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It’s Time We Talked About Our Farmers

13 May 2024

In rural America, where farms and family are synonymous, we need to have a conversation about the mental health of those who grow our food.

All too often, when we talk about agriculture, the conversation steers toward green energy, or maybe new technology or even the health of the crops — but rarely do we talk about the most important part; the health of our farmers.

Last year, more than 50,000 Americans took their own lives, marking another morbid milestone. Workers within the farming sector are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. According to a 2021 CDC study, the overall suicide rate of  farmers is 50% higher compared to men in other occupations.

“Farmers around the world are in a crisis,” Ted Matthews, the director of rural mental health at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, told Farmers Hot Line. “The stress these farmers are under is as incomprehensible as it is crippling.”

Isolation and Financial Strain

The rural nature of farming often leads to social isolation, further complicating mental health issues and placing additional value on the ties that not only bind farmers to their profession but to their families as well.

Mechanics have a garage in town they work at; farmers work at home, without the same physical separation that other professions have.

“If your farm is struggling, like so many of them are, it’s not just your livelihood, it’s your legacy. It’s your identity,” Matthews said. “Can you imagine the level of self-hatred and depression that comes when the farm you inherited from your father starts to fail?”

The fact that farmers have their own dating websites tells us all we need to know about how lonely being a farmer can be. Like many rural Americans, farmers have limited opportunities for social interaction compared to the traditional support networks we’re all used to.

“What used to take an army of workers can now be done by one machine, in a fraction of the time,” Matthews added. “While mechanization of our agricultural work has benefited us in so many ways, like everything in life, there are also unintended consequences.”

These changing dynamics of our farming communities — combined with the fact that success is tethered to forces as powerful and unpredictable as politics and weather — compel many to leverage their existence every season. It should come as no surprise that the CDC’s research highlights financial concerns as the primary reason farmers finally give up.

Access to Services

Access to mental health services remains a challenge for many farmers, especially those in rural areas where resources may be limited. Barriers such as stigma, cost and lack of providers prevent farmers from seeking and receiving the help they need.

Efforts to promote mental wellness among farmers include prioritizing self-care, fostering open communication, seeking support networks, practicing mindfulness and stress management techniques, and building long-term mental resilience.

Strategies for Improvement

In response to these challenges, strategies and initiatives have emerged to meet farmers where they are to provide guidance and treatment. The Farmer Wellness Program, for instance, is a collaborative effort between agricultural organizations and mental health professionals aimed at providing accessible mental health resources to farming communities across the nation.

“Promoting wellness practices has never been more important with our farmers,” Amanda Nigg, a farmer in Sisseton, South Dakota, and founder of Farm Fit Momma, her one-stop shop for custom physical and mental fitness regimens for farmers, told Farmers Hot Line. “Farming used to be a very physically demanding job — now, they sit on their butts in a tractor all day pushing buttons.”

Nigg started her company after tragedy, four years ago her family’s home suddenly burned to the ground — in two hours.

“All of a sudden we were homeless, with absolutely nothing,” she recalls. “We were sleeping on couches, with our kids, just trying to figure out what the hell happened and what the hell we were going to do.”

Going back to her roots, Nigg began lifting weights, with whatever she could find laying around.

“Every farm has a junk pile ... so I just started digging and found some old tractor parts, then developed some 15-minute routines and I noticed this change in my attitude, as I kept lifting and connecting with my community and those bad thoughts started going away,” Nigg said.

Research confirms that holistic approaches like Nigg’s Farm Fit programs are a more effective way to reach rural farming communities than the toll-free hotlines and generic interventions used for the general public. While it may seem odd that developing tailored, efficient workout routines, nutrition plans and therapy regimens for farming communities, Nigg sees her success as validation that this approach is working.

Community-based interventions, such as local support groups and outreach programs, create safe spaces for farmers to share their experiences, seek guidance and build strong social networks. These initiatives not only foster a sense of belonging but also encourage open conversations about mental health, reducing stigma, and encouraging early intervention.

Technology also plays a significant role in improving mental wellness in farming communities. Telehealth services have developed that allow farmers to access mental health professionals remotely, while mobile apps and online platforms offer resources such as stress management tools and mindfulness exercises.

And the efforts may be paying off. The American Farm Bureau Federation’s latest survey of 2,000 farmers indicated that 92% of farmers surveyed would be comfortable talking about solutions for dealing with stress or a mental health condition with a friend or family member.

Parallels with Veterans

Both groups experience elevated suicide rates compared to the general population due to the similarities in financial instability, isolation, and exposure to traumatic events, the CDC’s report found.

Like veterans, farmers often face barriers in accessing mental health services due to factors like geographic location and the ever-present stigma associated with seeking help.

Think of farmers as one-person armies, single-handedly fighting the concerns of our warming planet in addition to crop or livestock issues, global economic forces and the ever-changing dynamics of business and family ... and they’re doing it in silence and all alone.

Efforts to address mental health in both groups often involve promoting community support networks aimed at reducing stigma, increasing awareness about mental health issues while also providing resources and support to individuals in need.

The Power of Research

One lesson we can learn from veterans is the power of research. Research on suicide prevention in both farmers and veterans emphasizes the importance of evidence-based strategies that include education, access to counseling services, peer support programs and crisis intervention resources tailored to the specific needs of each group.

By recognizing these similarities, policymakers, healthcare providers and the community can develop targeted interventions and support systems to address the mental health challenges faced by farmers — just like they did for veterans, ultimately working towards reducing suicide rates and improving overall well-being.

Nearly all farmers live in rural areas, where mental health resources are nearly nonexistent compared to suburban and urban areas. This geographical barrier can make it difficult for farmers to access mental health professionals or facilities, especially if they have to travel long distances. Community-based interventions have been successful in supporting veterans by creating safe spaces, promoting peer support and reducing stigma around mental health.

Public awareness campaigns and education programs have been successful in raising awareness about mental health issues among veterans and could do the same to increase awareness, reduce foolish stigmas and promote opportunities for interventions.

The importance of relying on evidence-based strategies cannot be overstated. Just as interventions for veterans are based on research and proven methods, mental health programs for farmers are also grounded in evidence-based practices. This includes mental health education, access to counseling services, crisis intervention resources, and peer support programs tailored to the specific needs of farmers.

Advocacy for policy changes and increased funding for mental health services has been instrumental in improving mental health support for veterans. Similar advocacy efforts can be directed towards policymakers to prioritize mental health initiatives and allocate resources to address the mental health crisis in farming communities.

Mental Health Services

Mental health services can also be costly, and farmers, especially those facing financial challenges due to market fluctuations or crop failures, may find it difficult to afford therapy sessions or medication.

Limited insurance coverage or high out-of-pocket expenses can further deter farmers from seeking professional help.

Another barrier to help is a profound shortage of mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and therapists in our farming communities.  The limited availability of providers means that farmers may have to wait longer for appointments or may not have access to specialized care tailored to their needs.

Farming communities also have unique and long-standing cultural traditions and beliefs regarding how to address internal, family situations, like mental health, that can act as barriers to seeking treatment. Rural families are notorious for knowing everybody’s business while also maintaining a code of keeping the most secret ones hidden. These dynamics discourage open discussions about mental well-being or lead to alternative approaches to coping that may not be effective in addressing serious mental health issues.

Addressing these issues requires a community approach that includes increasing access to services, reducing stigma through education, pushing mental healthcare up farmers’ priority lists by making it more available, affordable and by encouraging more mental health professionals to work in agricultural communities.

It’s up to all of us to not only be concerned with how healthy the food we eat is — we owe it to those who grow it to check in on their health also.

Article written by Senior Writer Allen P. Roberts Jr.


Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.