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AHS February Blog: Understanding How Small-Scale Farmers Navigate Farm Stress

The Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences publishes a monthly blog written by students, alumni, and faculty sharing important topics and helpful resources related to the fields of agricultural, extension, and human science. In the February blog post, AHS postdoctoral research scholar Andrew R. Smolski and Professor Dr. Michael Schulman, provides research on how small-scale farmers navigate farm stress.

Farms as households and as businesses are complex operations that face numerous challenges and uncertainties related to weather events, fluctuations in markets, and changes in commodity chains. At times, these challenges can put the farm and the farm household at financial risk. Financial risk may lead to farmers experiencing high levels of stress. Considering the possible harms that can result from theses crises, such as loss of the farm operation and increased risk of suicide, farm stress and economic hardship are important issues for research, policy, extension, and community engagement.

A recent report, Farmers’ Perceptions of Information and Resources for Navigating Economic Hardship and Stress, is based on 30 interviews with farmers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Data from questions about farm size and income showed that the farmers interviewed were mainly small-scale family farmers. The goal of the interviews was to understand the financial and stress management information and resources that the farmer informants used during a crisis. This report is the result of a community-engaged project led by the Rural Advancement Foundation International–USA, in conjunction with North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, the Land Loss Prevention Project, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and farmer collaborators. In this post, we share highlights from the report.

Locating Information and Resources
A series of questions were asked about where farmers would go for information or resources if they needed help with farming practices, farm financial problems, and stress management. The County Cooperative Extension office was considered a key source for information on farming practices for 50 percent of farmers, although less so for Black farmers (6 out of 15) than White farmers (9 out of 15). On this topic, farmers commented that more funding for Extension agents was needed. The County Cooperative Extension office was also considered a primary source for information on farm financial problems (11 out of 28), along with non-governmental organizations (9 out of 28). In the case of non-governmental organizations, farmers described how these organizations supported them in navigating rules to access programs and with mediations about loans and debt payments.

The farmers identified relatively few types of resources that they would go to if they needed information on stress management. Approximately 41 percent of the farmers responded that family members were people that they could talk with or were a source of information about stress management. Thirty-three percent of Black farmers reported The Church as a resource for information about stress. In many interviews, farmers noted that their faith, outside of an institutional setting, was a source of strength for them when navigating stress. It is important to note that more than half of the farmers reported not having enough money to afford the type of healthcare they thought their household should have.

Fellow farmers were also identified by the farmers as source of information about financial problems and stress management. For example, farmers provided positive comments about how fellow farmers might assist them with financial management issues or strategies for market access. In the case of information about stress management fellow farmers were a source for 28 percent of farmers, with Black farmers (5 out of 14) reporting this more often than White farmers (3 out of 15). Farmers noted that additional resources and information on farm financial problems and stress management would be welcomed.

Supporting Farmers
The report provides a set of recommendations that would help bolster service provisioning to farmers. One recommendation is that organizations and agencies develop teams-based approaches in order to provide a comprehensive toolbox of resources and information that would support addressing farmers’ multi-faceted concerns. Another recommendation is for organizations and agencies to improve their network connections in order to strengthen their collaborative efforts. This is already occurring through the USDA-funded Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Networks in the Southern Region and in North Carolina through the NC Agromedicine Institute. Important social support resources for farmers undergoing financial and emotional stress also include farmer-to-farmer programs, farmer-led community organizations, and faith-based groups. Working together, we can build resilient agrarian communities and help farmers navigate stress and economic hardship.