“Farmer suicide is a public health threat and could hurt our food supply,” said Elisabeth Flynn in the latest issue of The FruitGuys Magazine. Flynn is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor who has covered a range of topics, including health and agriculture.
In the article, she notes the Farm-to-Table movement of 15 years seeks to connect producers with consumers through local farmer markets, community gardens and for-profit cooperative enterprises that collect and deliver farm products from organic and sustainable producers to restaurants, institutions and directly to grocers.
Flynn commented these methods of farming comprise “a wholesome and noble occupation that provides nutritious whole foods to an often urban clientele hungry for authenticity and health.”
She makes a case for why farming is difficult and contributes to a risk for an adequate food supply. She says: “Farming is a demanding and difficult calling that provides beauty and independence, but also requires plenty of sacrifice: long hours, little time off, isolation and usually razor-thin operating margins and thus frequent financial instability.”
Among the most significant sources of stress for people engaged in farming are economic pressures that can entail the loss of the family farm, as well as the physical dangers that can lead to tragic events for farmers or their family members.
And there is another risk, Flynn says: “Rural farmers and agricultural workers top the list of people who take their own lives.” She bases her claim on a consensus of studies which indicates that people involved in farming (farm and ranch operators and farm workers) have a higher rate of suicide than any other occupation.
She cited a 2016 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – which the CDC recently retracted because the authors did not adequately specify their definition of who was considered to be a farmer.
If and when the CDC releases a revised analysis of its data, my impression is it will likely find that people involved in all endeavors considered to be part of the agricultural occupation by the USDA (i.e., farmers, ranchers, migrant laborers, farm workers, fishers, lumber harvesters and related activities that result in the production of food, fiber and biofuel) will likely have the highest suicide rate of the occupations they examine.
Flynn mentioned something I have said: “When all available data about suicide among the agricultural population are compiled together, it still says farmers (using the USDA definition) have consistently high – and maybe the highest rate – of any occupational group.”
She also mentions observations of Knesha Rose-Davison, health communications director of the AgriSafe Network, an Iowa-based nonprofit organization that coordinates farmer and family member health clinics in many states and in several other countries besides the United States: “Balancing an agricultural business while still prioritizing time with family, friends or other persons can be difficult.”
Flynn says there are concerns about access to health care and its cost because farmers typically provide their own health insurance, cutting into already tight profit margins. Rose-Davidson adds, “Rural areas often lack the breadth of health services that a typical urban area would have.”
The National Rural Health Assoc. reported a 2016 study that found nearly 700 rural hospitals were at risk for closure, and that 83 rural hospitals had closed during the time frame of 2010-16. Rose-Davison observed, “This degree of hospital closure puts millions of rural residents at risk of losing much-needed health-care services.”
Flynn added that the at-risk health care services includes mental health services.
She offers suggestions about how to help. She suggests that people interested in improving behavioral health care services for the agricultural population should contact their state and federal representatives and urge them to promote policies and legislation that support farmers and sustainable agriculture.
Flynn also says it is important “to buy local.” Making intentional choices about where one purchases food and supporting local producers helps ensure fresh food and local suppliers and establishes connections between the producers and the consumers.
Consumers like to know where their food comes from, and to support farmers in their communities and nearby areas. Purchasers feel they are helping to sustain their communities and they like knowing who the suppliers are and how their food was produced.
Moreover, most of the profit from sales goes to local producers instead of to other participants in the usual food chain from producer to consumer, such as processors, transportation, warehouses and retailers. Most retail grocers appreciate local producers also, because grocery stores become part of the local network and they often have lower wholesale costs, thus increasing their profit margins.
That some locally produced foods are available only seasonally doesn’t seem to hinder the Farm-to-Table movement, because consumers like variety in their foods.
Flynn concludes by saying: “Making thoughtful choices about where you spend your food dollars is a powerful everyday action that is not only good for your own health but for farmers and the food economy, as well.”
Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org