Spotlight on Hope: Farm Family Stress
Written by: Dr. Joy Morgan, Assistant Professor and Director of the North Carolina Agricultural Leadership Development Program
It was an ordinary day in my class that focuses on effective business communication and presentation strategies in the agricultural industry. In a typical semester, about 50% of students enrolled in the course have an agricultural background and this semester was no different. Several students presented their introduction presentations sharing more about themselves and their future career goals, and the overall atmosphere was jovial and lively. Then, Devin* (name changed) volunteered to go next and I could tell that the three items that accompanied his presentation were a bit more personal than those his classmates had selected. Holding a stuffed animal, he shared how much the animals that once occupied his family farm meant to him and his family, however, recently his family had to sell their beloved animals, and ultimately this generational farm was no longer a farming operation. It was at that moment that tears filled his eyes and his classmates felt the emotion that was heavily in his heart. My heart broke at that moment too. No, he was not the first student or farm family that I knew that had to sell their farming operation, but at that moment, here was another amazing farming family whose livelihood was no more and I could not imagine the pain, stress, and challenges that they experienced and would continue to experience as a result of this loss.
Farming is a daily part of my family’s life as well. My husband is a full-time farmer, and I am a farm wife whose career is located outside the farm, however, I also grew up on a small farm and agriculture has been a part of my life since the day I was born. Our farm, the land, and those animals are such a significant part of who I am and who we are that I would do anything for my daughters to have the same connection and opportunity as we do, but I know there are challenges faced daily that could impact that goal. While Devin did not share, I could tell in his eyes and in his story that his family had tried every possible way to keep the legacy of their farm, but ultimately all of their best efforts did not prevail.
With 98% of United States farms being family-owned, farm family stress is a significant issue within this chosen career. This year, farmers faced input costs that were nearly double that of previous years, land lost to development, and challenging weather conditions, all factors that are out of their control. No farmer wants to be the generation that loses the farm that their parents and grandparents worked so hard to build, yet this is an issue that many farmers are facing today. The pressure and the challenges facing American farmers are significant and as Brandon Batten (‘08 & ‘10 NCSU graduate in Agricultural Engineering, 2014 NCTTFC ALDP graduate, owner and operator of Triple B Farms, and a blog writer of Farm Facts Friday) shared in his blog post on May 20th, 2022:
“Farmers feel powerless when prices drop and the fruits of their labor are no longer sufficient to make ends meet. We joke amongst ourselves about the situation. “Think nobody cares about you? Just miss a few payments!” While laughter is good medicine, it is far from a joking matter. Farmers are also proud folks. We don’t want anyone to see or know if we are struggling, especially the farmer neighbor because they will try to rent your farms out from under you. This leads to justification for isolation. Isolation can lead to despair. When you lose hope and sight of all the blessings surrounding you, the stage is set for bad things to happen. Just a few years ago, dairy farmers received milk checks that included the National Suicide Prevention hotline number attached to the check. Can you imagine?”
My answer and your answer to that last question is most likely “No, I cannot imagine.” I cannot imagine receiving my paycheck with the National Suicide Prevention hotline number on it, however, this further emphasizes the need for support for our farmers. The individuals that are providing us with food on our tables and clothes on our backs are being presented with challenges that the majority of individuals will never have to face, but they face these challenges because farming is not just their career but their calling.
To aid in dealing with the stresses of this calling, North Carolina is home to the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute which develops and facilitates programs focused on the safety and health of the agricultural community. One such program is the Farmer to Farmer Program which provides specially trained peer support to farmers, spouses, and others involved in agriculture. Dr. Robin Tutor Marcom is the director of the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and an Extension specialist. She is especially proud that her current work is a direct result of her dissertation research where she obtained a doctoral degree in Agricultural and Extension Education at NC State University. I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Marcom to learn more about her work with the Farmer to Farmer Program.
- Tell us a little about the work you are doing.
For many farmers and farm families, there is a sense of legacy pressure and a strong link of identity to the farm. When faced with challenges and stresses farmers often “figure and reassure” by placing band-aids on the situation to convince everyone around them that everything is okay. Farmers view their farming operation with such inseparable connectedness that the farm is like a living human being and our farmers have a hard time separating their identity from the farm. This mindset of “they are the farm and the farm is them” causes farmers to not recognize their other skills, and makes it extremely difficult to communicate the stresses they are experiencing.
The Farmer to Farmer program helps promote communication and awareness among farmers, farm families, and those involved in agriculture. Our goal is to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health and the sense of failure that prevents our farming community from talking about the issues that are present in their lives and seeking support when needed. Stresses such as increased regulations, legal battles, increased costs, weather, shortage of labor, long hours, and many more cause farmers to slowly suffocate. Our work is to start a spark that starts a conversation where there was not one before.
With the Farmer to Farmer Program, communication is a major component. Our team has found that farmers want to talk to someone who understands the culture of agriculture. Thanks to volunteers who are also farmers, farm spouses, members of farm families, and those involved in the agriculture industry, farmers seeking support are placed with another individual who has received training in peer support. These individuals are not from the same county nor are they from a neighboring county to prevent the concept of competition and promote confidentiality. For example, one farmer really liked that their peer was at the opposite end of the state because they do not have to worry about that farmer wanting to rent land that they farmed nor were they in the same farmer circle. Often these relationships that are created through the program are long-lasting even after support is no longer needed.
- How do you suggest people get involved in this work around this topic?
First, if one is interested in volunteering to become a peer farmer, you can apply by calling the Agromedicine Institute at 252-744-1008 or download the application and submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, it is important that we all acknowledge when someone says “I need to talk to you.” That one sentence is a big step in acknowledging that there is a bigger issue, and is a first step in opening the door for communication. While the conversation may be extremely difficult, it is important to avoid the blame game by taking a deep breath and truly engaging in the conversation. Also, it is important that we recognize and act when we feel someone is in need of help by calling the referral line (252-744-1008) and sending an email (email@example.com). This will allow our trained professionals to reach out and start the process of providing assistance.
- What challenges have you faced in doing this work?
The biggest obstacle is that farmers think there is something wrong with them if they are struggling and believe they are the only ones experiencing this stress due to the lack of openness and communication surrounding the topics of mental health and stress in the agricultural community. If you have a toothache, you go to the dentist, backache-chiropractor, heart-cardiologist, but when you are struggling with your spirit or thoughts, farmers focus on the stigma surrounding seeking help and do not reach out. The “privacy and pride” attitude has hindered the farming community and created isolation. Our goal at the NC Agromedicine Institute is to give people permission to have conversations by providing them with the tools they need while also acknowledging that tools and resources are not ‘one size fits all’. They utilize a variety of strategies including both group and individual sessions; peer support for farmers, spouses, families, and those involved in the ag industry; and tools that are designed to recognize and manage stress early.
We need to emphasize that farming is not the same as it was 20 years ago, and today farmers must strive to maintain a farming way of life in a changing world. This changing world means often one spouse works a job outside the farm, kids participate in multiple activities throughout the week and weekend, and this has prevented the “neighbor” component, further isolating farming families. There are long hours associated with farming and these hours often put a strain on the farm families and children. We are striving to rebuild the human connection and address all of the different levels of farm stress and farm crisis so that we can be as responsive as possible.
- When you think about this topic and the work you do, what gives you hope?
Through grant funds provided by the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, NC Farm Credit, and the USDA (via NCDA&CS), the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute has secured more resources for both education and Mental Health First Aid which focuses on suicide prevention Our programs address farm stress, depression, anxiety and the body’s response to them early before they progress into something much more serious. These funds support education for farmers, farm families, farmworkers, and others working within agriculture so that symptoms are recognized and managed. In addition, work is being done to educate behavioral healthcare providers not from agricultural backgrounds to understand the culture of agriculture. The funds also support counseling and therapy services so that money is never the reason an individual does not seek help. Services are available in-person and virtually.
With support from the Corn Growers Association of North Carolina and USDA/NCDA & CS, North Carolina now has a farm helpline (844.325.3276 ) that is available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to anyone in the farming community to provide help and a connection to resources.
In closing, if we do our job, someone in the day-to-day circle of a farming community member in crisis should know where to get help, hopefully preventing people from suicide or substance abuse. While I am not a big fan of the word “normal,” all of us have our own “normal.” What I want is for us to normalize this conversation and make it okay to discuss challenges in the farming community.
When I ask farmers the most important thing to the bottom line of their farm, rarely does a farmer respond with “me” or the people who work and live on the farm as being are most important. If you take the farmer, the best worker, or a family member out of the farm’s bottom line, agriculture does not happen. If we lose someone because they are not their best due to stress or mental health, the farm suffers. We must elevate the value of people because they are the most important part.
In closing, I would like to thank Dr. Robin Tutor Marcom for taking the time to chat with me about the inspiring work that is taking place at the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute. This institute is a great asset to our agricultural community and continues to make positive impacts daily. They are constantly seeking to develop programs and opportunities to support NC’s agricultural community while also inspiring others to become involved.
Zachery Keeter, a summer intern for the NC Agromedicine Institute, stated “This internship provided me with necessary skills and resources to assist in educating colleagues & peers and promote collaborative advocacy efforts to move us in a direction toward ending the stigma of accessing mental health and stress resources in agriculture. While desiring a career in agricultural safety and health, this is a small step toward my ultimate goal of being able to merge access gaps by educating medical professionals and potentially even becoming a provider myself to assist farmers, their workers, and their families with resources in times of critical need; no matter where they may be.“
To end, we all need to better support not just farmers, but each other through challenges and stresses. As Robin stated in our discussion, “We need to be better neighbors. Neighbors who come together to support one another, especially in times of need.” To support our farming community, I challenge you to offer a friendly wave or even a “thank you” to those in your community who are farmers, farm workers, or farm families. You never know how much that thank you will mean to them. These individuals are providing us with an easier lifestyle while making many sacrifices both in their personal and professional lives. As @agwithemma stated in her TikTok video, “Shopping trips cost more than a card swipe and an hour of your time at the grocery store, it (farming) requires long hours, seasons, equipment, and teamwork. It costs lives, and it takes a toll.
Interested in learning more about Farm Family Stresses:
- North Carolina Agromedicine Institute
- To request a peer farmer for yourself or others, or to learn about volunteer opportunities, please call 252.744.1008 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- NC Farm Helpline, 844.325.3276
- Farm Family Stressors: Private Problems, Public Issue (2019)