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Mental health among farmers is a concern, especially in the midst of turbulent weather and markets

  Mental health experts are worried about people who work in agriculture in the midst of unpredictable weather, volatile markets and rising input costs. A 2020 study found farmers and ranchers have died by suicide at a higher rate than people in most other professions.
Gary Waters
/
NPR
Mental health experts are worried about people who work in agriculture in the midst of unpredictable weather, volatile markets and rising input costs. A 2020 study found farmers and ranchers have died by suicide at a higher rate than people in most other professions.

Preserving mental health through farming challenges is a real concern; one study shows farmers die by suicide at a higher rate than other professions.

It’s easy to focus on problems and mistakes in farming. At least it was for John Kimbrough, a Marine Corps veteran who now raises cattle with his wife Erin in Texas, who didn't come to terms with his mental health until it was nearly too late.

“I didn’t know how much it affected me until my wife wrestled a pistol out of my hand,” Kimbrough said. “Thank God she’s been through a lot of martial arts training and was better at pistol disarms than I am.”

A 2020 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that farmers died by suicide at a higher rate than people in most other professions. The same study found that overall suicide rates have increased by more than 40% in less than 20 years.

This year could be especially challenging for farmers given rising input costs from inflation and supply chain issues; market volatility caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; along with difficult weather conditions such as drought in parts of the Great Plains.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture held a three-day forum focusing on mental health for farmers this week. Speakers addressed the challenges facing people in agriculture as well as the resources and solutions available.

Mental health illness and stress is a problem even when it doesn’t lead farmers into suicidal thoughts, according to Courtney Cuthbertson, who co-leads the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center in Illinois and took part in the event.

Cuthbertson said research has shown that as mental health worsens, the risk of farm accidents increases and farmers are less likely to take on new technologies.

“Agriculture is only sustainable when we take time to sustain the people who work in agriculture, which means being attentive to mental health,” Cuthbertson said. “We may not be able to stop an incoming derecho, but we can change the resources that folks in agriculture have to respond to that stress.”

Outside of the current flashpoints of weather and markets, agriculture continues to move toward mega farms, squeezing family farms to near-extinction.

While peer support and community resources are a part of getting help to struggling farmers, Mary Hendrickson with the University of Missouri said it’s crucial to understand that farmers and ranchers are facing fundamental, ingrained problems.

The rural sociology professor cited her time growing up on a Nebraska farm through the 1980s farm crisis.

“When you have hundreds of thousands of people go out of business in five to 10 years, it's not an individual problem,” she said. “The stressors are structural and systemic. And without understanding that, we won't be as successful with intervening with individuals.”

Scott Marlow, a deputy administrator for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, said it’s easy for farmers to internalize large-scale challenges.

“We have a series of issues in agriculture that are making it difficult for farmers to remain viable,” he said during the forum. “The culture says it’s on you, the individual, to work harder to be successful in an environment where no matter how hard you work, you might not be successful.”

Kimbrough’s struggles with mental health led him to support farmers’ well-being through the Texas Veteran Farmer Coalition. He said he asks the “tough questions” when he sees warning signs, even though he jokes that the last thing farmers want to do is discuss their feelings.

“Focusing on the negatives took me to a really dark place, where the only way out was to stop the pain and end it all,” he said. “But now I’m refocused on the positive things in my life and on helping other farmers and ranchers."

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

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