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Farmer advocates hope that recent news coverage of farmers’ mental-health needs will result in funding for a behavioral health program that was approved but never funded in the last farm bill. 

“It’s tough times,” said Bruce Drinkman, a Wisconsin farmer and secretary of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). “There’s a lot of stress in the farm economy right now. I’ve seen lifelong dairy farmers selling off their cows just to get rid of the headache and worry, just to handle the huge stress load, and I’m talking about farmers with significant wealth and resources.”  

NFFC is one of the organizations pushing Congress to include the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) in the 2018 farm bill. The program would “provide grants to extension services and nonprofit organizations that offer stress assistance programs to individuals engaged in farming, ranching, and other agriculture-related occupations.” The funding could be used for services like helplines, websites, and community outreach.  

Both the current House and Senate drafts of the farm bill contain FRSAN, with the Senate bill allocating $10 million in funding per year. The draft also instructs USDA to submit a report to Congress on trends regarding mental and behavioral health in agricultural communities. 

“We were very excited to see that the Farm and Ranch Stress Network and corresponding [Centers for Disease Control] report make it in to the Senate bill,” said Matt Perdue, government relations representative for the National Farmers Union. “The struggling farm economy is a key precipitant to stress right now, and in addition to an economic safety net, the network provides a mental health safety net for the tough times farmers are going through.”  

Andrew Bahrenburg, national policy director of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), said it was “good news” that both versions of the draft legislation include the mental health program. “The Senate’s a little closer to what we’d prefer,” he said. 

Bahrenburg said an article by Debbie Weingarten about farmer suicide published by The Guardian in December helped raise awareness of the need for mental health programs. “That story kind of blew the lid off the issue, and work to address these challenges has really picked up speed since then,” he said.  

“At NYFC, we’ve lost a couple of our members and leaders to this. It’s been a wake-up call to all of us, we have to understand the trauma that rural social isolation can bring,” Bahrenburg said,  

“The whole issue of farmer mental health, of the huge stresses on farmers to keep their farms going, it’s not often talked about in the open. There’s a lot of stigma to these financial and mental health struggles.” 

But farm owners aren’t the only agricultural workers facing stress and mental health risk factors, said Nathan Rosenberg, a law professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas. “Farmers and farmworkers both have higher rates of mental distress than the general population,” he said. “Farmworkers, in particular, face extraordinary levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.”  

Rosenberg, who is researching a paper on agricultural worker stress and mental health, is urging farm bill negotiators to make sure that agricultural workers, in addition to farmers themselves, are covered by FRSAN.  

Rosenberg also said the research provision within the Senate’s version of the bill was important. “There clearly needs to be more research and data to understand the problem,” he said. He called the report requirement “a huge step forward.”  

NYFC’s Bahrenburg said that FRSAN is a good start, but it won’t solve the core problems facing farmers and farming communities.  

“It’s important to have the resources and the investment to serve mental health needs from the farm bill. But more broadly, there’s trade wars in the news, commodity prices are in the tank, farm income cut in half in the last five years, broad-based rural economic decline. Obviously [FRSAN] is not going to wholly solve the problem, but it’s a positive step that creates a national framework where local work can take place to make a difference in farmers’ lives.”  

Farmers Union’s Perdue agrees that FRSAN is positive but that agriculture policy needs major changes to help address farmer challenges.  

“Congress needs to be looking at several actions in addition to strengthening and improving the safety net,” he said. “We would like to see significant corrections to the agricultural marketplace, a market that’s currently controlled by a handful of corporate agribusiness companies using anti-competitive and monopolistic practices.” 

Wisconsin farmer Bruce Drinkman said press attention has been helpful, “but the true root of the problem is failed federal farm policy. Congress isn’t listening to what’s happening. They’re taking care of corporate agribusiness and the rich.”  

“Farmers and rural communities are not feeling appreciated right now. We’re just like other people. We want to feel respected and important, to make a significant contribution to society,” Drinkman said.  

Bahrenburg said one solution is to create more connections between farmers and consumers. “The farm bill work is important, but it’s also important to focus on organizing people, to help them get together and form chapters,” he said. “People working together close the gap between farmer and consumer, that’s what’s needed now. We can narrow the gap, that significant cultural and economic divide we’re seeing right now.”

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