Story by Amelia Kent
Farmers and ranchers have had the spotlight of national media attention for the past several months, and not necessarily in a positive light. Of course the trade negotiations are a recurring story, whether it’s the impacts of NAFTA or trade wars with China. As our margins are already tight, and we’ve already experienced market declines based on speculation, I hope these trade talks settle in a few short-term battles rather than a long-lasting war. But trade isn’t the only topic bringing attention to farmers and ranchers. Thanks in large part to a Centers for Disease Control Study released in 2016, numerous stories and articles by many of the national and international media outlets have covered suicide rates among farmers and ranchers.
Upon reading these articles, I found myself simultaneously unsurprised and taken aback. Yes, our farm incomes have fallen upwards to 50% since 2013. Some market prices are exactly the same as they were decades ago. The dairy industry is facing a compounded challenge of low prices with an unfathomable oversupply. In a conversation with a dairy farmer, he compared the 1% oversupply that led to the dairy buyout in the mid-1980s, to today’s surplus in excess of 12%. We all know exactly how tough the farm economy is because we live and breathe it every single day.
Yet, I was surprised by some of the suicide-rate comparisons. Although the CDC retracted the study and is now recalculating it with more accurate numbers, suicide rates in rural areas are exponentially higher than in urban areas. The study found rates among farmers, ranchers, fisherman and loggers, presented as one group, was more than double that of veterans or emergency workers. When you think about the variables we have no control over, such as volatile markets, weather, or a natural disaster destroying the crop, the stress farmers carry is intense on a good day. Furthermore, the access to mental health professionals tends to be lacking in rural areas.
Another hindrance farmers and ranchers face is cultural. Dr. Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer, a psychologist, and one of the nation’s leading farmer behavioral health experts, has developed the agrarian imperative theory. Through years of working with farmers and ranchers, he’s concluded people engaged in farming have a strong urge to supply essentials for human life, and to produce these goods at all costs. When farmers can’t fulfill this purpose, they feel despair. The same drive that blesses farmers in good, successful years, exacerbates the struggles of bad years. Dr. Rosmann worked with Sowing Seeds of Hope, which connected farmers to affordable behavioral health services. This program became the model for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which was included in the 2008 Farm Bill, but not funded.
A friend relayed a conversation he had with a young farmer. This farmer conveyed how very concerned he is with the current economic outlook for agriculture, and how overwhelming that stress is. He also remarked that his father views this current situation with the outlook that if they made it through the 1980s farming recession, they’ll make it through this one too – almost a cautious optimism in spite of the younger farmer’s worry. While I was a child in the 80s, through the lenses of my child’s eyes, I do remember how stressful it was for my parents.
Now is a very real time we need to be available to our friends, neighbors and peers. If you made it through the last hard time in farming, and now see someone facing this challenge for the first time, lend an ear or offer some words of encouragement. What helped you get through the last struggle? I’m sure those words of experience are helpful to the younger generation. If you’re facing this farming recession for the first time, check on your farming friends. More than likely, you’re sharing some of the same challenges. Those challenges get easier when you know others are in the same situation.
Amelia Kent and her husband, Russell, raise beef cattle and hay in East Feliciana Parish. Amelia is a past chair of Louisiana’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee, is currently a member of the - Partners in Advocacy Leadership program with AFBF, and serves on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. Find them on Facebook at Kent Farms; or on Instagram and Twitter @kentfarms_la.