Don McMoran has felt the stress only farmers can.
The Washington State University Extension director in Skagit County grew up on a farm. Friends killed themselves. Family members pressured him to preserve the generational business.
But farmers don’t talk about those things.
“I was taught from a very young age to keep a stiff upper lip and not to complain and to solve your own problems,” McMoran said. Farmers face such a stigma that prevents them from seeking help.
To give farmers more places where they can talk about those things, McMoran and his staff steer several suicide prevention programs that include workshops, “kitchen table” economic counseling, billboards, Farm Aid hotline operators and partnerships with 13 Western states and four territories supported by more than $8 million in federal and state grants, as well as some private donations.
The effort is great, but so is the need.
A 2020 Centers for Disease Control study found farming was among the top 10 occupations for men who die by suicide, and it’s been getting worse. Last year, USA Today reported that more than 450 farmers from nine Midwestern states killed themselves between 2014 and 2018, while calls to the Farm Aid hotline doubled in the same period. The story blamed a combination of falling prices, increasing debt, extreme weather and export disruptions.
The pandemic only piled on the stress. In 2020, the Farm Aid hotline and email service received 900 contacts, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. And while the Midwest has been hit hard, it’s not alone. In the first half of 2020, the top six tree-fruit-producing states accounted for nearly one of every five calls.
“Farming is as stressful as it’s been in a very long time, probably going back to the Dust Bowl days,” McMoran said.
The Farm Aid hotline
If you or someone in the agricultural field needs emotional help, call the Farm Aid farmer hotline: 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243) from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Time and 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific Time. The hotline is available for English and Spanish speakers.
Lots of programs
Agricultural mental health is a focus of programs both locally and nationwide.
Farm Aid, the nonprofit started in 1985 by Willie Nelson and fellow musicians, has raised more than $53 million to fund a variety of farm advocacy and support programs, including the hotline.
Hotline operators are sympathetic listeners but not therapists, said Tony Glover, an operator and retired Auburn University extension agent in Alabama. Instead, they direct farmers to resources to manage the causes of their stress — financial counseling, production advice, disaster relief programs and the occasional emergency grant. If a caller truly needs counseling, operators refer them to professionals or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“We try to stay in our lane,” Glover said.
During his career as an extension agent, Glover worked mostly with small- to mid-acreage, direct-market producers of horticultural crops, including vegetables, apples, peaches and berries. He never lost someone he worked with to suicide, but he heard of them often in his career.
Growing up on a peach and vegetable farm, he worried about his parents before and after they lost their farm to bankruptcy in the troubled 1970s. Years later, they purchased another and got back on their feet through sheer hard work.
Farmers are resilient, but they need help, too, he said. “They don’t mind hard work. That’s not the problem,” Glover said. “But anybody can reach the breaking point and have a mental health crisis.”
The 2018 Farm Bill included $10 million of funding through 2023 to continue the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which helps steer farmers to a variety of services. In 2019, Congress passed the bipartisan Seeding Rural Resilience Act, which implemented voluntary mental health training for U.S. Department of Agriculture employees, provided $3 million in funding for publicity campaigns and directed the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to work with state and local advocates to draft best practices for responding to farm stress.
In 2018, Michigan State University started a farm stress program that hosts workshops, connects farmers to mental health services by phone or in person, publishes financial and management guides, and provides curriculum for ag professionals and family members to communicate with farmers under stress. Cornell University and Penn State University also have training and other services available.
Back in Washington, Skagit County started its farm suicide prevention pilot program in 2019 with funding from the state Legislature. Staff set up workshops and distributed index cards spelling out suicide warning signs in Spanish and English. Later the same year, McMoran’s staff used a $500,000 federal grant from the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to expand throughout Washington and Oregon and pay for billboards bearing suicide prevention lifeline phone numbers in Spanish and English.
In 2020, Skagit County created a partnership with 13 Western states and four territories to share a $7.2 million federal grant from the same assistance network. Among other projects, the money went to the website farmstress.us and the hiring of two additional operators to extend the hours of the Farm Aid hotline, making it available to growers during business hours in the Western time zones.
Other grants specific to Washingtonwill help pay for personal financial advice for farmers, research conducted by WSU, and state Department of Health vouchers to pay for mental health counseling for farmers.
Much of farm stress is financial, said Shannon Neibergs, a WSU professor of agricultural economics. Neibergs will use grant funding to hire a financial literacy coach to host workshops and meet farmers one-on-one inside their homes. That person will be trained in how to recognize suicidal tendencies.
Besides the Farm Aid hotline, those in agriculture have many other resources regarding mental health and suicide prevention.
—National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255), suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
—De Prevencion del Suicidio: 888-628-9454
—National Crisis Text Line: Text “GO” to 741741
—Skagit County Extension suicide prevention program: extension.wsu.edu/skagit/suicide-prevention (English) and extension.wsu.edu/skagit/suicide-prevention/recursosdelaprevenciondelsuicidio (Spanish).
—For a clearinghouse of professional services, including crisis assistance, mental health and financial planning, visit the Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program at farmstress.us. Services are listed by topic and state.
—Michigan State University’s farm stress management programs: canr.msu.edu/managing_farm_stress/index.
—Cornell Cooperative Extension Cortland County farm stress training: cortland.cce.cornell.edu/events/2020/08/25/farm-stress-training.
—Cornell’s series on small farm resilience during the pandemic: smallfarms.cornell.edu/resources/farm-resilience.
—New York FarmNet stress management resources: nyfarmnet.org/farm-stress.
—Penn State Extension resources: extension.psu.edu/mental-health-and-stress-for-agricultural-producers.
Anxiety and depression exist for farmworkers, too, said Marilu Fernandez-Silva, who grew up watching her family toil in the berry fields of Skagit County. Her parents were stressed about losing jobs if they didn’t pick fast enough, especially as they aged and slowed.
But terms such as depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation weren’t used, said Fernandez-Silva, who up until late September worked as a translator for Skagit County Extension and helped put together the Spanish components of the suicide prevention program. And like farmers everywhere, Latino workers were taught not to complain, especially men.
“It’s not something that you could talk about at the dinner table,” she said.
Personal tragedies motivate McMoran.
When he was a sophomore in college, a longtime farm employee took his own life. More recently, in the past three years, three Skagit County farmers also did. McMoran gathered up his staff. They agreed to help him pursue grant money and launch prevention efforts.
Through the brochures, workshops and hotlines, he aims to empower people to tackle emotional problems — their own and those of their friends. “To not be afraid to jump in and ask the hard questions,” he said.
He suspects it’s working. About a year ago, after one of his presentations, a berry industry official met a grower who exhibited suicidal signs, and he found the farmer the help needed.
“I’m calling him a hero,” McMoran said.
—by Ross Courtney