Did you know that “American farmers are four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population” (Foer)?  After reading that statistic I’ve been trying to remember, “Have I ever had a discussion about mental health with my fellow farmers?”, “Have any of the farm organizations that I am a part of brought issues of mental health in farming communities to the fore-front?”

And the answer I have is: Rarely.  Sure, I might have missed some important conversations but the mental health of farmers is generally not being talked about.  And that’s not helping our cause.

Farmers are proud people, and sometimes isolated people.  I remember descriptions of “burn-out” during my second internship on an organic farm.  Burn-out was described as what happens to a person after working hard for the whole farming season and completely exhausting themselves in every way.  That farmer, I remember well, encouraged us to take time for ourselves, read books, stretch, take Sundays off, etc.  She would even reprimand us (sort-of) if we weren’t doing so.  Basically she was encouraging all the interns to partake in self-care.  These are the same things I tell our interns now when they start working with us, but I’m starting to believe that we’re going to have to do A LOT more in our farmer-training protocols if we want to have a new generation of farmers surviving the stresses of farming today.  Not only are we going to need to be prepared to deal with the stresses relating to climate change and farm economics, we also won’t make it through the inevitable “hard times” without talking about these struggles.

Learning to take care of one’s self is challenging, no matter the scenario.  I remember the feeling of shame I experienced when, come fall of that internship, I was on my way to “burn out”.  I wasn’t supposed to “burn-out”! The season had exhausted me, things had been stressful in whole new ways, and I had felt isolated.   Lucky for me, I made it to the end of the internship feigning more energy than I actually had and proceeded to catch up on much-needed self care in the winter.  I vowed that the coming year I would be even more prepared for the stress of the season.  However the next two seasons proved even more challenging, especially in the fall of each year as the days began to shorten.  This past fall, shortly after getting married on the farm of my dreams that my amazing now-husband and I moved to a few months earlier, I was burnt out.  This burn out and physical exhaustion was accompanied with the second most serious bout of depression I have ever experienced, and I was ready to throw in the towel on my so-called “amazing new life”.  Howling to the wind like a lone wolf I admitted my defeat, I would have to leave the farm and learn to improve my mental health in a career less demanding.

Farming around the world is characterized by high rates of stress.  Poor subsistence farmers have always felt the stress of trying to feed their families, especially through dry seasons, floods, or winters.  With climate change, and increasing competition from multi-national corporations every situation for the small-farmer around the globe is becoming increasingly difficult.

The National Post recently published an article trying to revoke the link between rising farmer suicides in India and the introduction of GM (genetically modified) cotton in 2002.  They say it is unfair to “blame the giant company for contributing to over 290,000 suicides by Indian farmers over the last 20 years. “  To me, the point of the Indian farmer suicide epidemic is simple- small farmers competing with bio-tech companies adds another stressor to the already complex and stressful situation of farming in monsoon country. What many say happened is that once GM seeds were introduced many Indian farmers would only receive loans to buy seed if it was GM seed.  This was because it was believed that the GM seeds would give the greatest yields.  But then countless farmers found the GM crops failed, and their debts increased.   “The problem with GMO seeds in India is that they are often “not bred for that area, for rain-fed agriculture, so they fail more frequently,” says Dr. Vandana Shiva, an advocate for Indian Farmers.

Suicides would take place in India without GM seeds but it’s obvious that they exacerbate the problems and this issue helps shed light on a striking reality- family farmers are being pushed to their edge and beyond every day around the world.

In Canada , we are going to need to address the increased epidemic of mental health issues that plague young people if we want to have young farmers.  According to the Canadian Mental Health Association by age 25 approximately 20% of Canadians will be diagnosed with a mental health illness.  I turned 25 last year and in my 24th year was (secret revealed) diagnosed with Anxiety and Depression.  That was when I asked myself the question, “Can someone living with a mental health illness, diagnosed or not, really make it on the farm?”

During my first year of University my physical health and mental health shifted drastically- my digestion was failing, I had severe infections, and I ended up for sustained periods of time in the hospital.  Unable to catch up with my studies I dropped out of University, and decided to do something “adventurous, but not too crazy”.  I landed on an organic farm in Florida with my best friend where we volunteered for 3 months.  My digestive health continued to struggle, but working outside every day, being in the company of kind people, and eating organic food had me feeling better than I had felt for a long time.  My immunities began to improve.  I had no aspirations whatsoever at the time to take up farming, but I recognized a very basic goodness in the meditative and physical work, and in the community of the farm. It was that goodness that kept drawing me to the farm year after year and that eventually led me to become a farmer.

So is the farm good for mental health?

Fast-forward to this fall; lucky for me I was able to pause, both literally and figuratively.  I was able to spend time recollecting myself.  I found a way to remember my commitments to the land, to myself, and to my community.  For me it really is those commitments that has allowed me to take responsibility for my place in struggles and triumphs.

And Like any proud farmer I was ashamed to talk about what I was going through because I knew my farm-life looked dainty and bucolic from the outside, (and because my personal life is so intricately connected with my business…)  In many ways I needed to confront the realities of farm-ownership, incredible debt, and do some emotional maturing (don’t we all?).

I believe most aspects of farming are very good for mental health.  The fresh air, the farm-work, and the support of community ( which corporate farming has tried to rob us of).  As for my struggles this fall and early winter, I listened to my mother-in-law and did “100% of what was possible” every day, even if some days that meant doing very little.

A 2005 survey of over 1100 farmers across Canada revealed a few interesting things about the mental health and stress levels of Canadian farmers (this is from rural support.ca):

  • Almost two-thirds of Canadian farmers are feeling stressed on their farms. One in five farmers describe themselves as being “very stressed” while almost half describe themselves as being “somewhat stressed”.
  • The biggest stressors are commodity prices, BSE (not as relevant now), and general farm financial stress
  • The notion of pride and farmers independence was found to be the most important mentioned reason farmers did not seek more help in dealing with stress and mental health.
  • Remaining anonymous is very important to farmers when seeking help for stress and mental health issues.
  •  Awareness of the Farm Stress Line is generally good. Roughly two-thirds of Canadian farmers are aware of the Farm Stress Line.
  • 9 out of 10 farmers feel that if they were to seek professional help for their stress that they would prefer for that professional to be knowledgeable about agriculture
  • 35% of farmers reported that if they made the same amount of money as they had that year in the following years they would go out of business

In my world being a farmer doesn’t mean being a super-hero, being incredibly physically strong, ignoring harsh realities, or not grieving hardships.  It means facing incredible challenges and deciding to face them again and ASKING FOR HELP in the process.  And it means communing with the farm itself, looking to the land for some of the more complicated questions that arise in the psyche.  Indeed for some people the best thing to do is to leave the farm, but for many farmers around the world that is not an option (or desire).

Like so many people I want to be healthy, but for me that’s not my ultimate aspiration.  I aspire to be a healthy farmer, and I want to help others who have struggled with mental and physical ailments to be farmers too!