Focus on Farmer Mental Health from the USDA Mental Health Grant
Excessive rains in 2019 made planting and harvesting crops virtually impossible for Hallie Williams and her husband. The couple were in their first year of operating a small Seneca County farm, making the setback particularly frustrating.
âWe felt like we were failing,â she said.
To make matters worse, Williams found herself struggling with another problem besides the crop failure: anxiety.
Williams said she had never been professionally diagnosed with clinical anxiety, but felt her mental health was suffering from the stress of a difficult year.
âIt was very, very difficult, and I wish I could go back and tell myself to go talk to someone,â she said.
With the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic hitting the agriculture industry particularly hard, mental health specialists in the Ohio State University Extension Service are worried stories like Williams’ will become more common. Not only will some farmers experience higher stress levels, many will not want to talk about it, experts say.
Farmers are already one and a half times more likely to die from suicide than the general population, and a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that farmer suicides had increased by 40% in the past 20 years. . When COVID hit Ohio in the spring of 2020, the rapidly spreading virus exacerbated many of the problems producers already face, putting agriculture industry officials on high alert.
That’s why the extension service plans to institute a mental health program this year with the help of a $ 500,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture.
The extension is using the money to write a curriculum for workers who regularly visit farmers, helping them spot warning signs of conditions such as depression and identify those at risk for suicide, said Bridget Britton, Behavioral Health Specialist for the Extension. service. They include officers who sample soil and water, perform inspections and drive tractors with farmers, she said.
These people are now trained in what Britton calls âmental health first aidâ.
âWe are sharing with them the warning signs and symptoms that farmers can show in crisis situations,â she said. âThey’re the ones who have this relationship. (Farmers) feel comfortable talking to them.
They face an uphill battle as the fallout from the pandemic ripples through the economy.
Stress made worse by COVID
It is not difficult to find someone in the farming community who has been affected by suicide. Delaware County farmer Earl Lehner said a neighbor and fellow farmer recently committed suicide. Determining why someone chooses to kill themselves is often impossible, experts warn, but Lehner has confirmed that growing crops and raising farm animals has become more difficult during the pandemic.
Lehner grows corn, beans, hay and wheat, and he raises dairy cows on his farm just north of Delaware. His family has deep ties to the property. The third generation farmer grows corn and soybeans on fertile acres of soft earth fields next to his childhood home.
âIt’s in your blood,â he said. âIt’s a way of life, a great way to raise children. I take pride in producing something that people need.
Lehner, who works mainly with his immediate family, barely noticed a difference in his daily routine at the start of the pandemic. And then the receipts for the necessary supplies started to arrive.
âIt’s getting harder and harder to get minor inputs like latex gloves to milk our cows,â he said. âAnd like everyone else, we notice the pinch at the pump. The tractor needs 120 gallons of gasoline.
To make matters worse, milk prices fell several months ago, falling low enough that farmers like Lehner were losing money on their dairy cows.
While struggling, the Delaware County farmer considers himself lucky.
âWe haven’t left with nothing yet,â he said.
The pain of the supply chain
Even as restaurant sales are on the rise and schools are feeding students again, supply chain issues cast a shadow of uncertainty over the agriculture industry. Prices are higher and farmers face long delays in acquiring the necessary goods.
âWe use John Deere equipment,â said Charlie Payne, who raises animals for meat on a farm in Radnor. Tractors sometimes need spare parts, âand if it’s not on the shelf, we wait 30 to 45 days to get the part.
That’s if he can get the parts at all.
âThere’s kind of a permanent joke that if there’s a shortage of it, it’s because of COVID,â said Keith Klopfenstein, who grows corn, beans and wheat on a farm in Scott in far west of Ohio.
The farmer needs a new tractor and a new pickup, but has bad luck on both fronts due to a shortage of microchips that halt production of new vehicles.
And the agricultural sector has not been immune from the staffing issues that disrupt industries across the economy.
âWe don’t have a ton of people working for us, but we have a hard time getting help,â Payne said. The biggest problem is the meat processing plants that cannot find enough workers. Without labor, they have to tell farmers to wait until their animals reach the optimal age for slaughter, he said.
One of the few items that increased in demand at the onset of COVID was frozen beef, which is marketed directly to consumers, cutting out middlemen and generating higher profits for farmers. When restaurants closed, farms saw orders for frozen beef skyrocket, but satisfying the public’s desire for farm-grown meat was not as easy as increasing production, said Gary Baldosser, who grows and raises beef cattle on a farm in Seneca County.
âWhen it takes 14 months to raise an animal to market weight, it’s not something you can just increase in the supply chain system,â he said.
Many farmers are reluctant to rear their herds, not knowing if peak demand is an enduring fashion or trend.
Just suck and don’t complain
Convincing farmers to recognize that they need help is often the first obstacle in helping them.
âIt’s really a challenge to get them to open up,â said Sarah Noggle, an extension worker who works with farmers.
The origin of this reluctance is debated, but experts who work with farmers say they tend to keep their problems to themselves and don’t want to appear as though they are complaining about anything, especially when most of the people around they are in the same situation.
For producers, it’s a generational issue, according to Williams.
âYou were taught when you were a kid to just suck, and that’s one of the problems starting out,â she said.
Lehner said most farmers don’t want to be seen as fooling around when so many others struggle with similar issues.
âPeople are worse off than me,â he said. âI’m not the guy who says, ‘Sorry for me. “”
Even those who wish to discuss mental health issues might find a lack of services available in farming communities remote from major cities across the state. Rural counties have fewer hospitals and even fewer mental health specialists than the more populous areas of the state.
Farmers “might have to drive 45 minutes to get to any type of health care, let alone mental health care like a therapist or counselor,” Britton said.
And the lack of reliable broadband service in some rural counties makes telemedicine impossible, she said.
Utica farmer Andy Hollenback was stung by this lack of broadband when the vendors he buys farm supplies from shifted primarily to e-commerce. Her family had to use their phone to access the internet, which was hit and miss.
âWe had several teachers doing lessons on YouTube videos, but getting them uploaded here at home where (our kids) could watch them was next to impossible,â Hollenback said.
He called broadband service âcritical to our businessâ.
How do extension workers approach the problem?
To account for the lack of access to mental health services, extension workers insert information on mental health and stress into the regular routine of farmers. Some farmers, for example, need a pesticide certification that requires four hours of training. This class has recently been expanded, Noggle said.
âFor 15 minutes we talk about the whole subject of stress on the farm, that it can turn into a safety issue when there is so much stress in their life,â Noggle said.
The initiative is relatively young, making it too early to draw any conclusions, but educators like Noggle are optimistic that giving producers more opportunities to discuss stressors and seek therapy will improve their well-being.
âJust talking about these things, I think it makes a big difference,â she said.