Perspective: Farmer Mental and Physical Health as Components of Sustainability
In the Perspectives guest blog series, Farm Foundation invites participants from among the varied Farm Foundation programs to share their unique viewpoint on a topic relevant to a Farm Foundation focus area. This guest blog was contributed by Amber Oerly, a master’s student at Kansas State University, and 2022 Farm Foundation Agricultural Scholar.
Sustainability in the agriculture industry is an evolving topic and is commonly on the forefront of consumers’ minds. Agricultural sustainability is often defined as meeting the food and fiber needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations. In general, sustainability consists of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social. Environmental and economic sustainability are the most understood and discussed components of sustainability, especially as related to the American agriculture industry. However, social considerations in agriculture are often left out of sustainability discussions in the industry, particularly related to farmer physical and mental health.
Agriculture is continually ranked as one of the most dangerous professions and farmers have the highest risks of deaths due to stress-related conditions (Fraser, 2005; BLS 2019; Yazd, 2019). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2018) also reported that from 2000 to 2016 the suicide rate for male farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers was double that of the general population. Because of the unique demographics of U.S. farmers and ranchers, they face unique challenges when it comes to the accessibility, availability, and acceptance of mental health care. On a positive a note, many agriculture companies, trade associations, and government agencies have recognized the importance of mental and physical health issues in agriculture and have devoted resources to improve each. As the agriculture industry continues to improve its sustainability, consideration of producer mental and physical health will be an important component of the discussion moving forward.
While the lifestyle of America’s farmers and ranchers is often portrayed as a peaceful and wholesome endeavor, farmers and ranchers face unique challenges that impact both their physical and mental health. Some of this is due to a lack of mental health services in rural communities. Additionally, agriculture continually ranks among the top 10 most dangerous professions of any industry (Fraser, 2005; BLS 2019). Fraser et. al (2005) states, “There is also growing acknowledgement of the significant psychological hazards associated with agriculture, including high levels of stress, depression and anxiety, and increased rates of suicide.” Farming and ranching require physically demanding work, often causing the farmer or rancher to work for long hours in diverse weather conditions. Oftentimes, farmers and ranchers view mental health concerns as an “urban issue,” and only recently have they considered the impacts it has in their communities.
Farmers and ranchers are known for their independence and resilience. However, they face unique challenges related to unexpected weather conditions and market fluctuations that are unlike the challenges faced in other occupations and industries. These challenges can lead to a buildup of stress that greatly impacts their mental health. The inherent risk experienced by those involved in production agriculture can be a source of stress for farmers and ranchers. United States farmers and ranchers commonly report commodity prices, time pressures, environmental conditions, and isolation as sources of stress (Rudolphi, 2019; NFU 2019). After reviewing studies on mental health in farming communities around the world, Yazd (2019) found that the four most-cited influences on farmers’ mental health were pesticide exposure, financial difficulties, climate variabilities/drought, and poor physical health/past injuries. Other common risks factors identified were commodity prices, debt, climate change, drought, overwork, government regulations, isolation, role conflict, time pressure, and poor housing (Yazd, 2019). Athena Diesch-Chham, a clinical veterinary social worker, suggests factors such as epidemic illnesses in livestock, falling commodity prices, and increased farm debt load in conjunction with the rural mindset – the idea you can convince yourself to be happy and work yourself out of depression – creates a formula for a “perfect storm for stress and the effects of it” (Shike, 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic has also had impacts on the agriculture industry, adding another layer of uncertainty and stress on farmers and ranchers. Staehr (2020) of the NY FarmNet emphasizes, “Stress cannot be avoided; nonetheless, one can take steps to identify stressors and manage them by putting together a plan for the future.” In addition, as Jones (2018), points out, farmers have historically enjoyed independence; however they are now forced to complete documentation of their farming practices to demonstrate accountability to environmental and animal protection groups. Although there are benefits to this accountability in production agriculture, it can add additional stress to farmers and ranchers.
According to the World Health Organization (2007), mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (Yazd, 2019). Farmers and ranchers are tied to their occupations in a different way than any other industry, which makes mental health discussions in the agriculture industry a very dynamic topic. Many farmers and ranchers consider their occupation a way of life, not simply a profession that they are in for financial reasons. Additionally, farm families’ heritage, identity, pride, and finances are tied directly to the farm (NY FarmNet, 2020). Jones (2018) states, “farmers often describe health as the ability to do work, and their stress level increases as aging farmers are no longer able to engage in the normal work routine on the farm.” In production agriculture, the operation’s most important asset is the farmer or rancher, therefore their mental health is imperative. Brotherson (2019) states, “your health is your most important asset as a farmer or rancher and good stress management is good farm management.” Poor mental health impacts a person’s decision-making abilities, which can affect every level of a farmer or rancher’s life, as the ability to make important and quick decisions is a daily task for farmers and ranchers.
Farmers and ranchers face a multitude of challenges in terms of both seeking and accessing mental health resources in rural communities. Accessibility, availability, and acceptance are three of the main hurdles those in rural areas face when it comes to mental health resources (Farm Aid, 2018). The travel distance to mental health offices, current rural shortage of mental health professionals, and stigma associated with needing and receiving mental health support are all barriers that need solutions in order to improve mental health conditions among farmers and ranchers. However, despite the barriers, the National Council of Family Relations (NCFR) is optimistic that farmers, ranchers, and their families can be taught stress management techniques, and that their communities can provide support, and work to address the stigma associated with mental health (Braun, 2019).
Mental Health Resources
Resources such as hotlines and support groups are becoming more common for farmers and ranchers facing mental health challenges. These include FarmAid, Avera Farmer and Rural Stress Hotline, the Farm Crisis Center, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and many others. A specific example is Rural Resistance Training, a free, online training course to help farmers, their families, and community members, cope with farm related stress (Farm Credit, 2020). Additionally, in the 2018 Farm Bill, authorization for a Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network was granted and funded. Through the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, a $7.2 million dollar grant was awarded to the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center (NCFRSAC), a 12-state collaborative that will create and expand stress management and mental health resources and services to agricultural producers and stakeholders in the North Central region, in 2020 (Henry, 2020). The purpose of such programs is to reduce barriers in rural communities related to accessing mental health treatment.
The mental and physical health of America’s farmers and ranchers is an area worthy of further research and discussion, as they directly impact the social sustainability of agriculture production in the United States. There are social, economic, and environmental factors that can impact their mental health, such as stigma, economic volatility, and weather uncertainty. Thus, holistic considerations of the three pillars of sustainability, which are environmental, social, and economic, is critical as poor environmental and economic conditions impact farmers’ and ranchers’ mental health. Braun (2019) of the National Council on Family Relations states, “The physical, economic, and social environments in which farm families live and work contribute stressors that go beyond individual stress management. The impacts of these stressors are more than private problems. They are public issues deserving of a socioecological public policy response.” Rural communities have a significant role to play in bettering the mental health conditions for farmers and ranchers, however Yazd (2019) recommends greater systems thinking is needed to adequately address the challenges and barriers.
Amber Oerly is currently a master’s student at Kansas State University studying agricultural economics. Amber is a 2022 Agriculture Scholar Fellow with the Farm Foundation. She previously interned with the National Grazing Lands Coalition (NatGLC) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), where she had the opportunity to research mental health challenges in the agriculture industry. Amber would like to acknowledge NatGLC and NCBA for giving her the opportunity to learn about farmer mental and physical health, as it gave her a foundation for the content of this blog.
Editor’s note: As Amber mentions in her blog post, there is a growing number of resources available to farmers to support their mental health and general wellness. One of these is the Farm Family Wellness Alliance, which provides wellness services to farm families in Illinois and Iowa at no cost. This program is made possible through the support of Farm Foundation, Personal Assistance Services, Iowa State University, and Iowa Farm Bureau.
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