Written by: AFIA Editor | July 12, 2021
Last fall, we had the opportunity to hear from some of our members about how they adjusted their corporate policies to not only protect the health and safety of their teams throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but also to care for the well-being of their employees. Many industry leaders recognized the exhaustion their employees were experiencing was real, especially as they struggled to deal with many unprecedented challenges simultaneously – from, at times, working overtime to cover for a reduction in staff, to learning how to work remotely, to juggling childcare.
Understanding the emotional toll the pandemic brought on, many of our members invested in mental health and counseling services to provide resources to their staff in ways that they couldn’t. But, they also admitted that sometimes, when it came to working with their customers, they were the ones doing the counseling.
“We have been a moral support for producers – almost like counseling – someone for them to talk to about what was going on,” one member said.
It may come as no surprise that in 2020, two in three farmers/farmworkers said that the pandemic impacted their mental health, Ray Atkinson, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s director of communications, told AFIA Feed Bites. The pandemic isolated farmers and producers from their communities, leaving fewer opportunities for them to get off their farms to vacation or go to church.
For several years, the AFBF has been working to raise awareness of stress and mental health issues in farming. Not only are there overt safety risks involved, but there are often very real “stresses and pressures that people just don’t understand” facing farmers, Atkinson explained. In addition to the run of the mill family and relationship issues, there are also issues related to weather, trade, estates, consumer demands, COVID-19, etc.
“Sometimes you have a fourth or fifth generation farmer who just doesn’t want to be the one to lose the farm,” Atkinson said, “but they may not have a choice.”
That's tough for a group of people who shows up to work every day, without fail, to tend to their crops and animals on their farm.
“You can’t tell a farmer ‘you should just find a new job;’ it’s their identity.”
One challenge to addressing mental health is that there are not enough counselors who understand agriculture and can provide farmers the help that they need. In May, the AFBF unveiled the Farm State of Mind resource directory to provide farmers, ranchers and their families with resources to help those experiencing stress and mental health challenges. The tool, which lists resources by state, can be used by anyone in agriculture, Atkinson explained, but it is particularly helpful for those, like feed industry employees, who encounter farmers regularly because it provides tips to recognize specific warning signs (e.g., weeds not trimmed or animals not cared for) and conversation starters.
"The world of ag is full of people who “pitch in and help with whatever they can do,” Atkinson said, but now, we “need people to watch out for their friends, family members, neighbors – look for the warning signs of addiction or mental health concerns, learn how to draw it out and get people to talk.”
In some instances, feed mill employees may be the first ones to notice a warning sign or start a tough conversation with a farmer, which could, in turn, be the thing that saves that farmer’s life. Atkinson said suicide is not often preceded by a “big thing,” but rather, can be several things building that they have mentioned to others in the past. By learning how to talk about mental health, the industry can work together to break the stigma around it.
In addition, he suggested that feed manufacturers looking to address mental health with their staff may consider doing it as part of a regular farm safety or worker safety course. By not advertising it separately, it may allow more people to participate without feeling ambushed or embarrassed in front of their peers.
“Resilience. Grit. Self-determination. Not one to complain about going to work,” Atkinson said. “The things that help farmers be good farmers are also the things that make it hard for them to understand that they are struggling and need some help. Know the signs and talk to them about it.”