This story was first published on April 30, 2021
Update 2/18/2022: The state’s Department of Agriculture has launched a helpline for agricultural workers. It operates 24/7, and services are available free of charge in 160 languagesThe mental health helpline is 833-897-AGRI (2474)
Growing food or producing milk can be life-giving, but farmers also face unique challenges that can lead to anxiety and depression. While efforts to help are growing, there’s a push to get Pennsylvania to do more.
LISTEN to the story
Third-generation farmer Layne Kind milks 350 Holstein and Jersey cows every morning and every evening on his family dairy in Butler County.
More than 1,500 dairy farms in Pennsylvania had to dump their milk when schools and restaurants closed last year. “We were lucky, we only had to dump our milk one time,” he said.
Kind sees himself as a glass-half-full kind of guy, so that day he binged on chocolate chip cookies to cope.
He runs this farm with his father, Dean Kind, who remembers his own father at times struggling financially. But he didn’t talk about it much.
“My dad’s generation, they were tough. They didn’t let things show. I never saw my dad shed a tear. Everything was kept inside,” he remembered.
“Dear Struggling Farmer”
But sometimes proud, tough, farmers could actually benefit from talking about their problems.
“Dear struggling farmer, you don’t know me, but I know you,” begins a 2018 video posted by Jessica Peters, who runs a dairy in Meadville in Crawford County with her parents and brother.
She finds farming isolating at times, so she started sharing her own struggles with mental health online.
Her video continues, “Most days are fine, you’re doing what you love, what you were born to do, you’re farming. You’re taking care of your animals, your land, and most importantly, your family – and that’s enough. But then something goes wrong.”
She tells farmers she knows what it’s like to work long hours, doing the labor needed to feed people, and then a cow gets sick, a tractor breaks down, or it’s too wet to plant – and the costs quickly spiral out of control – and no one else seems to notice. She assures farmers.
“You are not alone, you are not the only one feeling the way you’re feeling. I promise you that,” Peters said in the video.
Peters said she was nervous to post it but was overwhelmed by the response.
“In the end, it got almost a million views and tens of thousands of shares and I got thousands and thousands of messages the next six months, and people being like you just put into words exactly how I feel,” she said. “That was the first time I realized that mental health and agriculture needed to be talked about and how big of a deal it was.”
Years of Study Lead to New Federal Assistance
“I think we’re seeing higher rates of suicide and depression and anxiety in the agricultural population because many of the factors that affect their economic well-being and their sense of achievement are connected to factors beyond their control,” said Michael Rosmann, a farmer and health researcher for more than 40 years in Wisconsin.
Farmers can’t control the weather. They can’t control government policy or markets or consumer preferences.
Rosmann looked at the farm crisis in the 1980s, the drop in pork prices in the 1990s, and many other examples of how quickly fortunes can shift for farmers.
“Farmers can’t control the weather. They can’t control government policy or markets or consumer preferences,” he said.
But farmers can learn to manage their responses to these kinds of events. “We have demonstrated that farm people can understand their behaviors and manage their behaviors,” he said. According to Rosmann, there are now four medical centers across the country that focus on farmers’ behavioral health.
The 2018 farm bill provided money for the first time, $10 million per year for five years, for this type of assistance. According to the USDA, the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network funds efforts across the country to set up mental and behavioral health programs.
In the Northeast, that money is being used by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Some of it will be spent focusing on helping those often overlooked – like farmers who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, urban farmers, and migrant workers.
Calls to Do More in Pennsylvania
State Senator Elder Vogel, who, along with his wife, recently took over their family’s 147-year-old farm in Beaver County, thinks more needs to be done for farmers in Pennsylvania.
Like dairies, he saw hog farms lose money during the pandemic. But for them, it was traumatic.
“You’re watching your baby pigs having to be smacked in the head and killed because you have no place to send them when it’s time to go,” Vogel said as he choked up. “If you’re a farmer, you care about animals.”
It’s not just this past year that’s been hard. According to the state Department of Agriculture, between 2012 and 2017, 900 dairies closed in Pennsylvania. Shutting down a long-standing family farm is tough on a farmer.
“If you’re the fourth or fifth generation of a farm, and the farm is going down a drain on your watch, that’s a huge weight on your shoulders,” he said.
Vogel, who is chair of the Senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, started working to get funding in the state budget to help farmers with mental health issues, but it got held up once the pandemic hit. He said he’s looking to try again in the coming months.
Pennsylvania is a leader in a lot of other ways in agriculture. But we’re not a leader in terms of this.
Morgan Livingston, a fifth-generation farmer from Indiana County, also wants the state to do more.
“Pennsylvania is a leader in a lot of other ways in agriculture. But we’re not a leader in terms of this,” said soon-to-be 28-year old Livingston, who grew up on an Angus beef farm.
For her, getting mental health assistance to farmers is personal. She had anxiety as early as elementary school.
“And luckily, my parents and some professionals and teachers in our lives recommended that I get started in counseling at a young age,” Livingston said.
That experience inspired her to get her degree in social work, she said, and those skills were helpful when ownership of her family farm transitioned from her elderly grandfather to her parents. In difficult times like that, she wants Pennsylvania to provide services, like those available in places like New York, Michigan and Minnesota.
“Each state is different, but a lot of them are making referrals for farmers,” she explained. “Like if you call in and you need counseling, they’ll help refer you to a service in your area. Some of them have hotlines, some of them do training on stress management and coping skills.”
But she doesn’t think farmers will accept help from someone who doesn’t understand the unique challenges of farming.
Farm researcher Michael Rosmann’s work backs this up. “We did learn that the counselors needed to understand agriculture or they didn’t have the best credibility with people who were seeking an understanding of their farm stresses,” he said.
His research in the 1980s found that counseling follow-ups helped, and community events to talk about the difficulties farmers and their families were going through created a sense of connection.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture prioritized farmers’ mental health during the pandemic, according to spokesperson Shannon Powers. The department has held online events, and its website includes a link to resources, like a suicide prevention hotline run by the Department of Human Services.
“They do talk with people in crisis, but they also get them to local help in their area, or they help them access help where they can get it,” Powers said.
This assistance is not specifically targeted to talk with farmers. She said that’s not a service the Department of Agriculture can provide.
“It’s not a simple issue, and it’s sort of out of the realm of agricultural expertise to provide mental health services at this point,” Powers said. “Pennsylvania is looking at what other states are doing on this issue.”
Powers also said Gov. Wolf has been pushing to expand broadband access in rural areas, which would make online counseling sessions more available to farmers. One obstacle in seeking professional help is the distance and time it takes to get to appointments.
President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes money to improve broadband access in rural communities.
Training the Ag Community
Penn State extension service has started working on mental health issues. Early last year, it started the Mental Health First Aid program. While it trains people in many fields, organizer Cythina Pollich says so far about 100 people connected with the agricultural community have gone through the program.
More of this work is needed, she said, remembering a call from a farmer in distress, and hearing a police officer talk to him in the background.
“I hear this police officer, and it was in a little small town, going, ‘Just pull yourself up, you can get over this, you’re fine,’ ” Pollich recalled. “So I am now training the police officer while I’m supporting the farmer going, ‘Those feelings are real, and they’re allowed to have those feelings, and right now they can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps.’ “
Pollich wants more people who see farmers regularly, like veterinarians and milk haulers, trained on how to notice, and assist, if the person is struggling.
“It would be training you in the awareness of what to do if you noticed that your best friend stopped showering and wasn’t taking care of themselves and started drinking more or started eating less,” she explained. “What do you say to them?”
According to Pollich, Penn State has applied for a national grant to expand this work.
Advocates want the message to get out to people who produce the nation’s food: it’s okay to struggle. And then they want to make sure there’s help available to them.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
Our behavioral health reporting is supported by the Staunton Farm Foundation.