The mental health struggles of farmers

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 30th.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a mental health struggle.

Some of the highest rates of suicide in the nation have typically been among veterans. But one group has suicide rates even higher. That’s people working in farming, fishing, and forestry. According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control, that group had suicide rates more than five times the national rate.

REICHARD: But just what makes farming so stressful? WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg traveled to a farm in Minnesota to find out.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Nathan Collins is a fourth generation farmer. He and his brother took over their family’s farm in 2009. Now he’s living the dream.

COLLINS: To get your hands in the soil and to really work with, with, uh, God’s earth and know that you, you have some control over how it’s taken care of. It’s, it’s a great responsibility. We’re pretty, pretty blessed.

But that dream sometimes seems like a nightmare. The Collins brothers have a lot on their plates.

AUDIO: Sound of brothers talking

They run a farming operation, a trucking business, and a feedlot. All with just a few hired hands.

COLLINS: We farm corn, soybeans and some Alfalfa, approximately 1,850 acres. We have a feedlot where we’ve finished a thousand head of cattle.

Running three businesses would be stressful for almost anyone. But farming adds to the pressure. So many things lie outside a farmer’s control—like the weather.

We’re touring the farm in Collins’ big white pickup. It’s the last day of April.

COLLINS: If you look out across the field, you can kind of see the gray and the darker spots, it needs to be the same all the way across and that’s moisture coming up from the ground as the frost comes on. So we have to be, have to be patient and like today, it’s a perfect day to be planting, but it’s still too cold and too wet.

An early-April blizzard set farmers in Minnesota back three weeks from when they’d typically start planting. And that’s not good.  

COLLINS: A late planting can lead to a late  emergence, lower yield, so the lower yield is the less you have to sell per acre, the less you have to sell. The less you have to sell the less revenue you generate.

Making things worse, corn and soybean prices have been declining for the past four years. And farmers’ overall net income has dropped 50 percent since 2013. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts it will drop even further.

COLLINS: If you’re not making enough money to make ends meet or you’re struggling financially, it’s a stressor every, everyday.

And farmers are also dealing with the rising cost of land and equipment—plus an increasing number of government regulations.

COLLINS: To pay more taxes, to have more regulations imposed upon us, to have more restrictions brought down where we can’t do the job we need to do is very stressful and difficult for farmers.

Nathan Collins is not the only farmer feeling stress. Ted Matthews is a rural mental health counselor employed by the state of Minnesota. He takes between 15 and 40 calls a day from struggling farmers. In the past year, he’s put on 30 mental health conferences throughout the state.   

MATTHEWS: Farmers are going to have to learn how to say, I have a very stressful occupation. How do I lower my stress in general every day? What can I do?

He says stress levels are worse than they were 20 years ago. And he thinks he knows one reason why.

MATTHEWS: The farm families, they work together, they play together, they ate together and the bond was really, really strong. Well now they don’t work together as much. They don’t play together as much and they don’t have a strong a bond, which is why the divorce rates have gone up. I have seen that change on farms, and I totally believe it’s because the family and family farm is deteriorating.

Nathan Collins knows how important his own family is. When I first arrived at his farm shop, he said our interview would have to wait. He was having lunch with his wife. He makes time with her a priority because the stress of raising children and farming takes a toll.

COLLINS:  It can be very difficult and very stressful on a marriage because there’s times where I’m gone all day, and I can’t be there to help, and the burden of the kids and the home fall on her.

Nathan and his brother Sean try to keep their families involved with the farm. Sean’s wife brings her children out to the shop to see what’s going on.

AUDIO: Sound of sister-in-law and her daughter

Nathan Collins says when it all gets to be too much for him, he leans on his family and his faith in God.

COLLINS: One particular instance I was sitting in a tractor in the middle of  the field, and I just stopped and, and uh, um, I had a little moment of breakdown and uh, just kind of started praying, but, you know, asked for help from the Lord and, and uh, called and visited with my wife and, and you know we get through it. A person can forget very quickly and very easily the real reason for doing what we’re doing this for. You’re working to make money, but in the end you’re working to provide for your family, for our communities, and for our churches. That’s what we do this for.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Murdoch, Minnesota.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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