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  • Jac Wypler

Cultivemos: Cultivating Farmer Wellbeing in the Northeast

By Jac Wypler (they+she)

Since living through Covid-19, it’s easy to recall times when friends and family sought to relieve stress by tending to houseplants, cuddling with pets, spending time in the fresh air, and traveling to open spaces. The opportunity to connect with plants, animals, fresh air, and nature is often readily available to agriculturalists, yet people in these occupations deal with high levels of stress. Agricultural models driven by capitalism can make it difficult for farmers and farmworkers to reap the restorative benefits of stewarding land and raising food for their communities. In the Northeast, Cultivemos is a network designed to cultivate farmer well-being.

What do we know about the stress farmers and farmworkers face?

In December 2021, Morning Consult conducted a poll on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) with a sample of 2,000 rural adults ( Farmers and farmworkers in the sample named the following as impacting their mental health: weather or other factors beyond their control (82%), financial issues (80%), the state of the farm economy (80%), farm or business problems (75%), medical issues (75%), and hours of labor (73%). While this survey’s results suggest important trends, it did not include non-rural farmers or farmworkers, collect information in languages other than English, or oversample marginalized farming communities.

During the summer of 2021, Cultivemos funded six organizations in the Northeast to conduct listening sessions with farmers and farmworkers in their communities to learn about stressors supports or coping strategies, and recommendations for ongoing needs. The sessions were held in at least three different languages. The listening sessions included a total of 38 participants who ranged from 24 to 76 years old with one to 20 years of farming experience. 19 of the participants self-identified as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC). Across the listening sessions, the farmers and farmworkers most frequently named the following stressors: feeling overworked or burned out, low pay and wages, unexpected financial crises or pressures, racial issues, weather conditions, and accessing and affording health care.

It’s important to note that stressors are often exacerbated for young farmers, farmworkers, and BIPOC farmers. For example, one study found that 71% of young farmers met the criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder and 53% met the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (Rudolphi et al., 2020). Research shows large numbers of farmworkers with significant stress levels; stressors include the mobile nature of their employment, language barriers, legality and logistics related to immigration status, social isolation, and challenging working conditions. BIPOC farmers have long faced discrimination in accessing USDA programs (as evidenced by the successful Pigford and Keepseagle lawsuits against the USDA), accessing credit, and purchasing and retaining farmland. Farmers of color are more likely to rent land and operate smaller farms with less revenue, both of which can create added stress (USDA, 2018). In addition, BIPOC individuals are affected by COVID-19 at much higher rates than white people.

When stressed, farmers and farmworkers may struggle to seek and receive support. According to the Morning Consult and AFAB poll, 63% of farmers and farmworkers reported a lot or some stigma in the agricultural community around mental health and stress. In addition to stigma, farmers and farmworkers often lack any or sufficient health insurance coverage to be able to afford professional mental health support. Even with coverage or paying out of pocket, farmers and farmworkers face a shortage of providers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that 111.6 million people live in designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs). A majority of Mental HPSAs are in rural areas, with the Northeast region alone accounting for 10% of the national total.

Finally, there is no guarantee that available professionals can provide care relevant to a client’s agricultural occupation, their various entities, or their cultural backgrounds. For example, Black patients receiving support from Black practitioners find solidarity and a greater ability to be understood, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Black Psychology. Yet, Black practitioners make up 2% of psychiatrists and 4% of psychologists in the country, according to American Psychiatric Association (APA) data, and white practitioners “often misdiagnose African Americans as having more severe disorders or do not provide the same level of treatment as they do for White clients”). In this landscape, farmers and farmworkers need support and care that are accessible and relevant to their occupations, experiences, and identities.

What is the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network?

There are two pathways to Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) funding. The first is through regional funding. The 2018 Farm Bill allocated funds for farmer mental health for the first time. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded funds to each of their four regions - South, West, North Central, and Northeast- to develop a FRSAN. The regions received nearly $7.2 million over the three-year period (2020-2023) to help ensure that agricultural communities have increased options for access to supportive services where they live and where they work. NIFA funding supports a suite of services including telephone helplines, a resource clearinghouse, training programs, support groups, and professional behavioral health services.

The second pathway of FRSAN funding is at the state level. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress recognized that agriculture producers and supply chain workers were experiencing heightened stressors, so Congress also provided $28 million in funding for State Departments of Agriculture to expand and sustain stress assistance programs for folks in the agriculture workforce. This funding was for one year and 50 states or territories are actively engaged in alleviating stress for agriculturalists.

What is Cultivemos? A collaborative group of organizations received FRSAN funds in the Northeast, delivering the grant under the name Cultivemos. Cultivemos’ vision states, “We envision a future where diverse farming and ranching communities in the Northeast are seamlessly connected to accessible, culturally-competent, timely, and effective mental behavioral health care and stress assistance programs.” Cultivemos’ values include: honoring multiple perspectives, structural change, evidence and effectiveness, inclusion, farmer and farmworker informed, racial equity, sustainability (stable and resilient), transparency, and collaboration. Cultivemos’ approach to cultivating wellness includes 1) addressing structural root causes, 2) prioritizing BIPOC farmers, farmworkers, and young farmers, and 3) regranting funds.

A structural approach to farmer stress involves addressing larger systematic issues that can lead to stress such as forever chemical contamination (highly toxic fluorinated chemicals that build up in the body and never break down in the environment. Very small doses of these have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases), land access, and systematic racism. The grant focuses on communities disproportionately disempowered by these structural issues, namely farmers who identify as BIPOC, farmworkers, and young farmers. For example, BIPOC farmers and farmworkers lack opportunities to access land given that 98% of all farmland is owned by white landowners. Black farmers in particular have been dispossessed of land and systematically discriminated against by the USDA. Additionally, the Department of Labor states that “farmworkers [with a primary language other than English] … are disproportionately likely to experience workplace violations such as wage theft,” and therefore lack opportunities to access capital. Equity is central to the structural approach at Cultivemos in order to ensure that aspiring, new, and beginning farmers have the opportunity to farm; their engagement is core to a sustainable farm future.

Cultivemos aims to address structural root causes of stress – especially for BIPOC farmers, farmworkers, and young farmers – by regranting funds. Over the last two years, Cultivemos has regranted $675,000 to service providers, $117,000 to language justice, $220,000 to farmworkers and farmers, and $550,000 to grassroots projects and organizations.

A major pathway of funding to service providers and grassroots projects is through the Network’s cohorts. Within the Network, various cohorts have formed as communities of practice to connect and identify areas for collaboration. Cohorts convene service providers within 1) a geographic area within the region, 2) a community of practice, 3) a thematic agricultural area, or 4) an affinity group. Cohorts meet regularly and may propose a project to increase the capacity of service providers to address stress and mental health needs among Northeast farming communities. These funds may be used to bring speakers to the Network, work with facilitators, hire contractors, develop training, or other projects that improve mental health and wellness or address the root causes of stress in our farming communities.

What is Cultivating Resilience?

Cultivemos’ Farm Communication Cohort produces a podcast – Cultivating Resilience – this is just one example of the Network’s regranting efforts.

Farming is an amazing way of life, one that is rewarding in so many ways. Farming can also be stressful, from the physical strain to financial pressures to worry about the weather and how to sustain this work. Often, agricultural workers prioritize everything on the farm before the most important asset: themselves. Sometimes hearing stories of others who have shared this life and these struggles can be a great way to find support. Recognizing that others are also challenged – and may have found strategies to meet those challenges – often makes the burden less onerous. Cultivating Resilience uplifts stories from farmers facing challenges ranging from climate change to finances to feelings of not belonging and is available on many platforms including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

On the Cultivating Resilience podcast, farm care starts with self-care. Join Network Members Hans Hageman and Dr. Kay Megan Washington as they dive into the stories of real, independent farmers and the struggles they face every day, and how they are

overcoming them—things like family farm succession, economic burdens, and rural

isolation. Throughout the series, resources will be provided to strengthen your mental well- being during stressful and uncertain times. And a community is being built where farmers and ranchers can support each other because even the hardiest plants need the right conditions to grow. Please support your fellow farmers and the network by listening, following and liking Cultivating Resilience on your favorite platform.

To learn more about Cultivemos visit:

Side boxes:

Farmer Hotline

If you are looking for someone to talk to directly, call Farm Aid’s farmer hotline at 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243). Farm Aid’s team of hotline staff is here to listen. Hotline hours are Monday through Friday 9am-10pm ET / 6am-7pm PT.

Farmer Resource Network

The Farmer Resource Network is a free search tool that can be used to find organizations and resources that are useful for farmers, agricultural service providers, farmworkers, farm communities and farming families across the United States. Use the dropdown menus and checkboxes to easily find what you're looking for. Our media resources include publications, videos, podcasts, training courses and more.

Daughter of the Tree

At 11 years old, Sojourner Truth created an outdoor prayer house made of willows and gathered herbs in the forest along the Hudson River in New York. In a new children’s book Daughter of the Tree, Cultivemos Farmer Advisory Board Member Rev Dele opens our spiritual imagination to young Sojourner’s life in nature and how those thoughts can continue to liberate us. In bringing together nature, spirituality and justice, Rev Dele hopes that the young and the young at heart will be inspired to connect to nature and take charge of their spiritual journey like Sojourner.

As of December 2023, the Cultivemos Network consists of approximately 79 individuals from 112 organizations:

Jac is the Farmer Mental Director at National Young Farmers Coalition and serves as the Project Director for Cultivemos, the Northeast’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). Jac has worked in agriculture for a decade, most recently receiving a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their research on queer farmers in the Midwest. Jac became passionate about farmer wellness and mental health while spending time on Australian farms for research. Jac now lives on a beginning farm on Abenaki Land in southern Vermont.

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