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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Gabriel

Farmer Stress, Suicide and Support

By Elizabeth Gabriel


Mental health is often an overlooked challenge farmers face nationwide. There are a multitude of issues that contribute to farmer stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression. Farmland loss and land access challenges, rising production costs, plummeting farm incomes, and unpredictable climate and weather are a few well-known issues. Also, racism and patriarchy are far too common in the agriculture industry as a whole and are ever present on farms of all sizes, intensifying levels of stress and fear for farmers of color, women and LGBTQAI+ farmers. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic caused heightened stressors for many small and organic family farmers as supply chain problems developed, restaurant accounts halted, and cautionary practices interrupted business as usual. For a population already facing difficulties securing adequate and affordable health insurance, it’s not a surprise that suicide rates amongst farmers and ranchers are well above the national average given that mental health services are less available and accessible in rural areas - where most farmers live. And these days, the same is true Nationally, for urban residents and folks willing to do therapy remotely, therapists and counselors are booked with waitlists and, and it can be nearly impossible for people of color to find an available BIPOC therapist.

Mental health treatment and therapy still hold such a stigma, especially for the baby boomer generation, which means that help is sought usually late in the game - sometimes too late - when these conversations or support needed to happen years earlier. Ironically, Covid actually helped raise awareness about the real challenges farmers face on a daily basis. The evening news showed farmers dumping milk because it wasn’t being purchased. The scarcity of meat and other supply-chain issues that escalated during Covid (and still exist today) drew federal and state attention. We’re seeing “the conversation shifting a little,” says Kate Downes, Project Coordinator at Seven Valleys Health Coalition, formerly with NY FarmNet, “people are starting to talk more about mental and physical health together and about suicide as a whole, hopefully lessening the stigma around these topics”.


A Center for Disease Control report from 2016 suggested that suicide by farmers, foresters and fishermen (“the Triple-F” occupational group) was nearly five times that of the general population. While some errors were later found in this report (self-employed farmers, ranchers or agricultural managers were not included in the Triple-F group), the fact remains true that if the Triple-F group and managers were given their own group, they’d rank first and third in suicides in 2012 and 2015, respectively. There are a number of reasons for this high rate, Downes says, “The work is dangerous, it requires long hours, it’s hard manual work and usually unpredictable because of weather, market prices, and productivity. In most industries, you get to choose your price - not in dairy or farming in general. Farmers are operating under so much daily stress. When somebody is under stress, they are likely to make poor decisions, intentionally or unintentionally.”


In December 2020, the American Farm Bureau and Morning Consult conducted a survey of rural adults and farmers/farmworkers to explore how the pandemic affected mental health personally and in communities, and also looked at how attitudes and experiences around mental health have changed in rural and farm communities. The poll concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant negative impact on many farmers/farmworkers, with the highest suicide rates in 2020 being non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska Natives and non-Hispanic Whites. It also identified that almost half of those surveyed (1,000 of the 2,000 respondents) attach at least a fair amount of stigma to seeking treatment or help for mental health - which only exacerbates the mental health crises.


An increase of resources like the USDA Farmer Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) is seeing more people directly call about mental health and family counseling and not just financial guidance. Service providers like Black Farmer Fund, Cooperative Extension offices, NOFA, the Farm Bureau, Farm First, National Young Farmers Coalition, Farm Service Agency and Farm Credit East, just to name a few, have all become active in supporting this increased interest and need for mental health assistance.


In New York State, NY FarmNet provides services to support farmer mental health including providing stress management talks with agriculture service providers and extension agents. They also offer educational programming about farm business development and succession planning. They have family and financial consultants available for the long haul, sometimes who work with clients for years to work through a transition and they connect clients to needed groups like grief support.


NY FarmNet recently started a free Mental Health First Aid training that is open to the public and “compensates service providers such as CCE, farm bureau, ag mediation, National Young Farmer Coalition, and Black Farmers United to become trained facilitators in MHFA”, says Downes, and “helps create a baseline language for discussing farmer mental health”. NY FarmNet has not only been teaching people to understand what mental illness is, but also encouraging people to talk about it. “We’re not teaching trainees to be counselors per se,” Downes continues, “but training them to be able to talk about it and encourage others to talk about it. We know mental health greatly impacts our farming and rural communities, and silence about the topic is one of the disease's greatest threats”.


The long-time trend and approach to mental health support are to individualize the challenges people face. In the Northeast, the Farm Bill funded FRSAN grant was received by a collaborative group of organizations - National Young Farmer Coalition (Young Farmers), Northeast Farmers of Color, Migrant Clinicians Network, Farm First, Farm Aid, and University of Maine Cooperative Extension - and is known as Cultivemos. Cultivemos wants to “shift the system, rather than the person,” says Jac Wypler, Farmer Mental Health Director at Young Farmers. They continue, “For example, ‘Hey farmer, take a walk, take deep breaths’ makes the stress personal rather than recognizing the systemic nature of our society; society; the overall system is not holistic or supportive of wellbeing. It’s critical to work on solutions that are community and system-focused.” Cultivemos aims to improve behavioral health awareness, literacy, access, and outcomes for farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers by developing a service provider network that can assist and meet the unique needs of agricultural workers. Cultivemos focuses on BIPOC growers, farmworkers and young farmers because these are the groups disproportionately harmed by the structural root causes that lead to farmer stress and mental health issues, and are rarely the population supported by other service providers.




As of January 2023, the Cultivemos Network consists of approximately 91 active organizations and 153 active individual members


Peer-to-Peer Support

An effective, invaluable and affordable mental health support method for farmers and farmworkers can be peer-to-peer networks, becoming more and more prevalent as stress and anxiety heighten, as people are willing and needing to talk about challenges, and therapists and health care professionals have waitlists for new clients. There is a handful across the Northeast and these groups - some ad-hoc, self-organized or integrated with women in ag groups, but most organized by a service provider - can create a network of people with similar life experiences, similar stressors and a safe platform to listen and share.


Other networks are one-on-one like Farm First Vermont’s “Farmer Peer Network” which is now in full swing. Farmers can contact other farmers for support around stress and resources. For this network, “farmer peers” take a two-part series of paid trainings covering subjects like de-escalation, the resources available to help farmers in Vermont and how to offer nonjudgmental active listening that helps people feel heard and reduces their stress. There is currently a cohort of nine farmer peers providing active support and a second cohort will complete the training in February. Farmer peers come from all over the state and from various types of farms. An advisory board made up of farmers is helping inform the process of this program.

While service providers don’t provide medical treatment, they are essential connectors between the farmers and the specific resource they might need, whether that’s a support group, financial support, mental health therapy or something else. They have a cultural understanding of farming culture that often general mental health and social workers lack. The provider might also have a prior relationship with the farmer, leading the farmer to feel greater trust and comfort in reaching out for help.


Limitations

Most service providers work with farm owners and not farmworkers (from migrant workers to farm employees who do not own a farm). The people who usually contact them for help are farm owners and this is also who they market services to. Many service providers rarely have bilingual support on their staff continuing an all-too-common language justice issue in agriculture. While a provider could connect a farmer who needs help with translation and interpretation service, it wouldn’t be the same service as having providers who speak Spanish and languages other than English, says Karen Crowley, Manager at Farm First in Vermont.


Given 80% of psychologists, 63% of counselors and 59% of social workers are white, according to Data USA, it’s not surprising that another common limitation is that most providers are white and cultural competency levels are mixed. This creates a significant barrier to supporting farmers and farmworkers from marginalized groups - the groups who experience the largest hurdles in farming because of unequal access to land and resources and systemic and blatant racism.


In Vermont, Farm First is trying to incorporate important elements like implicit bias and other race-related topics into their peer network training. There are particular programs - and hopefully more to come - in many states specifically for Black, Indigenous and Latine farmers; the Black Farmer Fund (Northeast) and the Vermont Releaf Collective (VT) are two. Additionally, the Cornell Farmworker Program works directly with farmworkers in New York and has been able to - among other things - advocate for farmworker rights, and provide critical bilingual financial and mental health support, but this isn’t that common. Another organization, Not Our Farm, has developed amazing action-oriented resources for farm owners to better support farmworker rights, but many more are needed and dissemination of these resources must be broader. Additionally, more advocacy is needed at the State level to shift funding to get into the hands of the most marginalized farmer groups and to bridge the gap between mental health professionals, doctors and outside resources.


The farmer mental health crisis has always been serious. Today, in the context of the many other crises we are experiencing - constant downward pressure from cheap food policies, climate chaos, inequality and violence, and the disinvestment in the economies of rural towns and counties - accessible and quality mental health support that values the individual is more important than ever and is a critical baseline step that is far easier than addressing the systemic causes of these stressors.


Further Resources & Support for Farmer Mental Health and Suicide Prevention:

Organization (Region of Service)


  • Suicide Help Line - 988 (this is a new number)

  • Black Farmer Fund (NE), Rapid Response Fund, to support black farmers across the NE in emergencies; blackfarmerfund.org

  • Farmer Stress Assistance Programs (FRSAN); nifa.usda.gov/grants/programs/farm-ranch-stress-assistance-network-frsan#

  • Community Restorative Training (US), a bi-lingual stress reduction and mental wellness program designed specifically for essential workers in the Latine community; crt-eco.org

  • Farm Crisis Center (US), provides an up-to-date list of national, regional and local resources for farmers in crisis, or who need mental health support; www.farmcrisis.nfu.org/

  • Not Our Farm Zine (US); notourfarm.org/resources/

  • Cultivemos (NE); youngfarmers.org/cultivemos/

  • Be Well Farming, Cornell Small Farms Program (NE); cornellsmallfarms.org

  • FarmStrong New Hampshire (NH), part of the Cultivemos collective of mental health support providers; extension.unh.edu/farmer-stress

  • Overview of the New York Rural Health Information Hub (NY), mental health professionals in rural areas; ruralhealthinfo.org/

  • NY FarmNet (NY), nyfarmnet.org/ & free, confidential hotline: 1-800-547-3276,

  • New York State Agricultural Mediation Program (NY), solving disputes, conflict coaching; nysamp.com

  • Cornell Farmworker Program (NY), Creating Positive Workplaces: A Guidebook for Dairy Producers; cornellfarmworker.org

  • Farm First (VT); farmfirst.org

  • Vermont Agricultural Mediation Program (VT); emcenter.org/vtamp/

This list is by no means exhaustive. Please reach out to your regional NOFA office to find a mental health support provider in your state.


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