Just a few weeks ago, a good friend of mine in Georgia, a longtime dairy farmer, took his own life. I don’t really know what led him to such a dark and desperate place; it could have been several things that have happened in his life. All I know is more and more of us in agriculture are dealing with the loss of a friend, loved one or colleague, or perhaps even dealing with an extreme and damaging level of emotional stress ourselves.
One story is one too many. And unfortunately, the impact is growing. About half of rural adults say they are experiencing more mental health challenges than a year ago, according to a new survey commissioned by Farm Bureau and released last week to kick off National Mental Health Month. The survey confirms what we already know: the continued downturn in the farm economy is taking a toll. A strong majority of farmers and farmworkers think financial issues (91 percent), farm or business problems (88 percent) and fear of losing the farm (87 percent) impact the mental health of farmers and ranchers. Those stresses are being worsened by the shortage of agricultural labor, which I believe was a big source of worry for my friend in Georgia, the market impacts of our ongoing trade war and, in some cases, continued regulatory pressures.
Farmers and ranchers are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet. It takes toughness to put seeds in the ground, invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in buying animals, equipment or fertilizer, and trust that those investments will pay off and keep a roof over your family’s heads. I don’t have a survey to back this up, but I believe the pressure is even harder on someone who takes pride in carrying on a family tradition of farming and ranching. Farmers who take over an agricultural operation from their parents and grandparents see themselves as caretakers of their family heritage. That responsibility can be heavy.
We can’t snap our fingers and turn this farm economy around. But we can be aware of how it, or other pressures, may be affecting our family, friends and neighbors. That’s why Farm Bureau commissioned our survey: to increase awareness of the problem. If more of us acknowledge it’s a problem—and there is no shame in admitting it—then we can begin to help ourselves and each other. We can watch for the warning signs in those we talk with and see around town—things like extreme mood swings, preoccupation with death, getting rid of possessions or withdrawing from friends and family. Tough-minded, independent farmers and ranchers are not used to admitting they need help or asking for it. It is up to all of us to check in with our friends and neighbors and see how they are doing.
Looking for the warning signs can save a life. Be ready to help by listening and steering someone to a doctor or even the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255 (TALK)). If you’re wrong, then the worst thing that has happened is you showed them that you care about their wellbeing. I would rather attempt to help my family, friends or neighbors and be wrong than to risk attending a service in their memory.
The good news is more people are aware of rural stress: our survey shows that 9 out of 10 rural adults say mental health is important to them and their family. And greater awareness can lead to more solutions. Another survey we’ve done to find out about rural stress resources around the country shows that state Farm Bureaus, state departments of agriculture, Extension centers at land-grant universities, medical networks and farm safety experts are teaming up to provide education, counseling, debt mediation and other resources to benefit farmers, ranchers and rural Americans.
Farm Bureau also is urging Congress to fully fund a new Farm and Ranch Stress Network at the $10 million level authorized in the 2018 farm bill. This new program would provide stress assistance programs that address the increasing financial and mental stress impacting farmers and ranchers.
At our meetings, we’re hosting sessions to educate Farm Bureau members about looking for warning signs and providing resources for farmers and rural Americans to combat stress.
And we’re looking for other ways we can help. If you know of a program or tool that is making a positive difference in your state or region, please tell us about it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know of a need that is not being met, please let us know about that, as well.
There is no challenge too great for America’s tough, resilient farmers and ranchers. We are meeting this challenge head-on, and together we will overcome it. Let’s pray for peace and healing for our friends, family and neighbors, and let’s help those who are struggling carry on until better days arrive—and I know they will.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.