Times are tough for farmers, and a new initiative puts the focus on their mental health
An aerial view of Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton. (Courtesy of Bohanan Farm)
Jamie Robertson has already seen the demise of one family farm. His parents’ poultry farm in Gilford used to deliver eggs all over central New Hampshire, but when the market turned in the 1980s they were ultimately forced to sell.
That wasn’t the end of farming for Robertson, who is now a fourth-generation farmer at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton, which he runs with his wife. His three sons, who have decided to return to the farm, are the fifth generation. And now they’re doing everything they can to keep it going. That has included tough business decisions like selling the right to develop the farm by putting it into a conservation easement and downsizing the herd from 250 mature cows a decade ago to a 120-head herd now.
Running a family farm is no easy task. The profit margins are small at best, the hours are long, and the debt some farmers take on to finance their operation can be crushing. Through it all, there is the constant pressure of potentially losing what multiple generations have worked hard to build. The toll on mental health – often a taboo conversation among farmers – can be significant.
“The stress that’s really tough on most of the dairy farms that are left is that they’re multigenerational farms, and nobody wants the farm to end on their watch,” Robertson said. The way agriculture in the state has changed over his lifetime has been “heartbreaking,” he said.
Family farms have been unable to compete with industrial agriculture in other parts of the country and world. Robertson points to a time in the 1940s and 1950s when there were more chickens per square mile in Hillsborough County than any place in the world. Those days are gone.
“As far as mental health, farmers are just like the rest of the world and pretty skeptical to look for that,” said Robertson, who like others in the business describes farmers as an intensely independent lot.
A 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, nationally, farmers are among the occupational groups with the highest rate of suicide. Regardless of occupation, suicide has become much more prevalent, with the rate climbing by about 40 percent over the past two decades. For farmers, as with most of the population, stigmas around mental health can prevent those who need support from seeking it.
The state is now trying to address that problem through half a million dollars in federal funding for a program to provide mental health support to farmers, through direct services like counseling, as well as trainings on topics like farm financing, peer-to-peer support networks, and a free online library of resources.
Seth Wilner, a field specialist at the UNH Cooperative Extension, has been working with other organizations throughout the state to design the program.
He said efforts around farmer mental health began in earnest last year, with a $25,000 grant through the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“Really it’s a response to the stressful conditions that COVID created: the pressures and the bankruptcies of the dairy industry and the loss of dairy farms,” Wilner said.
Wilner estimates that two years ago there were around 120 dairy farms in the state. The number of farms still shipping milk is now around 85. And last month, Horizon Organic announced that it would be ending contracts with 89 organic dairies in the Northeast. While Wilner was aware of only two New Hampshire dairies that would be directly impacted, he said the decision illustrates the system’s fragility.
He also points to the extension’s studies of farmers’ profit margins, which range from around 3 percent up to 7 to 10 percent “for the really good ones.”
“That’s a heck of a benchmark to have to overcome, to be able to extract your livelihood from farming,” he said. The challenge can be even greater for dairy farmers: The cost of producing milk is greater than what farmers can sell it for.
Last year’s initial $25,000 grant went toward destigmatizing mental health and raising awareness in the agriculture community about sources of stress. They looked at stressors affecting farmers related to business skills, succession planning, communication, family dynamics, legal pressures, and bankruptcies.
Then, when money became available through the American Rescue Plan Act in March, Wilner called the state Department of Agriculture, which agreed to apply for the funds with Wilner writing the grant and leading the program.
On Wednesday, the Executive Council approved the Department of Agriculture’s $500,000 request, which will fund four main initiatives, according to Wilner.
The current budget sets aside around $66,000 to be spent on outreach and raising awareness through print and radio advertisements. Around $200,000 will go toward direct technical assistance, such as helping a farmer see a therapist or work with a financial adviser on tax planning, boosting profitability, or navigating bankruptcy.
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Twenty thousand dollars will go toward creating a resource library that will bring together relevant podcasts, tip sheets, articles, and videos. Wilner said it would also include financial calculators farmers can use to determine the return on an investment or asset. Lastly, the program includes money for trainings and education. The specifics aren’t finalized, but Wilner said they’re planning to include topics like farm family communications, methods for reducing stress, how to recruit and retain farm laborers, and financial record-keeping.
There are a handful of organizations in the state that are collaborating on the program, including the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, which is planning to set up peer-to-peer support groups so farmers can seek and offer help.
“There’s just been big changes in agriculture over the years,” said Rob Johnson, the policy director for the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation. “Dealing with the technology alone can be hard to handle.”
“It’s tough to admit that you need help,” Johnson said. He hopes the peer-to-peer system can help – and it’s a way farmers can get paid to share their expertise with others who may be dealing with similar issues.
Some in the agricultural community are skeptical about how far a program like this will actually go toward helping all those who need it.
Jameson Small, who works for the nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success running the New American Sustainable Agriculture program, said he’s doubtful New Americans and migrant farm workers will be included in this program.
“My observation from COVID is that these New American folks [have been] totally left behind throughout the pandemic,” Small said.
“In this state the Department of Agriculture is very focused – as the whole Department of Agriculture is focused – on commodities, like milk producers,” Small said. “Milk producers got hit hard with COVID.”
Small said that focus too often leaves out others who are an important part of agriculture in the state. His work focuses on helping New Americans access land so they can farm and earn money so they don’t have to rely on benefits and services. Plus, he said, many farm because working the land is therapeutic and they can grow crops that are culturally significant. He said people come from Boston and New York to buy the kinds of corn New American farmers are growing. His concern, he said, is that the new program focusing on farmer mental health wouldn’t do much for farmers who sell directly to the consumer.
Small said he’s also interested to see how and whether the money is directed to farm workers rather than just farm owners.
“You look at every orchard in the state, and [in] most vegetable fields are people of color, and most dairy barns. You know, they’re the ones that were the essential workers that had to bust ass for the last two years and continue to bust ass, and they’re struggling with mental health issues just as much as the guy in the office who owns the farm,” Small said.
Wilner said the program is aiming to reach farmers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and that they’ve hired a coordinator who is going to be specifically tackling issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion as they roll out the program. Rachel Freierman, a queer farmer who lives in the North Country, has already begun outreach efforts to underserved farmers thanks to the grant money from last year.
Still, Wilner acknowledged, there’s a lot to learn in this area.
“We don’t know the population of queer farmers in New Hampshire. We don’t know the population of BIPOC farmers in New Hampshire. We don’t know the population of New American farmers,” he said.
When asked whether a program like this would help his farm, Robertson was careful with his answer. He paused for a long moment, not wanting to seem ungrateful. “All that help is great,” he said, “but without commercial commodity agriculture being able to turn a profit, it doesn’t help that much.”
The way Robertson sees it, it’s getting harder and harder to compete. Horizon Organic will buy milk from the Midwest, and Robertson attributes that to a new pasteurization method that allows the product a shelf life of months rather than weeks. Robertson also pointed to subsidies and tax credits in the neighboring states of Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
“I’m not saying that’s what we need to do, but I’m saying that it’s really hard to compete,” he said. “The business plans and things like that are awesome, but if we don’t have a market for it, it doesn’t do us a whole lot of good.”
“Americans have the choice if they want local food: They’ve got to pay more for it, and they’ve got to step up and support it,” he said.
Still, he said, having mental health support is important. “It’s hard to get people to use it, but it’s really good to have it there for people to use.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.
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