Why are farmer suicide rates so high? Suicide rates for farm operators and workers are significantly higher than the rest of the overall working population in the U.S. But why?
The answer, or at least one answer, comes from a new study, published in The Journal of Rural Health, that was led by Wendy Ringgenberg, assistant professor of health care administration at Des Moines University in Iowa.
What the study found was that over the course of 19 years, from 1992 to 2010, 230 farmers in the United States took their lives, while 171 died from homicide.
During that timeframe, these farmers died from suicide at an annual rate ranging between 0.36 and 0.95 per 100,000. Americans in all other occupations combined did not surpass 0.19 per 100,000.
The Des Moines University study also found that farm operators and workers that were male, white, and from the ages of 35 and 54 had increased odds of suicide over homicide compared to females, non-whites, and those younger than 35 years old.
So what is the culprit? Many farmers deal with high levels of stress including failing crops, coping with work-related injuries, as well as potentially living in an isolated environment, unable to easily access mental health services.
As for Canadian farmers, the picture is less clear. An unsubstantial amount of research has been conducted in Canada on this matter, although a Canadian study, led by W. Pickett with the Department of Emergency Medicine at Queen’s University, similarly looked into suicide rates among male farm operators compared to other males in the general public.
The study found the Canadian Farm Operator Cohort identified 1,457 cases of suicide from 1971 to 1987. “Age-standardized rates of suicide for those aged 30-69 were 29.2 per 100,000 person.
“After adjustment for age differences, provincial suicide rates among farm operators were generally lower than or equivalent to those observed in the comparison populations of Canadian males,” stated the abstract.
Pickett’s team speculated since Canadian farm communities traditionally have high levels of social support, this could serve as protection, preventing extremely high rates of suicide among farm operators.
The U.S. study concluded both suicide and homicide are present within the agricultural industry, and the former is the prevailing cause of farmer’s death. It suggests it would be beneficial for suicide prevention programs to be explored for this industry.
Another researcher thinks he knows exactly why farmers have such as tough time.
“Farming is a lonely occupation and this has a negative impact on the mental health of farmers”, says Ashlinn Flood, who surveyed hundreds of U.S. farmers about their mental health as part of a research project. Flood found that farmers would be willing to talk to a family or friend about mental health issues, but were reluctant to seek the help of a councillor.
Farmer suicide rates. Is Canada’s health care system to blame?
But depression expert Terezia Farkas says Canada’s health care system may be the culprit for some farmer suicides.
“If you’ve idealized farming as an easy occupation, it’s not,” Farkas says. “Farming is characterized by high stress. You live your profession 24/7. A farmer is both boss and employee. Sick benefits and medical leave depend on the same person. Canadian farmers have to pay into unemployment insurance but usually don’t qualify for the benefit when they become unemployed. Financial pressures, livestock disease, poor harvest, climate change, government policies and legislation can devastate farmers”.
Farkas agrees that farmers are reluctant to seek the help of a professional, but says rural support networks like the ones that have been set up in the U.K. could help.
And there doesn’t seem to be much relief in sight for farmers. A drought ravaging the Western United States seems to have become a permanent state of affairs. Colorado farmer Mindy Perkovich explained the tenuous mindset of she and her peers in such a time to NPR.
“Every time I seed or plant a crop,” she said. “There’s like a certain amount of hope that goes with it.”
But reality has cut a swath the size of a ravine into that hope, she explained.
“We don’t know if we’re gonna have water to keep that alive,” Perkovich said. “Financially, I can’t really even express how dramatic it’s changed in the last couple years, water-wise, because without water, we can’t grow crops without crops, we have nothing to sell to our consumers. “When I walk outside of my house, and I look to the west, and most of our property is crispy and brown and dry, it makes me want to cry,” she says. “You can feel it deep inside of you because when you put your heart and soul into this work, and you go outside and it feels hopeless, I don’t really have the words to explain it further. I don’t know. It’s really sad.”
India: How many farmers died in 2020? And why?
Nowhere are farm suicides more front and center than India. According to the Government of India, more than 12,000 suicides have been reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013. In 2020, 10,677 people who worked in the farm sector died by suicide in 2020, up 18 per cent from 2019.
To put that in perspective, that is about 7.4 per cent of all suicides in India. What’s more, as the New York Times reported, killing yourself is a crime in India, so the numbers may actually be much higher than what is being reported.
Vikas Rawal, an economics professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says it’s a combination of all the factors one would expect and that nine out of every ten farmers can’t afford the cost of seeds, equipment or fertilizer.
“Your cost of production has gone up and then you’ve been made to compete with the world,” Rawal told the CBC. “That has squeezed incomes of farmers so much that basically they’re being forced to commit suicide.”
Negative effects of factory farming
No doubt a factor weighing on the mental health of farmers in the increasing concentration in the business. Small farmers have been gobbled up en masse by huge factory farms. Time Magazine’s Alana Semeules painted a bleak picture of industry that has seemingly changed from a Norman Rockwell painting to something approaching a dystopian nightmare.
“In the American imagination, at least, the family farm still exists as it does on holiday greeting cards: as a picturesque, modestly prosperous expanse that wholesomely fills the space between the urban centers where most of us live,” she wrote. “But it has been declining for generations, and the closing days of 2019 find small farms pummeled from every side: a trade war, severe weather associated with climate change, tanking commodity prices related to globalization, political polarization, and corporate farming defined not by a silo and a red barn but technology and the efficiencies of scale. It is the worst crisis in decades. Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies were up 12 percent in the Midwest from July of 2018 to June of 2019; they’re up 50 percent in the Northwest. Tens of thousands have simply stopped farming, knowing that reorganization through bankruptcy won’t save them. The nation lost more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018; 12,000 of those between 2017 and 2018 alone.”
Semeules notes that farm debt is at record levels across the board and that more than half of all farmers have lost money every year since since 2013.
How dramatic is the shift to factory farming? James MacDonald, a research professor in Agricultural & Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, who wrote a paper called “Trends in consolidation of US agriculture” points to the dairy farming business. He notes that in 1987 half of all dairy cows were living in herds of 80 or fewer. By 2017, that herd was 1300. He calls the situation “heartbreaking”.
“Consolidation in dairy is just dramatic,” says MacDonald, “with shifts to much bigger farms and smaller farms going out of business. The last two years, 15% of the dairy farms in the country went out of business. The very large farms have lower costs than midsize and smaller ones, and while those lower costs reflect productivity growth and result in lower prices for the consumer, it is also pretty heartbreaking for people who have been small or midsize dairy farmers who are going out of business. In 1980 when I started this work, there were probably about 250 thousand dairy farms in the country. Today, we have 30 thousand, and it’s going to keep shrinking.”
Quit Farming for Mental Health?
So if something is driving you to suicide why not quit that thing. Easier said than done as many farmers will tell you they grew up with it and have only this specific set of skills. But many are, in fact leaving. According to the International Labor Organization the number of people who work in agriculture has dropped from 44 per cent of all workers to just 26 per cent.
Former farmer Dan Goodwin says it was hard to know when to quit.
“When I was depressed, I thought it was just a bad day, then another bad day, and I had to keep doing it. But when those times continue, you Must think more carefully about what is causing it and if you need any help,” he told Jioforme.com. “I kept it all to myself, but it was a mistake. I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere and talk to anyone, so I knew that all agricultural colleges would incorporate mental health into the curriculum. I want it. I want to go back to farming, but I have to think about myself. That may not be right for me. It was very difficult to get out of farming. “I always remember that day. We opposed it in terms of time and pressure, and many things went wrong. So many little things were accumulating-I am I could feel my brain slowly fill and fill, and it reached the point where it exploded. It completely broke down. I worked hard to find my place, but I had to make the most difficult decision in my life to get away from my favorite job, because it was too much for me. I had to leave”.