For the last five years, farm income has been slashed in half from weak markets and severely depressed commodity prices and now farmers across America are facing the same struggles and stress as Josh. The mental health problem in rural communities has been highlighted even more recently as farmers are dealing with destroying crops and euthanizing livestock as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a survey conducted by American Farm Bureau, 91% of farmers cited financial issues as a significant stressor on mental health. And nearly half of all adults surveyed say they are personally experiencing more mental health challenges than they were a year ago, caused by stress, unpredictable weather and financial stress, among other things.
Though the problem seems to be widely recognized, accessing proper care and treatment is still challenging. In the same survey, 46% of farmers said it’s difficult to access a therapist or counselor in their local communities.
In 2018, after two more hurricanes ravaged South Carolina farmland, South Carolina Farm Bureau formed the Agricultural Aid Foundation as a way to help farmers recover after natural disasters. The Foundation made direct payments to over 200 farmers, but there were funds remaining. JEB Wilson, Chester County Farm Bureau member and farmer, approached President Harry Ott about a potential partnership and investment in rural mental health. It was the perfect next step for the Agricultural Aid Foundation.
The Agricultural Aid Foundation worked with Dr. Adam Kantrovich, a member of Clemson Extension’s Agribusiness Team, to start bringing mental health programs to South Carolina.
“Flood, hurricanes, frost, trade war, now COVID – all these things have put a significant amount of stress on South Carolina farmers,” said Kantrovich. “Each individual reacts differently to how that stress builds up and how that stress impacts them, both physiologically and physically.”
Previously, Dr. Kantrovich worked for Michigan State Extension where he helped develop a Farm Stress and Mental Health program along with some of his counterparts after a rise in suicides and suicide attempts. This program trains individuals who work closely with farmers - like Extension Agents, USDA personnel, rural lending officers and others - to raise awareness of potential mental health issues, identify the signs that there may be an issue, and offers insight into working with a farming community under stress.
“When the body is under stress, how a person thinks may change,” said Kantrovich. “We need to know how to respond in different situations and be able to provide folks with resources available through Clemson and other organizations.”
South Carolina Farm Bureau is a major contributor to the Clemson University Extension Agribusiness team’s Farm Stress and Mental Health programming. The initial program included the day long Mental Health First Aid training and a half day program specific to agriculture in November 2019. Dr. Kantrovich and the Clemson Extension Agribusiness Team was able to provide materials and resources to forty individuals who work closely with farmers. Kantrovich says this partnership will help make their efforts more successful.
“Working with SCFB has been very helpful. I appreciate them believing in this effort and providing funding to help us deliver this programming, and more so helping us build the awareness through offering programs and outreach.”
In addition to the mental health training, Dr. Kantrovich and the Agribusiness team will also work with farms to do a full financial analysis to get a clear picture of where their business stands. Kantrovich says, “this service provides information so that they are able to make informed decisions and recognize what options are available and what path might be best for them and their families.”