During COVID, society has labeled fast-food workers “heroes,” teachers “superstars,” and doctors “the most selfless people on this planet.” However, one group of people remains overlooked. Farmers have been working around the clock to try and get stores restocked, maintain food quality, and still follow the corona safety standards. There have been no boat parades, no thank you’s, no national spotlight, but a continual demand for more. Not only is this sad, but the added stress on farmers could be devastating. They’re already a high-risk category for suicide; add on the stress of a pandemic and it’s a powder keg ready to blow.
In most states, the quarantine has crippled the restaurant industry and thus left farmers no market for their commodities. Similarly, sporting events, schools, and summer camps—all shutdown—are all large markets for farmers. In many states, the food grown is simply going to waste. Florida farmers are plowing their fields under because the cost of harvesting is too high. Farming manufacturers such as Koboda are also suffering, opting to send 2,700 workers home. These families are left without work and the owners with the stress of not being able to help.
Unlike Corona, suicide crisis isn’t a new phenomenon. The world of farming is built off on the continual cycle of the plant, grow, and harvest. Unfortunately, this life cycle is cut short for too many farmers. In 2015, three farmers took their lives in the same rural village of Georgetown, Ohio. All three men were in their mid-50s to 60s. It might be a surprise to find that suicide has racked the farming community but for those on the inside, it is now a tragic part of life.
According to USA Today, between 2014 to 2018, over 450 farmers took their own lives. The suicide rate for “farmers, ranchers, and other Agricultural managers was double that of the general population in 2012” and that is likely an underestimate. Farming is hard to categorize. Farmers work in management, engineering, consulting, and many more subcategories. This variability of jobs within the workforce makes it difficult to track suicide in the “farming” community.
The National Farmers Union goes so far as to say that “if farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers were given their own major group, they [would] rank first and third in suicides in 2012 and 2015.”
Too often, there is no help to be found. While urban communities have roughly 10 mental health professionals per 100,000, farming communities have 3. Calls to the Farm Aid hotline, a service for farmers to use when they need mental help have jumped 92% in the past 5 years. For such services to prove effective, the counselors must know the ins-and-outs of the community. Unfortunately, most health professionals aren’t familiar with farming life.
The added stress of Corona has forced many farmers to pivot, lose property, and struggle to make a profit safely. In an interview for this article, Natalie, a second-generation Californian rancher, said, “My dad is a dairy owner and farmer. At the moment one of our workers is moving away and another had a stroke. This puts us down two workers. This forced my dad and another worker to take one-two dairy jobs until they can find new workers which is tough because the only people who want to work also want to live on the property and we can’t move anyone out until COVID is over.”
There is a cultural issue as well. Farmers often don’t trust the professionals, taking pride in their community, and so are reticent to reach out. Susan Harris-Broomfield of the Rural Health Wellness and safety Director for Nebraska said in an interview, “farmers are a tough bunch and they have thick skin and they don’t want to be seen pulling up to the counselor’s office. It’s not their jam.”
Policy, culture, and personal attitudes all affect this epidemic of suicide but it really comes back to the nature of the work. The long hours of planting, harvesting, and processing require a mental fortitude that wears one down. The risk of feast or famine years adds a level of uncertainty that only worsens mental health.
Growing up in a farming community, it’s always sad to see a farmer have to sell because of revenue loss, or to watch a disease destroy their herd. Many families have been doing the same thing on their plots of ground for generations, and many individuals have never done anything else. To get out of farming would be in breach of their way of life and their tradition. When someone in the community suffers the entire community feels it.
When dealing with the mental health of a community it’s important to approach it with humility. The farming community is a proud bunch and do not take lightly people telling them what they are doing wrong. Most farmers farm because they love what they do: providing food to their community with their own hands. Professionals need to build bridges with farmers and programs need to be around at all times, not just in times of crisis. Most importantly, more people need to be open with mental health to destroy the stigma around it.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.