Black Farmers Address Mental Health and Find Strength in Community
Temika Parker was unsure about her next steps after serving for 15 years in the U.S. Navy. But she was sure that a 9-to-5 desk job wouldn’t suit her. The stress and anxiety accumulated from military life left Parker yearning for mental and emotional restoration.
One day, the former naval cook found herself browsing in a home improvement store after returning to North Carolina from deployment. From that moment, Parker picked up a new hobby that would reshape her life.
“I got some seeds and a pot, and I started planting,” she says. Excited by the ability to eat what she grew, Parker knew she had found her new path.
Her fascination with gardening led her to attend a farming convention and a master gardening class. Later, at a farmer’s conference, she met Brielle Wright, co-founder of The Farmer’s B.A.G. (Blessed, Abundant, Gifted), an organization that builds community by offering agricultural and farming opportunities, financial education and mental health workshops. Wright offered Parker an apprenticeship where she could learn about the farming business, and Parker joined the Farmer’s B.A.G. in January 2023.
“Everything in the military is go, go, go,” she says. “I’m an overthinker; it carried over from the military. But being on the farm teaches me patience because if I plant a seed, I can’t expect it to bear fruit the next day. I can learn to have patience on the farm and with people.”
Being on the farm teaches me patience because if I plant a seed, I can’t expect it to bear fruit the next day. I can learn to have patience on the farm and with people.
The therapeutic qualities of farming come as no surprise to Wright. She and her sister Michelle Wright founded The Farmer’s B.A.G. to close information, funding and communication gaps for Black farmers. The sisters also facilitate positive agricultural experiences for the youth and hold mental health workshops for Black farmers.
“It’s a happy place for many people,” Wright says. “You’re seeing more farms focusing on the sensory piece and the health benefits—not just from the food–but from hands-on activities and connection with nature.”
The mental health support Parker receives from her apprenticeship program is transformative. “I don’t have anxiety when I’m out here because I’m learning,” she says. Paired with a 75-year-old veteran on the farm, Parker works alongside someone who understands her unique challenges after leaving the Navy. “He helps me with my disability because he’s experienced the same.”
Parker currently apprentices as a farm manager at the Farmer’s B.A.G. through the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) Boots on the Ground: NC Veteran Farmer Apprenticeship. CEFS is a partnership among North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This partnership develops and promotes just and equitable food and farming systems.
Inadequate Mental Health Resources
Providing adequate mental health services throughout the state is a continual challenge, with 78 of North Carolina’s 100 counties classified as rural. According to the 2022 North Carolina Rural Health Snapshot compiled by the NC Rural Health Leadership Alliance, the state ranked 34th out of 50 states for adults with mental illness who didn’t receive treatment (56.5%). Thirty counties lack licensed psychologists, and 25 lack active, licensed psychologist associates. In 2021, North Carolina ranked 26 out of all states for mental health worker availability.
North Carolina ranked 34 out of all states for adults with mental illness who didn’t receive treatment (56.5%). Thirty counties lack licensed psychologists, and 25 lack active, licensed psychologist associates.
Michael Schulman, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Robin Tudor-Marcom, director of the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, conducted a small-scale study of 30 farmers—15 white and 15 Black—to understand how farmers navigate farm stress.
Their study Farmers’ Perceptions of Information and Resources for Navigating Economic Hardship and Stress, published in 2022, found that farmers who participated in the study identified few sources of information on stress management.
The situation is even more critical for Black farmers seeking professional mental health services. Many have difficulty finding a mental health expert with a farming background who is empathetic to Black farmers’ lived experiences. One Black female farmer from the study opted to rely on group support instead of psychological services because “psychologists have no idea what we do or how we do every day.”
Tudor-Marcom notes that unless a mental health worker has a farming background or training, they don’t understand farming culture, the 24/7 work schedule or the connection between the farmer and the land. “They don’t understand the compounded stressors of farming,” she says. “We work diligently to find providers from the farm.”
The Agromedicine Institute trains mental health workers and provides them with an overview of the culture and the unique challenges of serving a farmer. Tudor-Marcom adds that there are few Black behavioral health providers and even fewer with an agricultural background. “We’re always looking for Black mental health care providers.”
Brielle Wright echoes the lack of mental health and well-being information. “You don’t see conferences and workshops for farmers that focus on rest and relaxation. You don’t see that self-care piece for farmers. Nobody’s doing a workshop with massages or focusing on rest or breathing [techniques].”
The Farmer’s B.A.G. addresses this disparity by integrating conversations about mental health into their programs and workshops.
Unequal Access to Financial Resources
Third-generation farmer and NC State graduate James Lamb recalls the challenges of growing row crops in Clinton, North Carolina, and his father making do with only two tractors to manage the farm. Financing new equipment posed a significant challenge, as small farmers often faced difficulty securing substantial bank loans.
After Lamb’s father passed away, he intended to fulfill his father’s dream of raising contract livestock. But he again faced challenges getting funding. After earning his bachelor’s in agricultural and environmental technology in 1996, Lamb attempted to borrow $250,000 to start the contract farm. Still, with assets only totaling $10,000, a bank would be unlikely to lend him the money. “The bank looks at your assets and gauges the risk,” he says. Fortunately, a lender in Mount Olive gave him a chance and granted him the loan.
Today Lamb owns Lamb Family Farms in Sampson County; he and his family raise piglets for Prestage Farms. He has a full-time position as an environmental specialist at the company and was named North Carolina’s 2020 Farmer of the Year.
White farmers had the resources, and the banks and government would lend them money. Black farmers didn’t have that opportunity; we never had the resources.
For Lamb’s friend, 83-year-old Jerry Graham, being a Black farmer meant making the most of what he had. He worked with his father on their family farm in Bladen County, growing tobacco, corn, beans and cotton. After graduating from high school, Graham moved to New York City and worked for the transit authority until he retired in 1992 and returned to North Carolina to start a hog farm.
“When I left home, my family didn’t even have a tractor,” he says. “We had a plow and a mule. But white farmers had the resources, and the banks and government would lend them money. Black farmers didn’t have that opportunity; we never had the resources.”
Black farmers have faced a long history of discrimination from institutions that deny, delay or obstruct resources to help establish and sustain their farms. This distrust of federal, state and local entities arises from direct experience and shared narratives of institutional racism.
The 1997 Timothy Pigford et al. v Dan Glickman class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture illustrated the financial disparities many Black farmers faced.
As stated on EveryCRSReport.com, the suit claimed that the agency had discriminated against Black farmers based on race and failed to investigate or adequately respond to complaints from 1983 to 1997. Despite a settlement agreement in 1999, many farm advocacy groups don’t believe Black producers received sufficient financial restitution for the discrimination caused by USDA’s Farmers Home Administration agents, now known as the Farm Service Agency (FSA), and the Commodity Credit Corporation.
Black farmers interviewed in Farmers’ Perceptions also cite the USDA and the FSA as obstacles to obtaining funding through loans or grants. Some black farmers appeared less likely to take advantage of Extension resources because they felt less likely to receive adequate support and advocacy. One farmer characterized the personnel in his local Extension office as lacking empathy after being indirectly denied service.
Michelle Wright, a licensed therapist versed in racial equity, believes that farmer stress goes deeper than economics, particularly with the older Black farmers she assists via The Farmer’s B.A.G.
“I always start with racial trauma, which is deeply embedded in the Black agricultural community,” she says. “Black farmers face mental health challenges that stem from consistent negative interactions with [government and banking] institutions.”
Coined race-based traumatic stress, many Black farmers have endured ongoing traumas that accumulate over time while interacting within white-dominated spaces. These traumas include denial of loans, information and a chance to participate more significantly in the industry.
Wright adds, “Having limited resources, getting less money for crops and being given different prices causes Black farmers to feel like they are unable to engage in the markets in the same way as their non-Black counterparts.”
Dealing with Isolation and Exclusion
Black farmers are rare.
According to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, only 1.4% of producers in the United States were Black. Historically, Black farmers owned 25% of North Carolina’s farms, but as of 2017, the percentage has fallen to 3%.
Some Black farmers face a sense of isolation due to their lean numbers.
“It’s not uncommon to be in a room of 300 or 400 people, and I’m the only African American in the room,” James Lamb says about attending industry events. He is the only one of his six siblings interested in agriculture. “Sometimes you feel like you’re out on the island when you don’t see people like yourself.”
Historically, Black farmers owned 25% of North Carolina’s farms, but as of 2017, the percentage has fallen to 3%.
Parker describes experiencing exclusion in the industry. “I think many Black farmers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “Some of them get triggered from not feeling accepted” as farmers. She also senses a dismissive atmosphere when she attempts to participate in local farmers’ markets. “The organizers already have their clientele, so there’s no room for us. But if they took a chance on us, they would see we have good produce and can bring them business.”
Community Ties that Strengthen
Building social support networks has been critical to circumventing systemic inequities in the farming industry. Black farmers connect with fellow farmers and members of their church community, and they find people and organizations with resources to help address these complex issues.
Three Black female farmers from the Farmers’ Perceptions study joined a community-based organization and relied on trusted members for social support and resources during their hardships. Schulman concludes that farmers need a community of peers who can understand and relate to them. “And in that sense, the study emphasizes the need to develop or improve these networks,” he says.
Tudor-Marcom underlines the importance of listening to Black farmers and developing culturally relevant materials for them. “One farmer developed a coalition of Black farmers that work together on production and marketing,” she says. “They support each other in a grassroots way. They have learned how to depend on themselves.”
Lamb has benefited from a vast farmers’ network through the Farm Bureau, the National Pork Board, the North Carolina Pork Producers Council and other organizations throughout his career. Talking with other farmers before and after meetings allows Lamb to make essential connections, discuss farming practices and ease feelings of isolation. He also stays in touch with friends, such as Jerry Graham and other hog farmers. “I’m one of those people who reach out with a short call or a text to somebody to see how they’re doing, and they do the same. So I think that helps.”
Parker’s apprenticeship at The Farmer’s B.A.G. enables her to join a larger farming community and access agricultural resources, including training, workshops and advocacy from the Farm Bureau.
“Community is important. If I grow cucumbers and another farmer grows peas, we can work together,” she says. “We have a trade; we have a system. We’re all family and can come together to share and learn from each other.”
Mental Health Resources for Farmers
Farm Stress Resource Directory
The Agromedicine Institute published a farm stress resource directory for farmers, their families and farm-related organizations seeking assistance with farm stress and other behavioral health issues. The guide contains information about crisis lines, counseling services, local management entities, mobile behavioral health care based on region and financial assistance services.
The NC FarmLink connects farmers, landowners and service providers across North Carolina, helping to grow the state’s agriculture industry.
North Carolina Agromedicine Institute – Farmer to Farmer
North Carolina Farm and Ranch Assistance Network
In partnership with NC State, the North Carolina Farm and Ranch Assistance Network provides a suite of programs and services for farmers, including:
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) – Farmers of Color Network
The Farmers of Color Network supports farmers of color by providing farmer-led technical assistance and funding opportunities, hosting farm tours and organizing networking events and gatherings that highlight ancestral traditions and knowledge.