Extreme weather is bringing anguish and grief to an already precarious way of life.
Extreme weather is bringing anguish and grief to an already precarious way of life.
October 5, 2021
Nikiko Masumoto grew up revering the peach trees and grape vines on her family’s farm in California’s Central Valley. The orchard and vineyard have been passed down through her Japanese American family for generations and their fruits were the juicy economic engines that fed her community and assured the farm’s survival.
But this year, there’s anguish in the peaceful groves as record-breaking heat waves, air-polluting wildfires, and droughts repeatedly pummel California. Warmer winters and more severe droughts spell poorer fruit sets and smaller fruit. And Masumoto, who returned 10 years ago to farm with her father, author and well-known farmer (and Civil Eats advisory board member) Mas Masumoto, will be responsible for transforming the farming operation so it remains viable into the future. It’s a calculus that likely includes using much less water and replacing some or all of the farm’s beloved peaches and grapes with other crops.
“We will need to adapt, even if it means the painful reality that I might not get to leave this living cathedral of memory—the orchards—to a next generation,” said Masumoto. “If it comes to it, I fear the weight of that grief.”
As climate change-fueled extreme weather events such as storms and droughts become more frequent and intense, farmers and others in the agriculture community across the country are increasingly feeling the brunt and contemplating a dark future. Beyond the inherent stress of farming, they face anxiety, depression, and grief linked to a fast-changing natural environment on which they’ve staked their livelihoods—at a time when few mental health-related resources are available to them.
“The weather has become a more dominant factor in farmers’ stress than it was in times past,” said Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer and agricultural psychologist. “We’re seeing more concern. Even the farmers who are climate deniers say spring is coming earlier than it used to or are seeing longer periods without rainfall.”
This year is proving to be one more in a series of disastrous years for farmers. Intense heat waves have ravaged the western U.S.—from Washington state to California and Arizona—and most of the region is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, leading to severe irrigation water restrictions, farmers fallowing fields, and ranchers culling cattle they can no longer feed. Mega-fires across the West have destroyed crops and infrastructure. Drought is also spreading in the Northern Plains and the Midwest, putting key commodity crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans at risk. And in the Northeast, producers have seen repeated heavy rains this summer, and post-Hurricane Ida flooding imperil crops and food distribution networks.
These ongoing, often long-term disasters are impacting farmers’ well-being, experts say. The farmer crisis hotline run by Farm Aid (1-800-FARM-AID or through an online form) has seen a significant increase in calls related to “natural disasters that are exacerbated if not caused by climate change,” said Jennifer Fahy, the group’s communications director.
For Lori Mercer, a Farm Aid hotline operator, several recent calls come to mind. An older California rancher called to say he had woken up one morning to take care of his livestock—but when he opened up his well, nothing came up but sand. He couldn’t afford the $15,000 to $30,000 it would take to drill a new well, Mercer said.
“The dearth of care is incredible. In farming communities, people just carry on and put their health as the last priority.”
Another call came from the western region of the U.S.: a producer’s entire farm, including his farmhouse and all of his crops, had burned down in a raging wildfire. His plea to the hotline, Mercer said, was elemental: He needed help finding emergency housing. And a more recent call from a farmer in one of the southeastern states devastated by Hurricane Ida revealed another desperate situation: livestock missing and/or killed, crops ruined, all of the fences, the power, and the computer down, and all crops in the freezer and fridge storage spoiled.
“It’s terribly hard for farmers to talk,” said Mercer, who stressed that the calls are fully confidential. “And the calls we get are just the tip of an iceberg. Most don’t reach out because of their streak of independence and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality.”
Farmers calling the hotline get to vent about their experience to supportive listeners and often get help crafting a plan of action, Mercer said. They receive referrals to local organizations in their county or state that can help them address the crisis on the ground and support them in its aftermath. Farm Aid also links farmers with a slew of resources and sends out $500 emergency checks to help the farmers with bills such as household expenses and food. (It can take up to six months to two years to get help through a relief program, said Mercer.)
But in recent years, in response to mounting calls for help related to the climate, Farm Aid has shifted to organizing workshops that can proactively help farmers address the climate crisis. The workshops focus on how farmers and ranchers can become more resilient to future disasters by implementing sustainable methods of farming such as rotational grazing, soil regeneration, and habitat restoration. Others train farmers on how to document their losses and apply for federal financial relief.
The increase in climate-related disasters and calls for help is also forcing the organization to reframe the very idea of disaster relief, said Fahy, the communications director. In the past, isolated natural disasters motivated giving. But in recent years, getting the public interested in giving money to a group of farmers facing a localized crisis is more challenging, she said, given that such weather events have become “the new normal.”
“How do we raise public awareness and ask for support when the disasters are a constant, ongoing extreme situation?” Fahy said.
Climate change is especially stressful for beginning farmers who must find a way to continue farming and remain profitable for decades to come. For Nikiko Masumoto, whose family grows organic peaches, nectarines, and grapes on 80 acres 15 miles southeast of Fresno, the pressure and potential losses are significant. Already, the Masumoto family has pulled some vines and trees to fallow land because of dwindling groundwater reserves and a lack of rain and snow that in the past fed surface water sources. They have reduced their irrigation by 20 to 30 percent, leading to smaller peaches, which are more difficult to sell.
The family is looking at planting more drought-resistant perennial crops such as fig or olive trees—or even annual vegetable or grain crops, Masumoto said. This would be a radical change, but it might be necessary. And as she’s struggling with the weight of the decision, she remembers the resilience of her jiichan (grandfather) who was imprisoned during World War II in a Japanese-American concentration camp and later returned to Central California to buy the farm’s first 40 acres and plant its first crop of peaches.
“Climate change can get depressing,” said Masumoto, “but I think of my ancestors and their incredible will to survive. I have no right to give up now.”
Forty miles west, in Madera, another young farmer contemplates the uncertain future of her farming family. Allie Quady said her family’s winery, which grows some of its own grapes, had to drill a new well this year because the casing of the old one was broken and it was pulling up sand. And because the water table had dropped significantly—10 feet per year for the past seven years, compared to only 10 feet over a 20-year span prior to that—the new well had to go in much deeper, said Quady, the winery’s health, safety, and organization manager.
It has taken three months for Quady Winery to get its new well because hundreds of other wells in Madera County have also needed replacement. The county’s aquifer is vastly over-drafted by farmers, some of whom rely entirely on groundwater that is not being replenished due to long-term drought. The Quady family’s yields were much lower as a result, but the grapes were saved, Quady said, thanks to the back-breaking work of the winemaker who went out every day, three times a day, even at temperatures that surpassed 100 degrees to check the drip lines and replace a filter that kept some water flowing.
“It was very stressful . . . to not be able to water the grapes consistently and efficiently,” Quady said. “[They] do die pretty quick if you don’t get the water to them.”
The family is contemplating moving some of its operations to other parts of California, Quady said, although its muscat grapes require heat as well as abundant water, which is scarce everywhere in the state. If the water runs out, Quady also worries about the livelihood of the area farmers who sell grapes to her family.
“We’re tied to the local community of growers,” Quady said. “We all rise and fall together.”
Small- and mid-scale farmers and ranchers have long experienced high levels of stress and anxiety. They can’t control prices or trade policies, and many have faced increasing debt levels and diminishing incomes.
Farmers are also known for their grit, self-reliance, and perseverance, despite holding down one of the most dangerous occupations. They’re used to working alone, in far-flung isolated areas. They also are among the occupational groups with the highest rate of suicide. But, experts say, climate change is challenging the very nature of farming—and causing farmers even greater emotional distress—because the job engages directly with the shifting forces of nature.
And yet, the stigma of seeking help in rural communities remains real, said Fahy. “Everyone knows everyone and knows that’s your truck parked in the therapist’s parking lot,” she said. And many farmers continue to lack access to care. In some Iowa counties, for example, there’s one professional mental health care provider for roughly every 12,000 residents. Another barrier is the lack of therapists, behavioral health care professionals, and extension specialists who actually understand the nature of farming. And even when enough trained providers are available, farmers often lack the health insurance to cover care expenses, Fahy said.
“The dearth of care is incredible,” she said. “In farming communities, people just carry on and put their health as the last priority.” But, Fahy added, there’s growing willingness in recent years to acknowledge the stress farmers face and services are expanding rapidly in states including Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, and New Hampshire.
The shift toward more services and increased openness in the farming population are partly due to a transition to the term “behavioral health,” which carries less stigma than mental health, said Rosmann, the agricultural psychologist. “Farm stress” is also commonly used.
“We once thought it was sacred, but depression is now viewed more like diabetes, it’s something we have to accept and manage,” Rosmann said.
“I think the time is coming where the understanding of how we manage our behavior is a central factor in our success as farmers.”
To improve access to behavioral health among farmers, Rosmann said the federal government should establish a permanent program—and permanent funding—similar to the AgrAbility program that supports disabled farmers or programs that support veteran farmers. Currently, the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) grant program, established in 2008 and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is up for reauthorization in the farm bill every five years. The grants fund hotlines, training and workshops, support groups, and outreach services. Last year, NIFA awarded $28.7 million to four regional entities and funded additional Farm Aid hotline operators and expanded hotline hours, among other services.
More research and academic training is also needed, including support for agricultural behavioral programs that are just getting established, said Rosmann, who is working on the first textbook in the field. Behavioral skills—including coping with stress, establishing a support network, curbing substance abuse, or effectively managing family relationships and employees—also need to be taught in agricultural and vocational programs, he added.
“I think the time is coming where the understanding of how we manage our behavior is a central factor in our success as farmers,” Rosmann said.
Farmers who are bearing the burden of climate change should also consider modifying their farming practices if the current ones no longer work, he added. Research has shown that farmers’ job satisfaction—and hence their emotional well-being—is often higher when they employ more sustainable, non-extractive practices, Rosmann said. In one study, done in Iowa in the 1990s, researchers from Iowa State University found that sustainable farmers reported “improved physical health, reduced job stress, more challenging and satisfying work activities, and more satisfying family and community relations”—all potential boons to their mental health.
“When you feel you are farming in a way that benefits consumers and sustains the resources needed to farm, you feel satisfaction. And satisfaction is more important than money,” Rosmann said. “It’s hard to change, but if farmers don’t, they’re going to lose out.”
Matt Angell, a well fixer in Madera, knows first-hand that a farming community is more than just its farmers—and that climate change is also causing distress to everyone who supports agriculture. In recent years, an unprecedented number of well drillers, pump service people, and water district officials—who are under constant, intense pressure to keep agricultural wells running—have suffered heart attacks and strokes, said Angell, the owner of Madera Pumps. During the 2012–2016 mega-drought, Angell was diagnosed with diabetes because, he said, he ate dozens of donuts every day to keep up his energy and smother the incredible stress.
“We’re going after deeper water, and as we go deeper, the aquifers aren’t as strong. Tier 3 drilling is coming. It’s kind of like Stage 4 cancer; it’s terminal.”
Homeowners in agricultural areas are also facing extreme stress levels, Angell said. In counties like Madera, where more than 720,000 acres—representing more than half of the county’s land—are harvested and many people live near the fields, home wells are going dry as the farmers dig increasingly deeper ones in a race to suck water out of the dwindling aquifer. Those homeowners, just like the farmers, also call well fixers for help. Often, the farmers and homeowners are the well fixers’ family and friends.
“We’re a community. People are connected with one another. And when wells start to fail, people reach out in desperation. Desperation then turns to fear and anger,” Angell said, emotions that everyone in a farming town must face just about daily during the drought.
This year, Angell said, he is seeing an unprecedented number of wells drilled during the previous drought broken, their steel casings crushed by subsidence. And because the water table has dropped down further than Angell has ever seen, new wells must now be drilled even deeper to hit water. This is likely the third and final round of drilling before well fixers hit granite and/or water that’s too salty to irrigate crops, said Angell. And it could spell a decline of the community he calls home.
“We’re going after deeper water, and as we go deeper, the aquifers aren’t as strong,” Angell said. “Tier 3 drilling is coming. It’s kind of like Stage 4 cancer; it’s terminal.”
Angell is concerned that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, which was signed into law in 2014 and requires addressing the groundwater overdraft by the early 2040’s, won’t make a difference in time to save the aquifer or its farming community. He said most farmers he works with—despite the deep anxiety they feel about the drought—are unwilling to change their practices. And it’s probable, he said, that unless they soon pull some trees and fallow land, the aquifer will continue to disappear.
“We’re not trying to solve the problem, we’re just kicking the can down the road,” he said. “Everybody’s in denial.”
Quady agrees. She says for now, the race is on as to which farmer can dig the deepest well—which causes anxiety to the small and mid-size farmers who will likely lose out in that race. “I feel a lot of frustration because if everybody would recognize the problem, we could find solutions,” she said.
If you or someone you know needs immediate mental health support, there are a number of national hotlines available:
The Rural Health Information Hub also maintains a detailed page dedicated to farmer mental health and suicide prevention.
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