Sep 8, 2021Looking after farmers’ mental health becomes focal point
California farmers and ranchers have no shortages of stress this year. They face drought and water supply cuts, devastating wildfires and pandemic impacts. There are also labor shortages and financial pressures from fluctuating commodity prices or trade disruptions.
These impacts inspire serious discussions in agricultural communities about looking after farmers’ mental health.
“This year for us has been mentally and emotionally the most trying year of our lives, honestly, as long as we’ve been farming. Just the uncertainty of being able to make ends meet, you feel so out of control,” said Tulelake rancher Erika DuVal, who grows alfalfa hay and produces registered Black Angus cattle with her husband Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association.
Ahmed “Mike” Alamari, president of Pacific Farm Management Inc., a farm-labor contracting company in Madera, recently asked California water officials to consider the well-being of people who live in farm country when considering severe water cuts to agriculture.
“Morale is very low,” he told the State Water Resources Control Board in late July, as the agency considered curtailment regulations for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Anxiety is at its peak, as we continue to see the drought effects and the political environment that is currently surrounding water in California. Everyone’s real wary about the future. We have a lot of employees at west side ranches, and they’re concerned about their jobs and what the future holds.”
The California Farm Bureau is reminding farmers and others that they are not alone, that it is OK to not be OK during these difficult times. Farm Bureau suggests that those feeling anxious or stressed talk to family, friends, neighbors and others about what they’re going through and advises people check on family, friends and neighbors and start the conversations.
Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said, “There has been a concerted effort by Farm Bureau to consider our members’ health because what we’ve experienced in the last three years has brought a tremendous amount of uncertainty and a tremendous amount of almost hopelessness.”
An Oroville olive grower and producer, Johansson has faced evacuations due to wildfires. He said the stress of farmers “plays on the whole family,so you have to deal with that.” Sometimes, he said he seeks solitude on “a spot on my farm that I can go to that makes it all right” and offers reassurance “that it’s all worth it.”
The Farm State of Mind website farmstateofmind.org. now shares mental health resources for farmers. They include information on recognizing signs of stress, insights on how to start conversations, along with other online training.
The site, affiliated with the American Farm Bureau Federation, says: “Farm life can be demanding and stressful…Given these ongoing challenges, it’s no surprise that more farmers and farm families are experiencing stress and mental health concerns.”
Many California regions suffer from little to no water this year. Stretching a limited supply of water is an ongoing challenge for farmers in the federal Klamath Project. Irrigators say water in Upper Klamath Lake is unavailable in part due to a biological opinion for protected fish species.
“That those in control are keeping water from you that would help you sustain your livelihood is especially frustrating,” DuVal said. “The water is in the lake and they clearly won’t let us have it so that we can grow crops to feed the world and pay our bills.”
In late July, when farmers were left to figure out how to proceed without water, DuVal said, “We were feeling pretty hopeless as far as the future.” She added, “You had to bring yourself back to: Let’s look at right now and the things that we can be grateful for today that are going to carry us through. We are tough people, but we forget that we can’t carry it all.”
Farmers affected by drought in Sonoma County, which has had several major fires, had to haul domestic water to meet the needs of their cattle. Recently, Jennifer Beretta of Beretta Family Organic Dairy near Santa Rosa said fire on state land came close to burning the family’s dairy barn, but was promptly extinguished.
“The amount of phone calls I got that day from people asking, ‘Can we get there with a water truck and can we help you?’ It is so huge to have the ag community when you are going through something like that,” Beretta said.
Beretta also said the family started selling cows late last year, about 45 head.
“There’s an emotional connection to your animals and you don’t want to ever sell an animal that doesn’t need to be sold,” said Beretta, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “I don’t even know if we can find feed. My poor dad is constantly asking me, ‘How much longer are we going to do this if we can’t find hay, if we run out of silage and if we don’t have rain next year?'”
Beretta added, “There are real conversations happening that you don’t want to have, but they’re realistic and they’re scary and they’re sad.”
By raising awareness of farmer mental health, Johansson said, Farm Bureau hopes to make a difference by talking about and losing the stigma associated with mental health and also provide resources and training.
“We’re talking more openly than we ever have about farmer mental health. The first step in really making a difference in fixing a problem is talking about it and drawing attention to it,” Johansson said. “At some point, everyone feels frustration or maybe hopelessness, but you don’t have to go through this alone.”
Last year, an AFBF survey of farmers revealed that the pandemic had impacted farmer mental health.
“Nobody wants to talk about it,” said Ray Atkinson, AFBF communications director. “Nobody wants to acknowledge it, so that 91% of farmers surveyed said mental health is important to them. That points to that they are willing to open up and talk to somebody.
“Farmers are self-reliant and, as a whole, don’t need to ask somebody else for help,” he added. “Those are great qualities for being a farmer, but they’re bad qualities for being able to ask somebody for help.”
– Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation