Meg Moynihan and her husband, Kevin Stuedemann, own Derrydale Farm in Minnesota’s Le Sueur County where they milk about 70 certified organic cows. In March 2016, the cooperative that picked up Derrydale Farm’s organic milk changed its route, leaving them without a buyer. Moynihan and Stuedemann dumped tens of thousands of pounds of milk for two months before they found a conventional (non-organic) processor that would buy their milk. However, the price they received dropped from $38 per hundred pounds to about $14.
When the stress from this situation became too much for Stuedemann, he returned to long-haul trucking to pay the bills. Moynihan took a leave of absence from her job to run the farm alone. The situation became so overwhelming that, after talking with her family doctor about her anxiety, she began taking an antidepressant. Their story had a happy ending when, in December, another organic cooperative agreed to take their milk. But Moynihan said that the nine months they struggled to keep their heads above water were filled with uncertainty and fear.
Moynihan and Stuedemann’s story is all too common across Minnesota and the rest of farm country. Stress due to uncertain weather, animal illnesses, fluctuating markets and unforeseen disasters has always been near-constant for farmers, their workers and their families. But in the past few years, the devastating effects of stress, including suicide, have received national attention, most recently in high profile articles in The New York Times and The Guardian. Exact numbers for suicides in farmers and farm workers are hard to calculate due to how those deaths are reported and classified, but it’s estimated that they take their lives at a rate that is three-to-five times higher than any other workers in the country.
The number of farm bankruptcies in Minnesota more than doubled from 2014 to 2018. Meg Moynihan and Kevin Stuedemann’s Derrydale Farm has survived.
“It’s difficult to fully understand what stress does to agricultural communities and it’s hard to count the suicides, let alone quantify depression, substance abuse, divorces and other impacts on the family, including the children,” says Bruce Alexander, professor and head of the Division of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH).
Alexander has recently guided UMASH, a collaboration of five leading health care and public research institutions, in expanding its mission of improving the health and safety of agricultural workers and their families to include improving their mental health. “Stress can come from numerous directions in agricultural communities and may cause an incredibly diffuse health burden,” Alexander says.
Farm crisis redux
Stress and its consequences were major issues in American agricultural life during the early 1980s when commodity prices and exports fell, foreclosures skyrocketed and farming suffered its worst crisis since the Great Depression. According to the National Farm Medicine Center, there were an estimated 58 suicides per 100,000 farmers in 1982, nearly twice the rate that year for white males age 20 or older.
Fear is now circulating among rural communities that farmers are facing a similar grim scenario. Prices for agricultural products are falling and labor prices are rising. In 2017, farm real estate debt had reached $236.4 billion, a record high. According to a 2018 report from the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, the number of farm bankruptcies in Minnesota more than doubled from 2014 to 2018 and the trend has not reached a peak.
The agricultural community is starting to suffer the effects of climate change, too. For example, a recent study showed that each day corn, soybean and wheat crops experience temperatures of 86 degrees and higher, their yield drops by 6%. In the razor-thin margins farmers face in crop pricing, this is significant. Uncertain and fluctuating immigration policies and enforcement also contribute to unease. According to a 2017 Migration Policy Institute brief, three-fourths of people in the U.S. farm workforce were born abroad, and a significant proportion are undocumented. Deportation weighs heavily on the minds of workers and their employers.
According to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 65% of rural counties don’t have a psychiatrist, 47% lack a psychologist and 81% have no psychiatric nurse practitioners.
“There are so many elements that produce stress in a farmer’s life and a lot of those sources are beyond his or her control — and that lack of control is a stressor in itself,” says Moynihan, who is also senior advisor for strategy and innovation at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “Plus, farmers have this overwhelming sense of responsibility — ‘I have to feed the world. I’m responsible to my land, my animals, my forebears.’ You feel you have to make everything work.”
Commonplace, but deadly serious
The human body can take episodic stress without much consequence, but chronic stress can produce real physical and psychological harm. Although stress does not always lead to depression and suicide, it is very often a contributing factor.
“Stress in a farmer’s life is extremely difficult to address,” said Moynihan.
To combat stress and its potentially lethal fallout, people have to acknowledge what they’re feeling. Doing so is difficult for people in the general population; for farmers, it can be a step too far. Moynihan consulted her doctor about her anxiety, but she is an exception. The 2018 American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that 33% of Americans don’t talk to their health care provider about their stress. This problem is potentially exacerbated in rural communities and particularly among farmers, who view themselves as independent with a tradition of stoicism.
GET HELP, FIND HOPE
EAST CENTRAL CRISIS RESPONSE: Call 1-800-523-3333 to reach East Central Crisis Response, serving residents of Chisago, Isanti, Pine, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties.
THERAPEUTIC SERVICES AGENCY: In Pine City and the region. Call 320-629-7600 or email email@example.com.
NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE: Counselors will answer calls at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800- SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).
CRISIS TEXT LINE: Texting “CONNECT” to 741741 will immediately connect you with a crisis counselor.