Americans from all walks of life are struggling to cope with an array of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear and anxiety about this new disease and what could happen is sometimes overwhelming and can cause strong emotions in adults and children.
But long before the pandemic hit the U.S., farmers and ranchers were struggling. Years of falling commodity prices, natural disasters, declining farm income and trade disputes with China hit rural America hard, and not just financially. Farmers’ mental health is at risk, too.
Fortunately, America’s food producers have proven to be a resilient bunch. Across the country, they continue to adopt new ways to manage stress and cope with the difficult situations they’re facing. A few examples are below.
In Oklahoma, Bryan Vincent and Gary Williams are part of an informal group that meets on a regular basis to share their burdens.
“It’s way past farming,” said Vincent, a local crop consultant. “It’s a chance to meet with like-minded people. It’s a chance for us to let some things out. We laugh, we may cry together, we may be disgusted together. We share our emotions, whether good, bad.”
Gathering with trusted friends has given them the chance to talk about what’s happening in their lives, both good and bad.
“I would encourage anybody – any group of farmers, friends, whatever – to form a group” to meet regularly, said Williams, a farmer. “Not just in bad times; I think you should do that regardless, even in good times. Share your victories and triumphs with one another, support one another.”
In Michigan, dairy farmer Ashley Messing Kennedy battled postpartum depression and anxiety while also grieving over a close friend and farm employee who died by suicide. At first she coped by staying busy, fixing farm problems on her own and rarely asking for help. But six months later, she knew something wasn’t right.
Finding a meaningful activity to do away from the farm was a positive step forward.
“Running’s been a game-changer for me,” Kennedy said. “It’s so important to interact with people, face-to-face, that you don’t normally engage with. Whatever that is for you, do it — take time to get off the farm and walk away for a while. It will be there tomorrow.”
Rich Baker also farms in Michigan and has found talking with others to be his stress management tactic of choice.
“You can’t just bottle things up,” Baker said. “If you don’t have a built-in network of farmers, go talk to a professional. In some cases that may be even more beneficial because their opinions may be more impartial.”
James Young, a beef cattle farmer in Virginia, has found that mental health issues are less stigmatized as a whole today compared to the recent past. But there are farmers “who would throw you under the bus pretty fast” if they found out someone was seeking professional mental health, he said. “It’s still stigmatized here.”
RFD-TV Special on Farm Stress and Farmer Mental Health
As part of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s ongoing effort to raise awareness, reduce stigma and share resources related to mental health, the organization partnered with RFD-TV to produce a one-hour episode of “Rural America Live” on farm stress and farmer mental health.
The episode features AFBF President Zippy Duvall, Farm Credit Council President Todd Van Hoose and National Farmers Union President Rob Larew, as well as two university Extension specialists, a rural pastor and the author of “Stress-Free You!”
The program aired Thursday, Aug. 27, and will be re-broadcast on Saturday, Aug. 29, at 6 a.m. Eastern/5 a.m. Central.
Cyndie Shearing is director of communications at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Quotes in this column originally appeared in state Farm Bureau publications and are reprinted with permission: Vincent, Williams (Oklahoma); Kennedy, Baker (Michigan) and Young (Virginia).