Are American farmers and ranchers enduring the worst economic slide in generations? In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted that this year, net farm income would hit its lowest point since 2006. Following this, a flurry of alarming news reports and articles were published this spring calling attention to agriculture’s silent crisis, highlighting the rising suicide rate within the industry, almost all of them citing a 2012 occupational group study from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
The study showed that the farming, fishing and forestry group had a suicide rate of 84.5 people per 100,000 people, much higher than any other group, with the second highest group, construction and extraction at a rate of 53.3 people per 100,000. As it turns out, this study is flawed, and the desperately needed assistance for ag families is at risk of slipping even further away than it already is.
It is no secret that farming and ranching is a high-risk occupation. Farmers and ranchers worldwide cope with a laundry list of stressors that include social isolation, volatile markets, overwhelming workloads and unpredictable weather on a daily basis.
A solitary profession by nature, isolation, can become problematic for farmers and ranchers who most often, work alone. Sure, there are many benefits to some peace and quiet and not being swept away in the modern-day rat race, but if you are already struggling with depression, being alone with your thoughts exacerbates rumination, the link between anxiety and depression. For instance, being alone in a tractor all day with nothing but open space around you makes it easy to repeatedly and obsessively go over thoughts or problems, potentially raising anxiety, and deepening depression.
Like many industries, the agriculture sector is dealing with a lingering recession. As previously stated, the USDA predicted that net farm income will hit its lowest point since 2006 this year. That’s following a 50 percent decline in net farm income for American farmers and ranchers from 2013 to 2016. This is forcing many to make difficult financial decisions that affect their families, and cause a ripple effect through their communities and our entire country.
Farmers and ranchers have a unique work ethic. The days are long and typically, there are no days off, as I can attest. My husband is out the door by 8 a.m. at the latest, every single day and oftentimes, especially in the summer, isn’t home until 8 or 9 p.m. It’s very rare that he takes time off, and our vacations consist of “staycations” at home, allowing him to squeeze in some work on his “days off”.
In fact, it stresses him out just thinking about all the work that would compound should he be away from the ranch. The work on a farm or ranch is ongoing and cumulative and in reality, is a double-edged sword causing stress, as well, serving as an important aspect of farmer and rancher’s occupational satisfaction.
This is a given, and farmers and ranchers are constantly “rolling the dice” with the weather. It’s as if mother nature controls the purse strings. A freak hailstorm destroying crops, a spring blizzard decimating livestock and droughts forcing producers to make the heart-wrenching decision to try and sell off their livestock or have to euthanize them to prevent their suffering. A single storm can have a massive impact on their livelihood. There is no shortage of worries for the farmer or rancher.
The crux of this crisis, is when farmers and ranchers need help the most, they don’t have access to assistance. Families in agriculture unfortunately represent one of the most overlooked sectors for mental health research and service availability, with 60 percent of rural Americans living in areas with shortages of mental health professionals.
What is important to note, is that a program designed to provide affordable stress assistance programs called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) was authorized as a part of the 2008 Farm Bill, but subsequently never funded. Through the USDA, FRSAN would have provided much needed funding to state agriculture departments and extension offices for a variety of services such as websites, helplines, farm advocate training, outreach services, support groups, activities and even home delivery of mental health services.
A Costly Error?
In late June, the CDC released a notice through its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in regards to its widely-cited 2012 occupational group study stating that “some results and conclusions might be inaccurate as a result of coding errors for certain occupational groups.” With a call for $10 million to reauthorize FRSAN in the 2018 Farm Bill, this error could have sent the wrong message to Washington D.C. about the brevity of the plight of American farmers and ranchers. In fact, a recent letter the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture from a collective of agriculture advocacy groups cites the study and its findings in a plea urging reauthorization and funding of FRSAN to “meet the needs of farmers and ranchers as they endure increasing financial, mental, and emotional stress”.
In response to the CDC’s retraction, advocacy group Farm Aid released a statement stating it will continue to prioritize farmer stress based on a 30 percent increase to their Farmer Resource Hotline during 2018.
Caught in the Middle
As it turns out, the 2014 Farm Bill expired on September 30th, and producers have been left hanging as the 2018 Farm Bill ended up in a conference committee, where members from both the House and Senate failed to negotiate the details of a final bill due to stark differences between the Senate and House versions. All the while, the CDC has yet to reanalyze this important data that is crucial to helping fund FRSAN, and providing a safety net for the backbone of our country.
Light in the Dark
The silver lining in this tangled web of rural struggles, bungled data and political games is the attention it has brought to American agriculture’s mental health crisis.
A piece titled “Why are America’s farmers killing themselves in record numbers?” published by the Guardian in December 2017, received an overwhelming response. Farm psychologist and farmer himself, Dr. Mike Rossman, who was featured received hundreds of comments and emails, many coming from producers asking for help. But, it also reached other mental health providers, organizations and of course consumers, many whom want to help.
Awareness and Action
As difficult, gut-wrenching, and seemingly embarrassing as it is, farmers and ranchers can help bring awareness by opening up and telling their own stories.
Although immense feelings of failure seem to accompany opening up about your problems, it lets other producers know that they are not alone. We need to normalize these conversations. The sense of community within agriculture is strong and we can use this to our advantage to lift one another up fight for a better future and protect our way of life.
This issue cannot slip quietly into the shadows again, and the time for action is now. Agricultural producers and consumers alike can make a difference by reaching out to their legislatures at both the state and local level to create life-saving policies focused on mental health services for families in agriculture.
Most importantly, if you are battling a mental health issue, be it depression, anxiety or otherwise, please say something. Reach out to your family, friends, or neighbors. You don’t have to face it alone. Here are some additional resources I encourage you to keep handy or share with a friend, because we are all in this together.
Wyoming Crisis Text Line:
Text WYO to 741-741
Farm Aid Hotline:
1 (800) 327-6243
National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
1 (800) 273-8255
Farm Crisis Center:
UW Extension Agriculture
Producers and Stress Series:
By: Candice E. Schlautmann for 82801