On Tuesday, members of the Pennsylvania Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee held a hearing about farmer mental health in the midst of fluctuating markets that began well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ever-changing commodity prices, the stress of maintaining financial solvency on an operating farm, and sustaining the legacy of multi-generation farms were three of the primary stressors mentioned by an extensive panel of farmers, educators and medical professionals at the hearing in Harrisburg, which included virtual input from participants.
Majority Chair Sen. Elder Vogel opened the panel discussion. “We’re all aware that over the past decade, the agriculture industry has faced economic adversity that has devastated some, but it’s impacted everyone involved. Now is the time to identify the problems and seek out solutions ... so we can begin to seek a path forward.”
Physical and Mental Health Challenges on the Farm
The first panel included Clifford Wallace of the Lawrence County Farm Bureau; Jessica Peters, a farmer and creator of an online support group for farmers; and Frank Hartley, a dairy farmer and consultant to the dairy industry.
Wallace stated that according to Dairy Herd Management magazine, the cost of production of 100 pounds of milk is $19.55, but the average price paid for the same amount is $17.95. As a result of the many pressures on farmers, Wallace has seen the number of dairy farms in the district shrink from 50 to just nine remaining.
“I’ve seen farmers with panic attacks. I’ve seen suicides. I’ve seen bankruptcies. When a family farm business has shut down, the generation in charge feels like a failure ... and the remaining economics make it impossible to start the business again,” Wallace said.
This sentiment was echoed by multiple panelists throughout the morning session.
Peters discussed the physical and mental exhaustion currently experienced by many farmers and the lack of an outlet to vent frustrations and fear. This is one of the reasons why she started asking farmers to anonymously share their “secrets” with her through Facebook or Instagram, simply to have a place to air their concerns and to feel part of a community. She voiced concerns that many mental health professionals know very little about farming and farm mentalities.
“You can’t tell a farmer to quit their job because it’s stressful. It’s so deeply ingrained in who we are,” she said.
Lycoming County dairy farmer Frank Hartley talked openly about dealing with his own health challenges, including an undiagnosed autoimmune disease that first displayed itself as arthritis, and the very practical need to continue feeding cattle.
Hartley isn’t alone. As a farm consultant, he has seen many farmers who prioritize their farms above their own physical and mental well-being. Hartley encouraged members of agribusiness, who are sometimes the only outside contact farmers have day-to-day, to be cognizant of these issues.
“They need to be able to recognize a farmer who is in trouble; they need to have the tools to find help for them,” he said.
Bringing Mental Health Access to Rural Areas
The second panel included Ted Matthews, Minnesota Rural Mental Health director at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, who addressed the need for professionals across the agriculture industry to understand farmers and their inherent desire to maintain a family farm even at the detriment of their own physical or mental health.
“They will hold onto a farm until there’s nothing left to hold on to. A big reason for that is funding — when you’re out, you’re out ... there is no way you can afford to buy land, because (the cost) is too high. If you’re a third-, fourth- or fifth-generation farmer, (farming) is all you know, and there is a fear of doing something else,” he said.
Matthews also discussed the differences in how men and women farmers display anxiety and depression.
“In general, for men, the higher the stress level, the more they pull back. And with women, the higher the stress, the more they want to talk about it. So you have a conflict ... and they become frustrated with one another.”
The key for Matthews was to provide mental health access to farmers at the farm, and for agribusiness folks to reach out to farmers if they sense trouble.
Matthews also talked about the stress, anger and frustration of transitioning a family farm to the next farming generation, especially when several in the next generation want to sell the farm.
“When people don’t know what to do, they do nothing. Everyone needs to know that there is something they can do. If (only) I had a nickel for every person I ever heard say, ‘I don’t know what to do and so I didn’t do anything, and I wish I had.’”
Challenges of Food Animal Veterinarians Discussed
Another panel addressed the challenges of medical services providers, such as farm veterinarians, and featured Mary Jane McNamee, chair of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association.
According to a recent Merck Animal Health study in 2018 and again in 2020 that looked at veterinarians nationwide, 75% of veterinarians self-reported depression and 25% reported suicidal thoughts. The highest number came from female veterinarians ages 35-49. Only 33% of vets recommended a career in vet medicine, which as McNamee pointed out, is at odds with what so many young people aspire to be when they are young and deciding on a career path.
Common stressors mentioned in the study were high levels of student loan debt, which can take 10-30 years to pay back, and the challenges of owning a business that can be taxing on emotions, such as being empathetic with grieving clients or managing clients who are not willing or able to pay for services.
“Food animal veterinarians were less likely to suffer from serious psychological distress and reported higher levels of well-being than companion animal vets,” McNamee said. “That’s probably because a lot of large animal vets are baby boomers and they have a better work-life balance, they’re more likely to be married, or they don’t have as much student loan debt.”
Extension’s Efforts to Reach Out to Farmers, and to Reduce Stigma
Elise Gurgevich, Ginger Fenton, Cynthia Pollich and Brent Hales from Penn State Extension discussed their efforts to train staff about farmer mental health and wellness so they can be of service to local farmers. The effort, called Mental Health First Aid, has trained 132 Extension staff so far, with an additional 40 staff being trained this fall.
“While they are not case managers or diagnosing mental health issues, they are contributing to a caring culture,” Gurgevich said. “And (they) are there to be a supportive network and connector to resources.”
This fall, Penn State Extension is offering a five-part virtual series that addresses mental wellness as farmers navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers are also encouraged to reach out to local Extension agents for direct referrals to mental health resources, or go online to https://extension.psu.edu/stress-and-mental-health to find resources.
Vogel ended the hearing by reiterating that this is just the beginning of the conversation and that the committee is dedicated to providing mental health resources to all farmers across Pennsylvania.
To listen to the full live hearing online, go to: https://www.pasenategop.com/blog/092220/.
Lisa Z. Leighton is a freelance writer who lives in Columbia County, Pa., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.