In early May, Kansas farmer John Blaske is waiting for the rain to stop so he can begin planting. From the front door of his farmhouse, a green yard decorated with bird feeders slopes down to a series of fields where the corn will be planted. Beyond the fields, there’s a tree line and a small bridge with a creek running below. It’s peaceful here, and mostly quiet, except for the sound of the occasional car or tractor, or the cows calling from the paddock.
The waiting makes him restless, he tells me. And it’s not just the rain. He’s also waiting desperately for the opportunity to talk to fellow agrarians or to legislators about the stress, depression and suicidal ideation he experiences as a farmer.
We have been talking by phone for well over a year now, and last fall, when the summer heat was just beginning to lift, I visited his farm in the tiny town of Onaga.
My conversations with Blaske became part of a story, published in December in the Guardian, about the high rate of farmer suicide. According to a 2016 report, people who work in agriculture take their lives at a rate higher than any other occupation, and at twice the rate of military veterans.
The story reached the computer screens of over a million readers, even landing on the desks of legislators. But Blaske himself could not access it. Without a computer or the internet, he was unaware of theconversations, media coverage, and legislation provoked in part by his story.
I’ve done my best to keep him updated, with phone calls and print-outs of articles mailed to his home. But behind the scenes of this story is a stark digital divide, which highlights the isolation experienced by rural America and the feeling that – even in a farm bill year – farmers have been forgotten.
I’ve got good news about bad news
I’ve become fond of the phrase, “I’ve got good news about bad news,” and I’ve been saying it a lot lately.
Just weeks after the article was published, Washington state representative and fourth generation farmer JT Wilcox immediately responded by introducing a farmer suicide prevention bill into the state legislature.
It passed unanimously through both the House and Senate, and just three months after the article was published, it was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee.
And recently, two bills aimed at addressing the farmer suicide crisis (The Stress Act and The Farmers First Act), were introduced into the US House and Senate for inclusion into the 2018 federal farm bill.
Both bills would reauthorize the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), a program which would provide federal grants to create crisis lines, provide counseling for farmers and train rural behavioral health professionals.
Both of these bills now have strong bipartisan support, as well as endorsements from a slew of progressive and conservative rural and farmer organizations. One key difference is that only the Farmers First Act comes with funding – a proposed $ 50m over five years.
As arduous as it is to pass federal legislation, it’s all the more so within something as politically divisive as the $ 867bn farm bill. While some farm groups voiced support for the House version of the farm bill, many farm and rural organizations loudly opposed it, arguing that while it contains some positive elements (including language from the Stress Act), the overall bill would harm family farmers by gutting conservation programs and local food initiatives, decreasing access to credit for small and mid-sized farms, and failing to provide a safety net for struggling farmers.
Indeed, the farm economy is in crisis. Net farm income has decreased by 50% since 2013, and recently, the farmer’s share of the US food dollar fell to 14.8 cents, the lowest since the USDA began tracking the statistic in 1993. Milk prices are so far below the cost of production that dairy cooperative Agri-Mark recently sent out suicide hotline numbers along with the milk checks. Add in the Trump Administration’s see-sawing statements about a trade war with China, which would impact up to 94 agricultural products, and the potential for financial losses is being felt industry-wide.
Because of the plight of farmers, there is increased scrutiny on the farm bill. On 18 May, the House voted down its final version of the farm bill, with 30 Republicans joining 183 Democrats in defeating the bill. While the House will attempt to rebuild the bill and bring it back for a vote in late June, public focus will largely shift to the Senate, which is drafting its own farm bill, projected to be released in June.
Still, there remains hope among farmers and advocates who have long worked to advance suicide prevention resources. “I am more hopeful than I have been in my 38 years of working in this arena that behavioral health supports will be funded as part of the farm bill,” wrote Dr Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer and psychologist, in an email.
‘Some people can’t hang on that long’
When I call Blaske to update him on the legislation, he says the provision of extra federal grants for crisis lines and counselling would be a positive outcome that would provide life-saving resources to farmers. But he says struggling farmers can’t wait. “Some people can’t hang on that long,” he says. “I mean, farmers are out there busting their butts just trying to make a nickel or a dollar or a dime.”
If there has been any criticism of farmer suicide legislation, it is that it doesn’t address the root causes of the behavioral health issues sweeping across farm country, including the negative farm economy. A recent Mother Jones article was titled: “We wouldn’t need the suicide hotline if dairy farmers were getting paid what they deserve.”
But while economic conditions are absolutely part of why farmer suicide rates are so high, other contributing factors exist, including rural isolation, unpredictable weather, lack of rural health services, and a stigma surrounding mental health issues. Thus, even if the farm economy improves, people working in agriculture will benefit from a system of behavioral health resources.
“Agricultural behavioral health assistance is needed more than at any time since the 1980s, and will continue to be needed as an investment in healthy agricultural producers,” wrote Rosmann in a 4 May article in Iowa Farmer Today. He maintains that while natural resources are often considered elements such as topsoil, water, or seeds, farmers are the most critical agricultural natural resource we have. As such, he says, the health and wellbeing of farmers is essential to a functional food and agriculture system.
Matt Perdue, a fifth generation farmer from North Dakota and the government relations representative for NFU, says the farmer suicide legislation addresses an immediate need for the group’s 200,000 members. He also says the need for such support goes beyond the current farm financial crisis.
“When we look at the farm economy as a whole, we’re not taking into account specific situations,” says Perdue. “A farmer might be experiencing severe drought or getting hit with a hailstorm while the rest of the economy is strong. The industry has so much uncertainty in it, so we need to be providing mental health support to farmers and ranchers at all times.”
On 9 May, NFU’s Roger Johnson sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urging him to address the crisis. “We call on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to serve a critical role in providing support to farmers and ranchers in crisis,” he wrote. He notes that net farm income is projected to drop by 6.7% in 2018 (to negative $ 1,316), the lowest since 2006, and the fact that 60% of rural residents live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals.
“This is something we think requires a holistic response,” says Perdue. “Federal legislation is just one way to address the issue. We also need to be talking about this at the state level and the local level. It’s going to take as many different avenues as we can find.”
A simple idea: a big picnic
In Kansas, Blaske has been thinking about those different avenues. “I think that we need to have get-togethers – like a big picnic, where farmers let their feelings out and learn to not hold everything inside, because that’s when it all blows up,” he says.
It’s a simple but effective idea, and one that echoes the farmer gatherings through the 1980s farm crisis, when farmers took to community spaces to organize and take care of one another.
During that time, Dr Rosmann took on the role of gathering Iowa farmers and their families. Upwards of 200 hundred farmers would gather in a church or school for community prayer, candid conversation about their struggles, and various presentations: an attorney explaining the stages of bankruptcy, a banker discussing financial management, Rosmann speaking about stress and behavioral health.
When I tell Blaske about Rosmann’s gatherings from years ago, he says: “I’d go in a heartbeat. But so far, the opportunity hasn’t been presented. Nobody’s ever called and asked me to do anything like that, but that’s what I’d love to do.”
So he waits – to begin planting, for a phone call, for the mail, for something to change. “You asked me what I hoped would come from this story,” he said to me on the phone recently. “I want to be seen. I want to be heard.” Then his voice broke, and he abruptly finished our call.
‘I felt like farming killed my husband’
Last October, I sat at a kitchen table in Iowa and listened to Ginnie Peters talk about her husband, Matt, a farmer who died of suicide in 2011 at the age of 55. As we spoke, she thumbed through the journal she has kept since Matt died. The entries are short and poem-like:
You were in my dreams again last night. We were out in the front yard in the dark.
The spruce tree has been planted where the oak tree had been.
I will love you forever, guy.
“For a long time I felt like farming killed my husband,” Ginnie said.
Outside the door of their farmhouse was a cistern where Matt would sit before coming inside for the night, and a young ash tree with branches still low enough to reach. Ginnie would tell him to touch the tree, to leave all his stress there in the leaves. They kept a crisis hotline number by the phone throughout the hard years of the 1980s, but by 2011, “when Matt really needed it, it was gone”.
Recently, Senator Joni Ernst – a sponsor of the Farmers First Act – called Ginnie to talk about the federal legislation. “I’m grateful that someone is finally paying attention,” Ginnie told me on the phone. “This could be the difference between life and death for many.”
“We were able to get through the 1980s farm crisis, but I couldn’t get through my farmer in crisis,” Ginnie told Ernst. “If the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network had been funded in 2008, Matt might still be alive.”