The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The number is 1-800-273-8255 or you can text the word “HOME” to 741 741. For additional resources, visit linesforlife.org, the American Farm Bureau Federation or the Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Program.
Farmers are among those who are at greater risk of dying by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is driven in part by extreme stress of debt, drought and the possibility of losing their farms. Don McMoran is the director of Washington State University’s Skagit County Extension and Jon Iverson is the chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s National Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee. They join us with details about what’s being done to raise awareness and what resources are available for farmers and their families.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Today’s topic is suicide prevention efforts for farmers. A study released by the CDC found that agricultural workers have higher than average rates of suicide. Meanwhile, public health experts are worried that the historic drought hitting the west could lead more farmers into mental health crises. I’m joined now by two north westerners who are trying to prevent that. Don McMoran is the Director of the Washington State University’s Skagit County Extension. Jon Iverson is a Farmer in Woodburn and the Chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s National Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.
Before we start, I just want to remind folks that help is available right now at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That number is 1-800-273-8255. It’s free confidential support 24-hours a day, seven days a week. There’s also help available at 1-800-Farm-Aid.
Don McMoran, can you give us a sense for the numbers here? How big an issue is suicide among farmers and ranchers?
Don McMoran: When you start talking 2-3 times the general population, especially with farmers themselves being such a small part of that population, it starts to stick out. It certainly stuck out here in Skagit County. That’s what got me involved in farm stress and suicide prevention work. But as you look at the total of suicides that occurred in the United States in 2019, we’re talking about 47,511 deaths total. That’s a very big number and it’s something that I definitely want to try to bring down specifically in the farmer and farm worker population.
Miller: How did you first get involved in this issue?
McMoran: I would just say that, you know, life is really interesting and things that you never really intended to get involved in sometimes get thrust upon you. Back in 1998 I grew up on a farm here in Skagit County. I’m 4th generation and our hired man took his own life. I had no idea what his decision would mean, for not only him and his family, but also ours and how it would impact my own career.
Moving forward. I got hired on with Washington State University in 2006. Fast forwarding, between the years of 2016 and 2019, we had three agricultural suicides in my County. The third one was a gentleman that I had known and worked with when I was at Skagit Conservation District and he had a niece and his niece has children the same age as my children. So we had them over shortly after the event. And here I am, staring into the eyes of a nine year old asking her about her great uncle and the decision that he made. It was that event that really got me on board.
I went to the office the next day and I sat down with my staff and told them that I just had it. I’ve had enough of agricultural suicides in my community. Would they join me in this quest to work on this epidemic. Of course my staff is amazing and they all agreed. At the same time, the state Legislature knew that we had a problem and they put together a task force to look at farm stress and suicide prevention. That task force decided to give some funding to the local health department, the Washington State Department of Health. We partnered with them and got some funding to start the first Skagit Ag Suicide Prevention for the whole State of Washington.
Miller: Jon Iverson, what about you? How did you become personally involved in this issue?
Jon Iverson: It’s kind of a funny story. There’s not a direct answer to that question I guess. I got elected or appointed to the National Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee and I started talking to some other young farmers. It’s not an easy topic to broach but somehow it came up that my farm had gone through tough times - real rough - and that several other farmers have [too] and we all started talking about it that way. But then American Farm Bureau had put out this Farm State of Mind website, really promoting awareness of rural health. That’s what got me excited is that ‘hey, people are talking about this, addressing this issue’ when it’s been so taboo in our industry for a long time.
Miller: I should say it’s not just your industry. Mental health and suicide have been taboo subjects in our society for as long as maybe anybody can remember. Do you think though that there is particular reticence to talk about mental health issues within the ag community?
Iverson: Absolutely. You’re raised [with] ‘well you just need to work harder’. You don’t share your feelings, you know. No one, NO one wants to do that. For a farmer to come out and say, ‘hey, I’m dealing with this’. It’s unheard of. I would say my generation is a little more open about it, but you usually don’t wanna be the first one to mention it. You want to know that someone else is dealing with it before you’re willing to discuss it. But if you look at my father’s generation and especially my grandfather’s situation, it was never discussed, never talking about.
Miller: Don McMoran, how do you start to break that stigma if it is so ingrained and so deeply cultural?
McMoran: The best luck we’ve had with it is incorporating it into the existing workshops that we have for commodity groups. We also have had difficulty. After the workshops, I’ll have farmers come up to me and say, ‘Don, yeah, we’re so thankful that you’re doing this work. It’s really important. We know suicide prevention is important to our community. It’s really gonna help my neighbor.’ I was one of those kids that grew up idolizing our farmers in the area and I know their problems. Sometimes I know their problems I think as well as they do.
So hearing those words come back and then having to twist that and say, ‘you know, problems aren’t just isolated to your neighbors. We know that you have problems too’. And watching them start to churn on that idea and having one farmer step forward opens the doors for others.
Miller: Did I understand you correctly though, that when people come up and say that, they’re not necessarily saying that in front of everybody who was there for some meeting. But they’re telling you almost in private after the meeting has ended?
Miller: So that seems significant in and of itself.
McMoran: Yeah. It certainly is.
Miller: This is about efforts to help farmers and ranchers who are struggling with mental health issues. There is help available right now at 1-800-Farm-Aid and at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, that number is 1-800-273-8255. [What follows is] the voice of one farmer. Mindy Perkovich is in southwest Colorado. She was featured in a story on NPR last month. She said that she doesn’t know if she’s gonna have enough water for her crops and she’s had her irrigation water cut off for the season.
Mindy Perkovich: When I walk outside of my house, I look to the west and most of our property is crispy and brown and dry. It makes me want to cry. I feel like you can feel it deep inside of you. I don’t really have the words to explain it further. I don’t know. It’s really sad.
Miller: Jon Iverson, what are the particular stresses right now for farmers and for ranchers?
Iverson: You nailed the big one. Weather is always a big stress factor. It’s something you can’t control. So when you’ve got a year’s worth of investment in a crop, one weather event can wipe it out. It can be very stressful. Like her situation, it’s not something you can just outwork. Most of the time we were taught, if budgets are tighter, we’re losing money, you’ve just got to work harder and you can’t outwork the weather. It’s always going to trump. The other one is markets. Part of the drought is the increase in feed prices. So you can’t afford to feed your animals and you’re gonna have to make the decision of what do I do with them? These are two things that are totally out of your control and you can just get this feeling that just spirals you into depression.
Miller: How much are the farmers that you’re talking to talk about climate change as a kind of mega stressor that’s behind many of the others?
McMoran: I just caught climate change as the mega stressor. And yes, we’re seeing that across the west. That event that we saw in June with very high temperatures and crops not necessarily doing well with those really hot temperatures. So we’re seeing reduced yields across the gamut of crops in the west. So how does the farmer deal with that? They do the best they can. You harvest what you get and hopefully that will get you through to next year. Most likely there will be some programs and loans available to farmers, but it’s going to be a very difficult year. You add on stressors like COVID and and other stressors that farmers are going through. And it’s just by happenstance that we jumped into this program early and that we can provide some assistance to farmers going through these really difficult times.
Miller: I mentioned the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number that we always do at this point as standard journalistic practice when we talk about these issues, That’s again 1-800-273-8255. But there’s also the lifeline that you have helped extend to provide more access to people. And that’s the 1-800-Farm-Aid number. How is it different for people or farmers to call that number which is sort of agriculture specific. What’s different about that particular lifeline?
McMoran: Right. And we’re so thankful that we’ve got this USDA funding to open up this new Farm Aid call line in the west. As we were progressing through our program, looking at trying to find something specific for farmers because we believe that most of our farmers that we work with aren’t going to call the National Suicide Hotline. That’s not because they’re not doing fabulous things. It’s just that the average person just doesn’t really relate well to a farmer. They don’t understand the trials and tribulations of being a farmer and Jon mentioned some of those comments earlier. So having that available is definitely going to help and we just encourage people to pick up the line and call the Farm Aid CallCenter. It’s now open 16 hours a day, five days a week.
We’re just able to open the west side portion of that. So within my office at WSU Skagit County Extension, we now have two operators that are on call waiting to receive calls from those farmers in the west, and be able to deal with problems. I like to refer to it as “crisis light”. So if you want to get connected with a CPA or an attorney, or if you need information on USDA farm programs, or you just really want somebody to talk to about agriculture and you have some questions. That’s what Farm Aid Call Center is created for. That being said, those operators are also looking for signs of crisis and so they are trained in crisis intervention. When they see those things, they can step up and really make a difference in and hopefully help farmers make better decisions.
Miller: I’m curious if there are particular pressures for people who are in century farms, say fourth or fifth or sixth generation family farms and now the farm has been passed on to them after their great, great, great grandparents had it. What kind of pressure does that add?
Iverson: It’s not only just your stress and your livelihood, but it’s your legacy and your family’s legacy. I mean, I’m a third generation family farmer and you don’t want to be the generation that loses the farm or sells the farm or screws it up, you know. Margins are tighter than they’ve ever been before and that just adds to the pressure, especially with a lot of young farmers. They’ve got young families and they’re trying to take care of home, but they’re also struggling working long hours, trying to keep the farm alive. So it just adds to the stress.
Just to mirror the question you had earlier, a lot of farmers don’t want to talk to someone that doesn’t understand agriculture. Just calling the suicide hotline, you feel like you’re doing more time explaining why you’re stressed than talking about it. I know a lot of farmers that once they know they’re not the only one dealing with that stress it’s just just a load off. To know that, ‘hey, I’m not the only one struggling with debt, struggling with the weather’. Just knowing that someone else is having those feelings can make the world of difference.
Miller: Don McMoran, what options are there, not for farm or ranch owners but for farm workers, many of whom may not speak English.
McMoran: We were very fortunate to right into the grant outreach to the Latinx communities and so we have three full time translators on our staff translating materials, working with that farm community and we’re really pleased to be able to offer that were also partnered with a young lady down at University of California Davis. Her name is Esmeralda Mandujano and she is working with the community down there and doing some fabulous outreach using Promotores Program. So they have experts go out to the fields and be able to have those really tough conversations with the farmworker population.
Miller: We started with Don McMoran giving us a sense for the numbers and how big of an issue this is right now. How accurate are the numbers we have?
Iverson: I would say they’re vastly under-reported. Usually you’re dealing with a high debt load. Most farmers will have a life insurance policy taken out and we deal with a lot of large equipment and I’d say a lot of the suicides that happened actually look like accidents. A farmer knows how to hide it because he wants his family to have that life insurance policy. There is that feeling that I’m worth more dead than alive. So one of our goals is to let farmers know there’s resources out there, let them know there’s someone to talk to, that they’re not alone. Usually when you’re under depression, you don’t want to talk to anybody and we’re trying to train farmers so they can recognize that in their neighbor or, like you said, an employee that just isn’t acting right. So that’s been one of our big goals with the Farm State of Mind [web]page.
Miller: And what are you training people to look out for among their friends or neighbors or coworkers?
Iverson: A change in attitude, a change in habit. Someone that normally comes to coffee once a week [may be] staying away or maybe the farm is just notlooking as up-kept as it used to be or maybe it’s a friendly guy that’s just not as friendly as s/he used to be, just a little bit short. There are a lot of little warning signs that a lot of us have never been trained in. We’re trying to spread that out and allow farmers to see those signs that let them recognize in somebody else or even in themselves that there is a problem.
Miller: Is there anything else to add in terms of what you caution people to look out for?
McMoran: All of those things that Jon mentioned, but the biggest one that we’ve seen is when people start giving away their prized possessions. So when that farmer says, ‘I have this John Deere tractor that my grandfather had and I really want you to have it because I’m not going to be around anymore.’ Those are the times that you need to step in and really start asking the hard questions.
Again, those numbers for help are 1-800-Farm-Aid and 1-800-273-8255.
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