Ag stress tough on body, mind

Stress in agriculture can be caused by several different sources, such as when historic flooding left some farmers unable to get to their cattle to feed them. In this case, a Nebraska farmer sat patiently waiting for a National Nebraska Guard helicopter to deliver donated hay to his cattle.

Repeated weather events delaying planting and harvest seasons, trade disputes disrupting commodity markets and continued lower commodity prices have created a tremendous amount of stress for farmers and ranchers this year.

To help them deal with this stress, Farm Credit, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union on Dec. 11 announced a partnership to train people who work with farmers on a regular basis to be able to recognize the signs of stress and offer help.

“The stress is real,” Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) said during a news conference announcing the new program. Marshall said he talked to a farm banker friend who is working through the 17th bankruptcy this year with a client.

“This is the fifth year in a row of low commodity prices. The No. 1 thing we can do is get the prices up. We’ve been sitting on a trade agreement for a year. It has been very, very frustrating. When there is uncertainty, it adds stress.”

The partnership will use a program based on a farm-stress program developed by Michigan State University Extension and the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA).

It will provide a combination of online and in-person training designed specifically for individuals who interact with farmers and ranchers. It teaches skills to understand the sources of stress, learn the warning signs of stress and suicide, identify effective communication strategies, reduce stigma related to mental health concerns and connect farmers and ranchers with appropriate mental health and other resources.

“Farm Credit loan officers are on farms working with producers every day, and they see firsthand how this difficult farm economy is causing emotional stress for farmers and their families,” said Farm Credit Council CEO Todd Van Hoose.

“We hope this training initiative will help our lenders recognize the signs of severe stress and get farm families the support they need.”

Rep. David Scott (D-GA) said he believes Congress needs to do more to help farmers weather the storms by moving more quickly to approve disaster aid packages in a timely manner.

A 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the suicide rate among workers in farming, fishing and forestry occupations was nearly five times higher than the general population.

“The suicide rates is a big cry that our farmers have for help,” Scott said. “Farm credit is providing the kind of leadership that we need. This is an alarm bell. It’s ringing. We’ve got to do more in Congress. We have to make sure we document how many of those suicides were because Congress didn’t get the aid to them.”

Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) said farmers in hurricane-ravaged states waited for quite some time to receive federal disaster aid.

“It took over 12 months for our producers to receive any assistance at all,” he said. “One thing we can see is our current safety net on crop insurance programs is not good enough to get through crop disasters. The financial stress in the ag community today is real.”

A national Morning Consult poll commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation in April 2019 found 91 percent of respondents said financial issues were a problem. The same poll found 48 percent of rural adults said they were personally experiencing more mental health challenges than one year ago.

In addition, research shows that while farmers experience higher levels of psychological distress and depression than the general population, they are less likely to seek help for mental health issues.

According to a news release from the groups, the training used by the FSA showed 91 percent of participants indicated the training improved their ability to serve customers experiencing stress.

The trainings set to begin in the coming weeks are funded by a grant from Farm Credit.

“Things have been really tough for farmers for several years now, and it’s taking a significant toll on their mental wellbeing,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a press statement.

“But between stigma, a lack of mental health care in rural communities and poor broadband access, there are so many barriers to getting help. By training trusted neighbors and friends to recognize and address stress, this program will bring help closer and make it more accessible when farmers really need it.” — Todd Neeley, DTN staff reporter

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