Stress in Agriculture: Digging Deep Into a Mental Health Crisis

January 3, 2023 • Previsor

Farmers, ranchers and others working in the agricultural industry are often taken for granted. Our country is one driven by convenience. Many of us are frustrated simply by having to wait in line. But what does it take to produce the goods that feed a nation? How do these producers meet the ever-increasing demand? Further, what happens when your livelihood depends on it? 

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we are joined by Dr. Tara Haskins. She is the Total Farmer Health Director for Agrisafe. Dr. Haskins helps design curriculum, mental health programming and training.

First, we’ll talk about common stressors present in the agricultural industry. Then, we’ll discuss how this stress presents itself and what keeps farmers and ranchers from seeking help. Finally, we’ll share resources for those working in an industry where uncertainty has a regular presence.

Listen to this WorkSAFE Podcast interview, or read the show notes below.

Seasons of stress in the agricultural industry

Working in agriculture is all about production. Business owners cultivate, harvest, raise and plan year-round to meet demand. Anything that interrupts production is a source of stress and concern. Farmers and ranchers battle unseen challenges every day, including:

Bad weather and disease

Some problems are more easily seen than others. Bad weather can affect a farm’s future in an instant. A single drought, flood or wildfire can change the outlook of an entire season. The loss of important storage buildings or equipment, even in the off season, puts future harvests at risk.  

Insects and disease also pose a serious issue. Once a crop or herd is affecting, the problem is extremely difficult to stop. For example, Avian flu can decimate flocks of chicken and other fowl. Farmers may be forced to make hard choices to preserve the health and safety of the larger population.

Fluctuating markets and inflation

Although the demand for agricultural goods is nearly constant, it’s vital for farmers to watch the markets. Dr. Haskins shared, “They are looking and watching these markets all throughout the year, because they have to make solid decisions in order to make a profit on what they put in the ground.”

Rising inflation can strain the typical farm budget. Feed and seed prices are climbing. Dr. Haskins highlights increasing operational costs. “They have no control over the price of gas. Well, guess what? Large equipment, it runs on gas. They have no control over the price of fertilizer.”

What will be in demand in the coming seasons? What should they buy now to be ready for the next year? How should they price their goods to avoid breaking even, or even taking a loss?

Family relationships

“Some factors that the general public may not know about is that about over 90% of producers or farmers work family farms,” Dr. Haskins explained. “That means that that family is the owner of that farm, whether they are a small, medium or large farm.” Not only does this mean that the business depends on a family’s labor, but becomes an important part of a farmer’s identity.

Some families have been running their farms for decades – or even hundreds of years. Responsibility is passed from one generation to the next. But economic and environmental changes can put that at risk. “Your desire is to pass that on to the next generation, to continue that legacy,” she added. “So if you’re looking at not being able to do, that think about how that would impact the way you see yourself, your identity, your family’s identity and  your position in the community.”

Constant work hazards

Agriculture is one of the top industries that workers are injured in. Complex, moving equipment must be used carefully to prevent incidents. Ranchers work with animals, such as cows and hogs, many of which can behave in unpredictable ways. An injury, especially a traumatic one, can not only have long-term effects, but can impact a farmer or rancher’s ability to do their job. 

Isolation and long hours

Farms and ranches are located in rural areas. They require attention and upkeep for much of the year. This means long days, late nights and unpredictable schedules. As a result, many business owners and employees can feel isolated and burnt out. Small communities, long hours and loneliness often make the work feel even more difficult.

What does this stress look like in daily life?

Stress is a part of daily life in the agriculture industry. From bad weather and disease to isolation and financial worries, business owners and their employees juggle frequent uncertainty. How do these pressures show up physically? Dr. Haskins shines a spotlight on a few different ways stress affects these individuals day-to-day:

  • Stress strains relationships. Tensions can grow where stress is present. This is especially true if family members are employees, and the success of the farm depends on everyone working together. Some people are more irritable; others withdraw.
  • Stress steals away concentration. When you’re distracted, it’s easier to make mistakes or unsafe decisions. The risk of injury skyrockets around heavy machinery and large livestock.
  • Stress adds pressure. Many farmers are at the center of their community economy. They provide essential employment, sometimes for decades. This means not only is the success of the farm important for the business, but also for a community that depends on it.
  • Stress makes it hard to sleep. Long hours and working through the night are sometimes requirements of the job on a farm.

Barriers to getting mental health help

Getting professional help can be a huge relief in times of stress and difficulty. Therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists can offer essential help. But farmers and ranchers are often the last ones to seek it out. What does mental health assistance even look like? How do they go about getting it?

One of the biggest barriers to getting help during hard times is lack of services. Healthcare professionals are often in short supply in rural areas. The nearest one may be hours away. However, even if there is local help available, it can be difficult to overcome the stigma. Living in a small community means that people know each other. People may become nervous at the thought of being recognized at an office. A poor internet connection might eliminate telehealth as a dependable option. Even understanding what health insurance may or may not cover can give some people pause.

What does it really mean to be a farmer or rancher?

A lesser known barrier to getting the right help is understanding. Mental healthcare providers are vital. But they don’t always know the ins and outs of the job. “We need them to provide that mental health care,” Dr. Haskins shared. “But they may also not understand the work of agriculture and how there really is no offseason, the toll that it takes and the requirements of hours.” For instance, recommending that someone take two weeks off work isn’t always realistic for a farmer.

“We want healthcare providers to understand at least enough about agriculture to be able to ask questions that are curious, and that recognize that agriculture is very specialized industry. It can create a lot of demands on individuals that may create barriers for care.”

Facing the future: Offering farmers and ranchers stress relief

AgriSafe regularly partners with government organizations to create resources and solutions for the agricultural population. In 2022, they partnered with the Missouri Department of Agriculture. They created a help line, which Dr. Haskins intentionally refers to as a ‘lifeline’. The AgriStress phone line  serves two purposes:

  1. Providing emergency services. By dialing or texting 833.897.2474, callers are connected to trained professionals. They dispatch emergency services for those in the midst of a suicide crisis situation.
  2. Providing emotional support. Not every caller needs emergency services. Sometimes they just need a listening ear – someone who understands them.

One of the major advantages of the help line is its resources. Those picking up the phones don’t just provide support. They’ve also been given insight into the agricultural industry. Not only can they provide mental health resources, but financial mediation and practical resources, such as where to find hay in a drought or help after a storm. Six additional states also have AgriStress help lines.

Supporting the community

AgriStress lines aren’t just for workers themselves, but for those who are concerned about them. “This is a very close collaboration with the state Department of Ag, AgriSafe, and these high level care providers for this AgriStress helpline, to provide the kind of care that farmers and ranchers and their families deserve,” Dr. Haskins explained. And the help doesn’t stop there.

“When you’re in a situation where you’re worried about somebody, or you’re hearing somebody use language that makes you concerned about their safety, that’s a really scary place to be,” she added. AgriSafe not only offers suicide prevention training to communities, but also courses to teach healthcare providers about the agricultural community. All three tactics work together to create support from all angles.

Whether you need help yourself, or want to help someone else, Dr. Haskins recommends adding the AgriStress help line to your phone today. Asking for help can be difficult. But asking questions along the way can help reduce stress in fear. “Calling the line doesn’t cost you a thing,” she shared. “You might hear some suggestions that you never thought of.”

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit Agriculture and Workers Compensation: A Complete Guide or our Resource Library.

January 3, 2023
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