Suicide Rates Among Farmers are Alarmingly High. Can Federal Legislation Help? | Civil Eats

Suicide Rates Among Farmers are Alarmingly High. Can Federal Legislation Help?

The STRESS Act would provide support, but some farmers say it’s little more than a band-aid and real policy changes are needed.

worried farmer by hay bales

In a video posted to YouTube in 2014, Justin McClane gives the camera two thumbs up. He skips in a circle, holding the hands of fellow members of the Washington Young Farmers Coalition (WYFC). In a letter posted to Facebook in 2017, those peers, now heartbroken, informed their community of McClane’s death by suicide, expressing shock and sadness to have lost a colleague and friend at age 30.

Lucia Wyss, WYFC’s coordinator and a grain and pig farmer, said that before McClane died, it was common for farmers in the area to talk about hopelessness, isolation, and burnout among their peers. But, she added, “It just became horribly clear that the most extreme kind of burnout is suicide. It never occurred to us to talk about suicide and mental health explicitly.”

That’s changing now across the country. Over the past year, media reports in Newsweek, the New York Times, and an in-depth piece in The Guardian have called attention to alarming rates of suicide among farmers and farmworkers, from grain growers in the Midwest to dairy farmers in the Northeast.

As a result, lawmakers are responding with bills aimed at increasing access to behavioral health services like counseling and suicide hotlines. Washington state passed one bill last month, and advocates say other states are working on developing their own laws.

On the national front, Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN) also introduced the Stemming the Tide of Rural Economic Stress and Suicide (STRESS) Act (H.R. 5259) last month, which would allocate federal funding to build and strengthen a national network of farmer support services. The bill already has significant bipartisan support in Congress and is being endorsed by a diverse group of 36 organizations involved in agriculture and rural life.

Experts and advocates say the legislation is desperately needed and could provide real help. But some affected farmers say it’s little more than a band-aid on a much deeper wound caused by years of policies that have favored consolidation and led to volatile markets, devastating price drops, and the hollowing-out of rural communities.

The Scope of the Problem

When reporting on the scope of the problem, most rely on data from a 2012 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that breaks down U.S. suicide rates by occupation. People working in “farming, fishing, and forestry” had the highest rates compared to all other industries, at 84.5 per 100,000. That number is more than five times the national rate and is comparable to high suicide rates among military veterans. [Update: in late June, the CDC retracted the findings of its study, noting that the study misclassified farmers and that their rate of death by suicide is perhaps fourth-highest in the country (additionally, the category of workers that includes farmworkers has the fourth-highest rate of death by suicide).]

While more recent data doesn’t exist, farmers and advocates point to anecdotal evidence that suggests suicide rates among farmers have been rising. Last spring, the National Farmers Union (NFU) launched an online resource called the Farm Crisis Center because “we really started hearing from a lot of our members that there are real, growing problems and there are a lot of farmers in crisis,” said Matt Perdue, NFU’s government relations representative.

Andrew Bahrenburg, national policy director at the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), agreed. “Hotlines, farmer advocates—they’re all saying this getting worse, that there’s an increased demand for these services and we need more resources.”

While risk factors for farmers include isolation in rural areas, lack of control, and lack of access to behavioral health services, most farmers and advocates point to extreme financial stressors as the main cause of the problem. Corn and soy production is high, meaning prices are low. And overall net farm income has decreased 50 percent for U.S. farmers since 2013, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts it will drop further, to negative $1,316 in 2018.

A looming trade war is already affecting farmers in Middle America. The price of milk, which is set by the federal government, has dropped so low that dairy farmers are being paid significantly less for their milk than it costs to produce it.

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Members of WYFC who worked for the passage of Washington state's farmer suicide-prevention bill attending as the governor signed the bill into law.

Members of WYFC who worked for the passage of Washington state’s farmer suicide-prevention bill attending as the governor signed the bill into law.

Brenda Cochran and her husband have been milking cows since 1975 in Maryland and Pennsylvania and now operate a dairy farm in Northwestern Pennsylvania. On their last delivery, they were paid $14.39 per hundredweight, which means they lost about $7 per hundredweight, she said—fully one-third of their production costs.

Cochran, who runs Farm Women United with fellow farmer Tina Carlin, lists three deaths by suicide she’s heard about in her community since February: an Amish farmer, a farmer who was in a leadership position in a dairy association, and an agribusinessman who was carrying debilitating debt.

“We can’t solve this problem on our own because everyone is depressed, everyone is broken,” she said. “I understand why farmers are committing suicide. It’s been going on for so long. You are talking to a depressed farmer right now.”

What the STRESS Act Would Do

The proposed federal act wouldn’t improve the markets for farmers, or help them stay in business. But it would help provide behavioral health services that may help some people weather the hard times.

Many organizations and individuals have long been working to get such services in place. Michael Rosmann, a former organic farmer and rancher in Iowa and a clinical psychologist, has been at the forefront of a movement to recognize and prioritize “agricultural behavioral health” for decades.

In 2001, he became director of Agriwellness, a nonprofit formed as a network of counseling and hotlines in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. The program helped many farmers, but struggled with funding. Rosmann then got involved in an effort to use the model to develop a national plan called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). FRSAN was included when the 2008 Farm Bill passed, but legislators never allocated the discretionary funding to launch it, so the program expired before it could take off.

The STRESS Act, proposed as a marker bill attached to the larger 2018 Farm Bill, would essentially just reauthorize the establishment of FRSAN. The bill’s broad organizational support and bipartisan co-sponsors—four other Republicans and five Democrats—suggest it has a good chance of inclusion in the final bill. Another promising sign is the fact that Washington state’s law aimed at preventing farmer suicide was passed unanimously in both the state house and senate and signed quickly by the governor.

However, the STRESS Act still would rely on discretionary funding for FRSAN. “We think we need to get it included [in the farm bill] any way we can and discretionary funding is best way to get bipartisan support,” NFU’s Perdue said. “Then we’ll have to keep the drumbeat up with the appropriations committees.”

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Rosmann believes a fully funded FRSAN could really help farmers across the country, since many effective programs already exist but are struggling to stay afloat. And the network would rely on solutions that have already been shown to help.

“We know hotlines are used by farm people when they’re free, confidential, and available at all hours of the day and night and staffed by counselors who understand agriculture,” he explained. “Farm and ranch people often feel like they want somebody who understands their circumstances.”

Rosmann said he could see FRSAN having an impact comparable to the national AgrAbility program, which was established to help farmers with physical disabilities continue farming and reduce injuries. “Just like we help people with physical injuries, we need something that addresses the emotional toll,” he said.

Some farmers, however, resent that the focus is being shifted to counseling when what they really need is cash to pay their debts. Hotlines and counseling may help, but they won’t fix the deeper problems that are causing small farms and rural communities to collapse, leading to intense psychological distress. For example, when dairy cooperative Agri-Mark sent out a letter to its producers informing them that prices for milk would drop again for the third year in a row and included a list of suicide hotlines, many saw it as a slap in the face.

“Why do we need a STRESS Act? What is going on? Farmers don’t want to be taken through this. They need it to be fixed,” Cochran said. Instead, she proposed setting a limit so that the price of milk can’t drop below $20 per hundredweight. “The federal government is forcing traditional farms out of business, and there’s no safety net. Why would you even need a safety net if the government wasn’t throwing you off a cliff?”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Carol Sullivan
    The American dairy farmer needs emergency action from Congress or the President to fix the milk pricing system. Otherwise, we will continue to lose dairy farms to bankruptcy. This is an emergency situation.
  2. safety nets such as MPP,RDMPP or acts that promote suicide hot lines will do absolutely nothing to remedy the real problem due to unsustainable farm gate prices_ the main problem is the milk price & not having the ability to recover all COP- Some people may feel that I have no feelings for those hurt_ not so ! Concentrate on the problem of not establishing sustainable prices_ there is no short cut-must recover all COP & the DIRRTI 6._NMPF -NDPO, IDFA,USDA, USDEEC ,any & all corps-coops will not rectify the issues._ PRO-AG may do it if farmers get behind Pro-Ags orcastrated $20 EFP_ the 2018 Farm bill holds no promiss, only more of the same old crap ! _ In themilk game there are no rules or guide lines established the dairy farmers. When you drive down the highway of life _there is a white line that you are executive to obay & stay own you'r side of the road > In sport gams you must stay with -in the white lines & there are empires &managers that control the actions and make sure all rules & guidelines are inforced. Please note, in the milk game there are no farmer controlled empires or game managers ! It is up to dairy farmers to empire & manage their end of the game & establish our sustainable prices & only produce what the market demands_if we are over producing _ then we cut back production& mantain sustainable prices. For get exports that are not profitable _its a waste of time & resources! The milk is our's, if the buyers need it to meet their demand should not they pay for IT at our established price ?
  3. Merri paquin
    I am a organic dairy farmer in Vt.We need a reasonable price for our milk.Stop the band aids that cost so much and give us a fair price.As it stands now we get slave wages.I went to a milk commision meeting last fall and was told by the national dairy alliance that it takes 34 dollars a hundred weight to produce organic milk in VT.We aren't getting that .I have reached out and talked to many farmers in the last few months.If you want to see poverty we have it here.Most are on foodstamps and fuel assistance.Any state assistance they can get.Something is really wrong when we can produce food for other people but not be able to feed ourselves.
  4. Dariel Blackburn
    This state of affairs is just SO WRONG! How can we, the eaters of this country, care so little for the people who grow our healthy food? It absolutely outrages me to hear of how these young people, and probably many old people as well, are being crushed by work and debt without being able to make a living. Why aren't we talking about Public Banking? The Public Bank of ND was formed in 1919 because of the many farmers going bankrupt due to the same sort of problems we have today. Bernie Douthit, Dem candidate for Colorado State Treasurer, is running on a platform of taking the State funds out of Wells Fargo and starting a State Bank to hold the funds. It is a radical platform but one that the Too Big to Fail Banks can't fault. ND did better than any other state during the 2008 crash. It had everything to do with their PB. It is time we push this across the country!
    Talk more of this on the news Fox and CNN farmer committing suicide we will head to massive famine
  6. Monica
    How can I help others to help them not take their lives. If I can help please let me know how?
  7. Lisa Mason
    I think we as a community should come together and pay the amount that keeps farming sustainable and ship milk and other products under a community label where consumers can choose to pay a higher price in the market to keep farmers in business. Essentially there will be a separate community label that supports farmers and we as a community can choose to support them this I feel is possibly a solution I know there will still be a large group that prefers the lower priced option but if we educate the public provide a quality product there may be a large portion of consumers that prefer to keep farmers in business I know I would. America is not educated I had no idea this was even going on until I read this article.
  8. Katie T Collins
    What we need is a culture shift away from unsustainable agriculture! We are killing our planet by perpetuating farming livestock. The demand for meat and dairy is plummeting (which is good) and we are now all seeing that the production/supply chain for those types of "foods" is fragile at best. We have to make more informed and ethical food choices at the consumer level and also politically assist farmers who genuinely want to make a positive difference in the world by moving away from unsustainable and environmental devastating livestock farming to more ethical means of food production.

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