Yves here. Readers may have noted that suicide rates were already high among farmers, often due to them getting caught under rising levels of debt as the economics of their operations became less favorable over time. It’s hard to imagine how they will get through the hammer blows of trade wars, climate-changed induced severe weather events, and even worse, coronavirus.
By Sandy West. Originally published at Kaiser Health News
Richard Oswald, still mourning the loss of his family’s homestead to flooding along the Missouri River, is planting corn and soybeans into ground that last year was feet deep underwater.
It’s probably good, he said, to not have too much time to think.
“Diversion therapy is the best treatment for farmers right now,” said the 70-year-old from Atchison County, Missouri. “Being busy helps.”
In an industry rocked over the past year by record rates of bankruptcies, suicides and mental health crises spurred by weather extremes, trade wars and faltering economics, COVID-19 has fostered even more uncertainty for the future of America’s farms. Already the pandemic has decimated agricultural markets.
For the men and women struggling to operate farms and associated businesses across the country, concerns are rising that the existing mental health crisis in farm country is about to get worse.
“If you look back over the last 20 or 30 years of U.S. agriculture, the events of the last 36 months or so couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said David Widmar, an agricultural economist with the industry analysis firm Agricultural Economic Insights. “Everyone in the economy is facing a headwind right now; it’s just that the ag space is really behind. Producers have had almost seven bad years of bad news.”
To be sure, the global pandemic has taken a toll on mental health among people in all industries. But farming was battling high rates of suicide before the crisis hit. For example, men in rural Missouri have had the highest rate of suicide deaths in the state, at 35.6 per 100,000 residents in 2017, according to a February Missouri Hospital Association report — nearly double the statewide rate of 18.8. The U.S. rate at that time was 14.
Calls to farmer assistance hotlines have only increased since the COVID-19 pandemic first caused businesses and school systems nationwide to shut down, said Jennifer Fahy, a spokesperson for Farm Aid, which runs one of the hotlines. Farmers are expressing increased concern about being able to sell their products, at what price and how this will play out.
“I don’t think it is even close to what we will be hearing after another month, or two months,” Fahy said. “There is just so much unknown right now.”