By Gary Truitt
It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. In front of an audience of over 100 people, a group of three farmers was openly discussing their journeys to bankruptcy and the loss of their operations. The presentation was unscripted and emotional. It was candid and from the heart. No one in the room was unmoved, and many were moved to tears. Sponsored by the Indiana AgriInstitute, the Healing the Heartland Symposium was designed to explore the causes of and solutions for stress and suicide among farmers.
This year represents the 5th year of a recession in the U.S. farm economy. If this were the case in the general economy, it would be front-page news and would be a major political issue. As it is, the current situation in agriculture has not garnered much attention in the general media or general public. It has, however, had a major impact on the attitudes and outlooks of farmers.
The Purdue/CME monthly barometer continues to show an increase in the anger level of producers and a decline in their optimism for the future. Comments at farm shows and field days this summer have been ugly and sarcastic. Farm bankruptcy numbers are up; and depression and suicides are being reported in farm country. Statistics indicate that the suicide rate among farmers in 60% higher than the general population.
Dr. Michael Rosmann, a farmer and a psychologist at the University of Iowa, told the gathering there is an identifiable attribute that all farmers have that make them especially susceptible to depression and stress. The “agrarian imperative” is the clinical name for that which makes a farmer want to farm. Rosmann said they can measure physical, behavioral, and psychological change in a person based on crop conditions and animal health. So, it is not surprising that given the current state of crops, poor grain and milk prices, and animal disease concerns that most in agriculture are not in a good mood these days.
Dr. Rosmann says we as humans can deal with two major stressors at a time but when you add in a third, we start to lose it. For the past 5 years, producers have been dealing with increasing levels of financial stress, as well as crop and livestock stress. In 2018, the third stressor hit: uncertainty. The trade disputes and market reaction have produced tremendous uncertainty in agriculture. In 2019, we added the uncertainty of the planting season and, now, the uncertainty of harvest.
The most effective program for dealing with farm stress, according to Dr. Rosmann, can be found in the tight-knit, religious communities of the Amish and Mennonites. Here the entire community comes together to support one other. Contrast this with rural ag areas where individualism is prized and most farmers see their neighbors as competitors. The farmers on the panel described how they felt alone, isolated, and like they were the only ones going through this.
I am sure one of the reasons these farmers were willing to share their stories was so others might be helped. The causes of the current downturn in the ag economy are largely out of the hands of farmers. One of the best things we can do is to come together, support each other, and help everyone make it through. The greatest threat to a farming operation is hopelessness. In their presentations, all three of the producers stated it was only when they saw hope that they had the courage and strength to make the hard choices.