Young farmers take stress head on
(Editor’s note: Casey Fabris is a reporter for The Roanoke Times.)
Rose Jeter posed a question to her Facebook friends last summer: Why did they think struggling farmers were turning to suicide?
She wasn’t surprised by the answers they offered: the constant stress, the reliance on unpredictable Mother Nature, the inability to set their own prices, the fact that you could work tirelessly and still make little.
They were all familiar to Jeter, the daughter of a farmer who married into the Jeter Farm family and works for Homestead Creamery.
But she was surprised to receive private messages from some farmers who said they had contemplated taking their own lives.
“These were people that I knew,’’ Jeter said.
Amy Johnson, a family nurse practitioner who farms with her husband in Bedford County, responded to Jeter’s post and said she was interested in talking more about the issue. Since then the two women, who knew each other through Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers, have been working to raise awareness of farm stress and create spaces for conversations about mental health.
They join a growing number of people in the region and state — from academics to farmers to the state’s commissioner of agriculture — looking to shine light on an issue that often remains hidden in the shadows.
A 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated those working in the farming, fishing and forestry sector had the highest rate of suicide by occupational group.
Last year, the agency retracted the report, because of errors in coding for some occupational groups.
Though the study served as the impetus for some people working to address farm stress, they say its retraction does nothing to minimize the significance of the problem.
“At the end of the day, does it matter if it’s the highest percent or not?’’ Jeter said. “It’s happening.’’
Jeter first took an interest in farmer mental health a decade ago when she was working as a cooperative Extension agent, her first job out of college. She got a call about a farmer who might have been suicidal.
“I knew enough to know that they didn’t need to talk to me about that,’’ Jeter recalled. “They needed to talk to a mental health professional.’’
But when Jeter searched for resources to point the distressed farmer toward, she couldn’t find much. The experience prompted her and others at Virginia Tech to publish a brief guide of their own.
The CDC report was a “kick in the butt’’ for Jeter, making her reflect about what she’d done to raise awareness of farm stress in the years since.
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t let time go by again,’’ she said.
Jeter and Johnson started by drafting and submitting policies to their local Farm Bureaus. Those policies later were adopted at the state level.
The policies voice support for the Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network, in addition to training on farm stress for mental health professionals practicing in rural areas and seeking grants to fund workshops for farmers in crisis that would address mental health and financial restructuring.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the national organization, adopted one policy that cites similar goals.
Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau, said in an email that the policies serve as a “guiding document when we participate in the legislative process during the General Assembly Session, and in Congress.’’
More than an occupation
Life as a farmer is stressful. It’s a simple fact. Commodity prices are out of farmers’ control and their product’s quality is dependent on the whims of the weather. For farmers, the work is not just an occupation, but part of their identity.
As economic conditions have worsened, members of the agriculture community have experienced an increase in life stressors, which impact a person’s mental health and sometimes even their physical health, said Kim Niewolny, an Extension specialist and associate professor at Virginia Tech who also serves as director of the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition and AgrAbility Virginia.
Perhaps the most obvious life stressor is making financial decisions that will support the farm both today and into the future, Niewolny said. Many farmers work land that has been in the family for decades, creating an added pressure to succeed.
That stress can extend beyond the primary operator of the farm and into the family.
It can also endanger the safety of farmers, as they might take risks or cut corners, feeling as if they don’t have the time or resources to take necessary precautions. Or perhaps they’re just so physically and emotionally taxed that they forget a step or safety measure.
A safe place to open up
As a sixth-generation dairy farmer, Courtney Henderson knows something about tradition. But there’s one thing the 23-year-old from Botetourt County wants to do differently than her predecessors: talk more openly about farm stress and mental health.
“Mental health to me is something that’s been ignored in the agriculture industry for a very long time,’’ she said. “You’re always taught to kind of keep that to yourself. If you’re dealing with it, deal with it and go on.’’
Given the struggles that many in the agriculture industry — dairy farmers particularly — are facing, Henderson said the issue deserves more attention and farmers need a safe place to open up.
Henderson created that outlet for herself shortly after graduating from Virginia Tech in May. She rounded up young women in agriculture and suggested they meet every so often to get off the farm, vent their frustrations and share perspectives. It’s nothing formal, more of a social hour, Henderson said. But it’s a space that didn’t exist for these women before.
Henderson believes her generation is more open to talking about the sensitive topic of mental health.
“The older generation has always been taught hush hush, keep to yourself. This generation is tired of the hush hush. I’m tired of it,’’ she said. “It’s nice when I get together with that group because I can get out and talk.’’
Awareness, affordability and access are priorities
The first time Amy Johnson delivered a talk on mental health to a room full of farmers, she was nervous. She didn’t know how they’d respond to words like depression or suicide. They can be difficult for anyone to hear and discuss, but particularly farmers, often the strong, stoic types.
“To walk into a room and say the word `suicide’ — `We’re going to talk about suicide’ — that stops people in their tracks because we don’t talk about that,’’ Amy Johnson said.
But that’s exactly the mindset she’s seeking to change. With a professional background in medicine and personal background in agriculture, Amy Johnson is uniquely suited to do so.
“I like to say I talk real,’’ she said. “I break it down. I’m not afraid to meet folks where they are.’’
Amy Johnson knows what they’re going through.
Her father almost lost the Highland County farm she grew up on several times. The stress has kept her husband, W.P. Johnson, from sleeping in the past. Last year he even lost a friend to suicide.
“Farmed every day of his life, and just couldn’t handle it anymore,’’ said W.P. Johnson, who also works off the farm for the USDA Farm Service.
Though others in the agriculture community knew of the man’s death, W.P. Johnson said nobody talked about it — farmers just aren’t built that way.
“We talk about the weather,’’ he said. “We’ll talk about the weather for days.’’
W.P. Johnson said he feels it’s become more acceptable to talk about mental health in the “mainstream world,’’ but his world has been slower to adjust. He believes it could take generations. That makes it essential to start the conversation now, as his wife is doing.
A crisis hotline for farmers
As commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Jewel Bronaugh meets with a variety of commodity groups. And at seemingly every meeting, someone calls for help for farmers, citing their stress or a friend’s loss of life.
The issue of farm stress is directly tied to economics, Bronaugh said. And this is a time when farmers are struggling financially.
“When you go through these tough economic times those incidences of stress and depression and suicide tend to go up,’’ she said. “It’s happened before.’’
Bronaugh knew she needed to do something. She’d heard about a crisis hotline for farmers in Colorado and is now working to bring a similar hotline to Virginia.
In Colorado, Bronaugh said, cards printed with the hotline number said something general, along the lines of “times are hard, you need to talk about it, call this number.’’ It was a simple invitation to talk.
“I would very much like to get a hotline up and running in the state of Virginia so that if someone is in a dire situation, they can call the hotline, they can talk to someone who not only understands the cues of stress generally but also understands the language of a farmer,’’ Bronaugh said.
The commissioner is currently putting together a task force, which includes Niewolny.
It will also have representatives from Virginia Farm Bureau, cooperative extension, the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services and the Virginia Agribusiness Council.
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