Farmers continually face crises alone; many die from suicide

May 16, 2020 — by Shama Gupta

Since 2018, farmer suicide rates in the United States have risen as high as they were during the economic downturn dubbed the “1980’s farm crisis” that started with a lack of public help networks such as financial assistance and a drop in crop prices. Today, in addition to the fallen crop prices, farmers face the negative effects of climate change. 

In 2019 alone, weather fluctuations prevented farmers from planting on 20 million acres of land. Additionally, since 2012, key commodity prices have fallen by around 50 percent. These setbacks affect farmers disproportionately. While these factors do affect large-scale agra-business farms in the US, it’s the generational family farms that have the most trouble and that are growing increasingly rare.   

With family farms facing unprecedented challenges, it’d be expected that the federal government would implement legislation to help farmers’ mental health and bolster their financial situation. But with both of these lacking, the isolated farmers are left unhappy, and the agriculture industry is falling apart. 

Although the government tried to help with the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network Act in 2008, the programs didn’t receive funding until almost a decade later. While it’s blatantly clear there is a problem tearing lives apart in the agricultural industry, the federal government has been slow to act and has put aside far too little money to actually make a difference.

Now, the median income in a farm household in 2020 is projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be negative $1,840. Working second and third jobs is not uncommon among farmers, but quitting is simply not an option. 

Because the land is usually handed down generation after generation, there is pressure to uphold familial tradition. In a family of farmers, agriculture is written into their legacy, finances, and even their housing and schooling. 

Unable to find ways to achieve financial security, farmers are now 3.5 times more likely to take their own life than the general population — while problems are intensifying, there are no results from the government showing any source of relief. And the longer they go without offering help, the more the farmer’s hurt will affect the country. 

If the government can’t jump to help farmers because they are suffering, they should at least help because there will be disastrous consequences across the nation. 

One South Dakota farmer, for example, provides a glimpse of the devastation brought about by the deep-rooted problems they face. Chris Dykshorn and his family were $300,000 in debt and had no options to work their way out of it due to multiple uncontrollable factors. 

Fighting for his three young children and wife, he grew his corn on the few fields that weren't flooded after the Midwest’s record-breaking precipitation last winter. He transported them as much as he could using whatever roads and railways that were open. 

Due to President Trump’s trade war with China, however, the prices of the crop Dykshorn had were drastically driven down. China refused to buy crops from any American farmers, leaving Dykshorn and hundreds of farmers with significantly less money in crop sales, and unable to pay off loans or debt.

These issues were not addressed by the government, and their seriousness is only increasing in light of recent shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Farms in Florida, for example, are  producing acres of fruits and vegetables that are being plowed over or left to rot because they aren’t able to sell to restaurants, schools and theme parks nationwide. Similarly, pounds of milk produced in states like Vermont and Wisconsin are being dumped, and vegetables from California face the same catastrophic effects. 

In any crisis, the farming industry gets hit especially hard, and farmers do not receive adequate help in these situations. Their lack of control in these times leads to helplessness, anxiety and depression; the suicide rate will only increase if real action isn’t taken soon. 

But, geographically and emotionally, these farmers are difficult to reach. If we want to help the people behind the invaluable agricultural industry, we have to start with the basics and work our way up. There has to be a National Suicide Hotline specific to farmers like there is for veterans, and there has to be more required education for both farmers and their families on signs of declining mental health. 

But more than anything, there needs to be substantial change in the way any helplines are marketed. For Midwest farmers, the stigma of calling a crisis line often affects their choosing to call. While destigmatizing the idea that it’s weak to call about mental health is important, waiting for this mindset that is ingrained in these farmers to change is simply unreasonable. 

To accommodate, mental health lines can be changed to lines that offer advice and help in regards to stress. Along with this, programs that offer tactical, financial and logistical advice when farmers lose clients or get flooded out should be both available and easily accessible. These programs can also include therapists or psychologists with specific backgrounds that allow them to understand the struggles that farmers face, considering how narrow they are.   

There may be countless factors that are inflexible when it comes to the hardships that farmers face and that lead to their high suicide rate. But for a problem so nuanced and in need of legislation that will realistically take too long to implement, these programs are our best chance at curbing suicide rates.

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