If someone asked us which provider we need most, the majority would say, my doctor. In reality, the farmer is the one who provides us with our life source-food. Proper nutrition keeps us healthier and out of the doctor’s office. According to CBS News, the suicide rate in the field of farming, fishing and forestry is 84.5 per 100,000 people — more than five times that of the population as a whole. That’s even as the nation overall has seen an increase in suicide rates over the last 30 years. That’s even as the nation overall has seen an increase in suicide rates over the last 30 years.
The unequal economy that’s emerged over the past decade, combined with patchy access to health care in rural areas, have had a severe impact on the people growing America’s food. Recent data shows just how much. Farmers are dying by suicide at a higher rate than any other occupational group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Think about trying to live today on the income you had 15 years ago.” That’s how agriculture expert Chris Hurt describes the plight facing U.S. farmers today. Stress, mental health and patchy access to health care are also factors into the rising numbers. The US farmer suicide crisis echoes a much larger farmer suicide crisis happening globally: an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.
“The farm crisis was so bad, there was a terrible outbreak of suicide and depression,” said Jennifer Fahy, communications director with Farm Aid, a group founded in 1985 that advocates for farmers. Today, she said, “I think it’s actually worse.”
“We’re hearing from farmers on our hotline that farmer stress is extremely high,” Fahy said. “Every time there’s more uncertainty around issues around the farm economy is another day of phones ringing off the hook.”
Finances are a major reason. Since 2013, farm income has been dropping steadily, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, the average farm’s income is projected to be 35 percent below its 2013 level.
“The current incomes we’ve seen for the last three years … have been about like farm incomes from early in this century,” said Hurt, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University in Indiana.
Farmers are also at the mercy of elements outside their direct control, from extreme weather events that threaten crops to commodity prices that offer less for farm goods than it costs to produce them.
“We’ve spoken to dairy farmers who are losing money on every pound of milk they sell,” said Alana Knudson, co-director of the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis with the University of Chicago.
As America’s trading partners slap tariffs on U.S. crops, those prices are set to be further undermined. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve’s gradual raising of interest rates threatens the financing for many smaller farms.
“A lot of our farmers take out operating loans so they can buy seed, fertilizer and spray. As we’re looking at increasing interest rates, this is going to exacerbate financial vulnerability,” Knudson said.
Unreliable finances are a major reason why three-quarters of farmers must rely on non-farm income, often from a second job. Health insurance access is another.
Health care and mental-health services can be critical, Knudson said, particularly in rural areas, where medical care may be scarce. The farm bill that passed the House last week threatens to undo that, she said, because it allows for health insurance to sell plans that exclude mental health coverage. The Senate version of the farm bill allocates $20 million to a program to connect farmers with behavioral health services.
Ref. CBS News, cbsnews.com, dailypress.com, nytimes.com, theguardian.com
Photo courtesy of Bing.com