Farmer Mental Health Crisis is Another Call for Systems Transformation

Farmers and ranchers are twice as likely as people in other occupations to die by suicide, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sit with that startling stat for a moment.

Now, consider that despite that mental health effects of the pandemic should be receding, 2022 American Farm Bureau Federation research found that 61% of farmers and farm workers are experiencing more stress and mental health challenges compared to a year prior. This is a crisis … and also yet another dramatic signal that systemic change is needed in the agriculture and food system.

So, what is it about farming that leaves its community more susceptible and how can we respond?


Unique Conditions for Stress

Farming can be both physically and financially demanding, while simultaneously being very isolating. These three factors already create conditions ripe for stress, but farmers also have to deal with a great deal of uncertainty that is both out of their control and has the potential to deeply impact their livelihoods. Nowhere is this truer than in industrial scale commodity agriculture, where many farmers are beholden to their input providers, their capital providers, and their off takers.

Let’s take a closer look at the perfect storm of factors contributing to farmers’ stress and higher rates of mental health issues.

  • Weather and Climate Challenges: Farmers heavily rely on favorable weather conditions for successful crop growth and productivity. However, extreme weather events like droughts, floods, storms, or prolonged periods of rain can result in crop failure, reduced yields, and financial losses. The unpredictability of weather patterns and particularly the impact of climate change can exacerbate farmer anxiety and stress.
  • Market Volatility and Trade Policies: Farmers are vulnerable to the volatility of agricultural markets where crop prices can fluctuate due to various factors such as global supply and demand, trade policies, and geopolitical events. Sudden changes in market conditions can significantly impact farmers’ profitability and create uncertainty about future earnings. In the past 18-24 months, this has been especially top of mind as input prices have skyrocketed, impacting farmers around the globe.
  • Workload and Time Pressure: Farming is a demanding occupation that often involves long hours of physical labor and tight schedules, especially during critical seasons like planting and harvesting.
  • Regulatory and Policy Pressures: Farmers often have to navigate complex regulations, compliance requirements, and government policies related to farming practices, land use, environmental conservation, and subsidies. Keeping up with changing regulations and the administrative burden associated with compliance can add stress and strain to farmers’ mental well-being.
  • Financial Pressures: Farming involves inherent financial risks, such as those related to some of the stresses above – fluctuating crop prices, unpredictable weather conditions, rising input costs, and market competition – which can lead to uncertainty of income and profitability. Many farmers also take on debt to fund their operations and often the risk associated with these financial arrangements can be disproportionately allocated to farmers. This can also create significant stress and anxiety.
  • Isolation and Loneliness: Many farmers work in rural areas or remote locations, often living far from neighbors or social support networks. The nature of farming can be isolating, with long hours spent working alone in the fields. Limited social interactions and feelings of loneliness can negatively impact mental health, leading to a sense of isolation and decreased emotional well-being.

The sum of all of these factors can leave farmers in a particularly vulnerable position when it comes to mental well-being.


The Role of Capital Investment

Many, if not all, of the stressors discussed above boil down to the fact that farming involves a lot of uncertainty and risk. Risk of crop loss due to weather, pests, and disease. Market risks associated with the cost of inputs or the price that farmers can get for their harvest. Financial risk tied to the types of capital available to them. All are risks that are disproportionately shouldered by those who sit at the foundation of our food system.

The fact that a farmer mental health crisis exists is just one more stark reminder that the system is broken. Those that produce our food are often finding themselves stuck in extractive systems – ones that extract capital, soil health, nutritional integrity, and farmer well-being. But this crisis can also be a call to arms for the need and opportunity to both improve existing systems and build innovative alternatives. Capital investment can play an important role in enabling this.

Investment in regenerative systems can address ecological and societal health through the regeneration of soil and farming systems – which in turn can address farmer livelihoods, climate change, food quality and much more. These systems can be as profitable or more so than industrial systems while decoupling farmers from expensive and extractive input dependencies, riskier lending relationships, and extractive off take agreements. Regenerative management can even help operations be more resilient to weather events and climate change.

So what kinds of capital investment can help to address this?

Investments that both help farmers and the system around the farmer to be more resilient to the unpredictable, as well as those that lower the risk farmers face on a daily basis, can have long-term positive impact. These types of investments start with strategies that understand and account for the factors that create on-farm risk and ideally share more risk with the farmer.

Investments to address this may, for example:

  • Support farmer adoption of practices that will build economic and climatic resilience in their operations.
  • Help producers decouple their production systems from expensive and extractive input dependencies.
  • Create financial vehicles that account for the realities of farmers’ unique situations and share the risk.
  • Establish new markets and create reliable off-take agreements.


What Else Can You Do?

Beyond capital investment, there are more immediate ways to support farmer mental health. The food system is massive and complex but all stakeholders are tied in some way back to the producer – so this is everyone’s crisis. No matter where you sit – as a farmer, a buyer, a policy maker, an investor, or somewhere else – there is a role for you to play in building immediate or long-term solutions. Here are some ideas:

Increase mental health awareness and decrease the stigma associated with it.

As someone who works with or in the same system as farmers, take time to learn more about the issue and share that information with others you work with. By creating awareness, we can also improve the culture of acceptance around mental health challenges and reduce the stigma around talking about it and seeking help. (See below for some valuable learning resources.)

Be sure to check in with your farmer friends and neighbors.

If you work with the farming community, take the time to check in with those around you.

An example of this: a colleague at sister company, Acres USA, works with the The Good Neighbor Project, which encourages everyone to check in on their neighbors, especially in rural and agriculture communities. She makes snack bags with encouraging notes and then passes it around to all the people at her sale barns.

Donate to organizations that support farmer mental health.

If you or someone you know are having suicidal thoughts or are in need of mental health support, please contact:

Sarah Day Levesque is Managing Director at RFSI & Editor of RFSI News. She can be reached here.