The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced recently departments across the country were receiving nearly $25 million in grants to support projects aimed to alleviate stress for agricultural workers.
The 50 grants support programs ranging from preventing suicide to marriage and relationship counseling.
“NIFA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network connects farmers, ranchers and others in agriculture-related occupations to stress assistance programs,” said NIFA Director Dr. Carrie Castille in a statement. “Creating and expanding a network to assist farmers and ranchers in times of stress can increase behavioral health awareness, literacy and positive outcomes for agricultural producers, workers and their families.”
NIFA says that even before the pandemic effects on the agricultural sector, stress was on the rise among those in the industry.
Ray Atkinson is the spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation. The organization runs a Farm State of Mind campaign, which includes research, a directory of resources, training, and tips on starting a conversation.
Though they are not direct beneficiaries of the grant, they work with many of the grant recipients.
“It sounds cliche, but…it’s totally true that it’s OK not to be OK,” Atkinson said in a Zoom interview with The Daily Yonder. “Farmers help farmers. We know farmers help farmers, and so it’s about really just encouraging folks to look out for neighbors, friends, and family. And just start this conversation. Just be there. Be willing to be there for people.”
During the height of the pandemic, in January 2021, the American Farm Bureau released a survey that found a majority of farmers and farmworkers said the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted their mental health, and more than half said they were personally experiencing more mental health challenges than they were a year before then.
“My takeaway from this survey is that the need for support is real and we must not allow lack of access or a ‘too tough to need help’ mentality to stand in the way,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall at the time of the release of the survey.
“We are stepping up our efforts through our Farm State of Mind campaign, encouraging conversations about stress and mental health and providing free training and resources for farm and ranch families and rural communities.”
In Minnesota, NIFA awarded the State Department of Agriculture $500,000 for its Bend, Don’t Break project. The project will engage agency, nonprofit, and educational partners in helping farmers and others in agriculture cope with adversity, addressing suicide, farm transition/succession, legal problems, family relationships and youth stress.
Some of the organizations are legacy organizations, said Meg Moynihan, senior advisor on Strategy & Innovation at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“We think our farmers are far more likely to be receptive to groups and organizations they already know,” she said in a phone interview.
One such program is a network of mostly retired farmers, who act as advocates for current farmers experiencing hardships. They currently have 10 farmer advocates across the state and will be hiring one more, she said. There is also money earmarked toward non-traditional farmers, which includes immigrant farmers.
“We have quite a substantial and growing number of Latino and Hispanic farmers,” Moynihan said. “People from Hmong origin, who have come from Laos and their family settled as refugees, or they themselves resettled and also attract new people from Africa, different countries in Africa.”
Some projects will work specifically with Latino, Indigenous, and African farmers and farm workers.
As the results of the survey showed, Moynihan said stress has increased due to the pandemic for a variety of reasons, including market fluctuations and supply disruptions, familiar strains, and more.
“During the pandemic, families were thrown together in a way that they aren’t usually thrown together,” she said. “In some cases, the spouse who worked on a farm and was bringing in crucial income and benefits to the farm, perhaps was furloughed or their business closed, or their hours were severely cut. And so that presented some financial challenges to the farm.”
To help with family-related issues, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will be funding a series of retreats for farm couples to have firsthand experience with a psychologist and facilitators to work through issues, she said. The retreats are for “people who are finding their relationships balancing in different ways and want to explore that.”