Organic Broadcaster

Experts offer advice to help farmers deal with stress of farming

By John Mesko, MOSES

This summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed an error in its widely cited 2016 report that ranked the suicide rate among farmers as the highest of any occupation in the country. The CDC said it had misclassified farmers as part of the center’s “farming, fishing, and forestry” occupational group. While confusion around the actual rate of suicide among farmers centers on how they are classified in the data, any rate of suicide among farmers, ranchers, or farm workers is too high. The positive side of all this attention is that it has people talking about the issues that lead to suicide and ways to help farmers cope with the stress of farming.

In May before the CDC’s news, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, urging him to proactively address the farmer suicide crisis. Johnson asked Perdue to use the resources at USDA to help agency personnel and the Cooperative Extension Service learn to identify and respond to signs of mental stress, and to convene rural stakeholders to work with agencies and nonprofits to identify best practices in responding to farmer stress.

Lawmakers are currently working on the 2018 Farm Bill which includes a provision (Section 7511) called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. This provision would support community-based mental health services. The provision also calls for the USDA Secretary to prepare a report on the state of behavioral and mental health in farmers and ranchers, and efforts to support their mental health.

Factors Behind Farmer Suicide
Farming is widely viewed as a high-stress occupation with financial risks and physically demanding work. While the additional stress of extreme weather events and volatile markets are beyond a farmer’s control, farmers feel it personally when these factors impact a farm’s success. When farms have been handed down through a family, struggling farmers often feel the added dimension of letting down past generations if the farm fails.

Farming is also widely viewed as a noble profession. Farmers are caretakers of the land and food providers—roles they take seriously.

Dr. Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer, clinical psychologist, and syndicated columnist, describes this noble approach to farming as the “agrarian imperative theory.” He believes people have “a genetic imperative to produce life’s essentials”—food, clothing, and shelter. His view is there is something inherent driving farmers to work incredibly hard, endure physical hardship, take uncommon risks and rely chiefly on themselves to provide these essentials.

“The strong urge to succeed at all costs, even ending one’s life, is seen somehow as more noble than failure at farming,” Rosmann wrote in an article about farmer suicide.

Opening up discussion about the topic of suicide seems to be at the core of prevention. Dr. Helen Farrell, a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School, wrote, “Glib remarks such as ‘everybody has them’ perpetuate the myth that suicidal thoughts are part of a normal human experience and imply that suffering individuals should just deal with it themselves.”

Help for Farmers
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has a free, 24/7 help line (833-600-2670 x 1) that connects callers who are overwhelmed or suicidal with people who are trained in dealing with personal crises. In addition to that crisis line, MDA also retains Ted Matthews as its Rural Mental Health Counselor. (See He has counseled dozens of farmers through tough times.

“Farming has always been a very stressful occupation with so many possible negative outcomes, and everyone handles stress in different ways,” Matthews said. He encourages farmers to look for the things they can control, and not focus on things they can’t, such as the weather or commodity prices. “By putting our energy into what we can change instead of being overwhelmed by what we have no control over, we can reduce our stress,” he added.

Matthews encourages the farmers he counsels to communicate with their partner or spouse. “My dealings with many women in agriculture show their number one issue on the farm is lack of communication,” he said. “Men, on the other hand, when stressed, communicate less.”

He recommends setting aside at least 15 minutes a day to talk about what happened that day on the farm for both partners. “The simple reason for that is that two heads are better than one, and bonding comes with communication,” he explained.

Matthews also counsels his callers to “be nice.” Stress can make people quick to anger or snap at their partners. He encourages people to be aware of that tendency and make an effort to treat others—and ourselves—more kindly in times of stress. “By being kind to ourselves, we have a greater capacity to be kind to others,” he added.

Ways to Reduce Stress
If suicide is seen as a way out of a stressful situation, one way to prevent suicide would be to reduce stress. The Cleveland Clinic has a succinct list of helpful tips to follow to reduce stress. (See

Mental health experts recommend regular exercise to lower stress and anxiety. Exercise releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones.

Exercise also improves sleep, another important factor in stress management. While farming can be an active lifestyle, much of it can be repetitive motions and not balanced exercise for the whole body. In many cases, too, modern equipment has replaced hand labor, leading to less physical activity.

Farm Strong, an organization out of New Zealand, offers a free online “Farm Fit Challenge” program that includes a 4-week workout plan that gradually increases in intensity as the exerciser gains strength. (See

Experts also recommend a healthy diet to reduce the effects of stress. “Eating the rainbow,” or a diet with a wide variety of types and colors of foods can reduce stress, lower cholesterol, and even help maintain a healthy weight. Green leafy vegetables, nuts, fish, oatmeal or granola are much better at reducing stress than the sugary, fatty foods many of us turn to for a quick lift in times of stress. For a list of anti-stress foods, see

Connecting with a faith tradition is another way of addressing stress and developing a healthy mental state. The Mayo Clinic has identified several connections between spirituality and stress management ( These include:
• Feeling a sense of purpose;
• Connecting to the world;
• Releasing control;
• Expanding your support network.

The farming profession has long attracted rugged individualists who seek a quiet, self-sufficient lifestyle where success rests squarely on their shoulders. But, as anthropologists have noted, humans were meant to be part of a community—even the most rugged of individualists needs the support of family, friends, and neighbors for good mental health.

In our current economic environment, financial success on farms is more elusive than ever. Farmers need support to help them weather this economic storm if they’re to continue farming. But, there also needs to be room in our community for farmers to choose to change careers in order to maintain a healthy, productive life.

We are all striving for a healthy society and rural communities where organic and sustainable farms can have an impact for the long term. When a farmer commits suicide, we lose the farmer and often the farm. This is not sustainable. There is help available, and talking to someone isn’t a sign of weakness.

As MDA’s Matthews said when explaining why farmers call him, “It isn’t about what’s wrong with you. It’s about how you can make this life better.”


John Mesko is the executive director of MOSES.


From the September | October 2018 Issue

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