust? Is the small-family farm a thing of the past? Will we see only large-scale commercial farms as a result of these actions?
We don’t know. However, there are people fighting back.
Just this year, a coalition of farmers, ranchers, and farm workers have begun urging Congress to increase support for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.
Their letter reads:
“As you know, farming is a high-stress occupation. Financial risk, volatile markets, unpredictable weather, and heavy workloads can all place a significant strain on farmers’, ranchers’ and farmworkers’ mental and emotional well-being. This is exacerbated by the fact that 60 percent of rural residents live in areas that suffer from mental health professional shortages.”
Net farm income in 2018 was nearly 50 percent less than it was in 2013,”
And it looks like Congress is taking notice. Just last year a bi-partisan budget deal in the Senate included $1.1 billion in funding for cotton and dairy farmers to work as a safety net. This could go a long way towards relieving some of the financial stressors food producers are currently under.
In June, 2018 the Minnesota Department of Agriculture convened a forum called Building Resilient Agricultural Communities which focused on identifying challenges around stress and current of possible future mental health outreach and support among agricultural communities.
But, is it enough?
It’s a start. There are an estimated 3 million farmers in the US, and, without getting into the current international political environment, it looks like the road to hoe is going to be tough in the near future.
However, it is encouraging to see that there are groups that are noticing the hardship and taking action. With endeavors, such as Make It OK, being embraced locally, it looks like there is a movement that is at least acknowledging that there is a problem.
Are you a producer? What do you see? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to find your take on this important matter.
If you need to speak with someone, you can phone or text to any of the numbers below:
Suicide Prevention Hotline –> 1-800-273-8255
Veterans Crisis Line –> 1-800-273-8255
Teen Crisis Line –> 1-310-855-4673
The Trevor Project (LGBTQ Crisis and Suicide Hotline) –> 1-866-488-7386
Hopeline Text Service –> Text “MN” or “HopeLine” to 741741