Lessons learned from the field about farmer's behavioral health

Farmers Advance

A new Farm Bill is being developed by federal legislators in the House and Senate along with input from lobbyists and the Biden administration. The current 2018 Farm Bill expires at the end of 2023.Now is the time to consider provisions that should be included in the 2023 Farm Bill, not just to regulate conservation and economic programs, but also those which protect the safety and health of agricultural producers. Why should the Farm Bill address the physical and behavioral well-being of farmers?The answer is that farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers are the most important asset in the food chain from producer to consumer. Healthy farmers are able to function optimally and to make their best decisions.Without federal assistance, such programs as the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, the National AgrAbility Project, and the network of regional Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health could not function, even though these programs require state and private funding partners.The USDA programs that focus on physical and behavioral health, safety, education, Extension services at land-grant institutions and the like comprise a tiny percentage of the USDA budget. Nonetheless, they are programs that “give the most bang for the buck.”Let’s go back in history a bit to examine how agricultural programs that protect the physical and behavioral well-being of agricultural producers came about. The Extension was formalized by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 at a time when farmers needed information about agriculture.During the Great Depression of the 1930s, most of the agriculture measures that were passed into law by Congress, focused on President Roosevelt’s priorities: agricultural land set-aside, loans on stored grain, banking regulations, soil and water conservation, and work programs.The Farm Crisis of the 1980s led to programs that were aimed at making farming safer through a network of regional research and education Centers that were administered through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. A National AgrAbility Project was implemented by the USDA to assist injured farmers to recover sufficiently to remain engaged in agriculture. State and private buy ins were required.During the past three decades, the rate of fatalities in the agricultural occupations of farming, ranching, fishing and forestry has declined by half and the number of children who were killed in farming related events has also declined. Improved design of farm machinery, farm safety educational programs and agricultural medicine have contributed to the decrease in occupation related fatalities and injuries.However, the rate of suicides by farmers and other serious stress related adaptations by farmers remained high after the crisis of the 1980s subsided. Although there were local, state and regional efforts and some federal grants to curtail the mental and behavioral health traumas associated with farm loss and the destruction of agricultural livelihoods, nothing substantial changed at the federal level until the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) was approved by Congress on December 30, 2018 and signed by President Trump the following day.The FRSAN assists all vulnerable farming people such as those who are distressed by being unable to pay interest on too much borrowed money, those at risk for being marginalized out of agriculture like minority farmers and family sized dairies, beginning operators, people whose lives are devastated by injury (both physical and psychological) or acts of nature (flooding, drought, etc.) and other uncontrollable factors. The FRSAN also helps farmers who want to manage their behavioral health proactively.The FRSAN established four regional centers to assist local, state and nonprofit organizations with setting up crisis hotlines and websites for farmers that are staffed by trained responders who understand the rigors of agriculture, help callers through crises, and can refer callers for follow up counseling by professionals who understand agriculture, ongoing community education about dealing with farm stress and its management, train already licensed or new professional counselors to understand the cultures of people engaged in farming, pay for counseling when needed, like an employee assistance plan does, to defray resistance to seeking behavioral healthcare because of costs and worries about health and life insurance premiums that rise when a diagnosis of depression is made, evaluate the effectiveness of program services and improve them, and undertake research that is needed to advance the field of agricultural behavioral health.The rate of suicide by farmers has declined for three successive years. However, the FRSAN has been unevenly implemented. There are model programs in Colorado and Nebraska that carry out the aims of the 2018 legislation.Some programs focus too much on education and covering the costs of institutional overhead and staff salaries rather than funding direct services for distressed farmers. In some instances, the administrators and staff have little or no experience farming, thereby creating credibility issues with the people they are supposed to serve.An improved FRSAN is needed if national and global economic and political conditions deteriorate as expected and a farm recession emerges. There are many producers who purchased more land and equipment than the farming operation can pay for if the economy sours as well as vulnerable beginning and small farmers. The time is right to contact elected leaders with recommendations.Dr. Mike is an Iowa farmer and psychologist. Contact him at