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Joint Effort Announced to Combat Farmer Stress

A new program will train people who work with farmers and ranchers to recognize signs of stress and connect them with professional help.

Today, representatives from Farm Credit, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Farmers Union held a press conference in the offices of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee announcing a new joint program that will train people who work with farmers and ranchers to recognize signs of stress and connect those farmers with professional help. 

The program is based on one designed by Michigan State University Extension. During the press conference, MSU Extension’s Mark Skidmore (pictured above), director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, explained how the program came to be.

“We really wanted to prepare our Extension agents who sit down at the kitchen tables with farmers in Michigan and really all over the country to be able to read signs of stress and effectively use research-based tools and education to help farmers walk through challenging times,” he said.

Although everyone faces stress at some point in their lives, Skidmore said, “Farmers really do face more stress than the average American family.” 

The MSU Extension program was later modified through a grant from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in order to provide education to its employees. Skidmore says pilot training has been delivered to FSA, and full training will be rolled out to all 10,000 FSA employees early next year. 

“The goal of our stress training is to provide research-based education about signs and symptoms of stress, factors of stress, the effective techniques for managing stress within the context of the ag sector,” Skidmore said. “The training provides guidance for communicating with stressed farmers, the use of effective verbal and nonverbal communication, active and empathetic listening skills, preparing for difficult conversations, and communicating through conflict. It provides clear guidance on signs of suicidal thoughts and what to do.” 

With funding from Farm Credit, FSA’s version of the program has been modified further so Farm Credit, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Farmers Union can share it with their own members and audiences.

“We’re providing additional resources and tools so these folks can be a stronger and more effective resource,” Skidmore said. "Ultimately the goal is to improve the ability of participants in the training to manage their own stress, improve their ability to serve stressed farmers and provide the appropriate resources, and empower farmers to make the best decisions possible for their own well-being and the well-being of their families and businesses. In some cases, it will help save lives.” 

Representatives Weigh In

Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives were also in attendance at the press conference, and shared their support for the initiative. Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN), chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, said, “There’s a lot of stress going on in agriculture right now. We want to commend Farm Credit for what they’re doing. We’re very concerned about our producers and, unfortunately, we’ve seen more suicides happening. This is very much needed.”

David Scott (D-GA), a member of the Agriculture Committee and chair of the Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit, said, “Agriculture is our single-most important industry. Congress isn’t doing nearly enough, but Farm Credit is providing the kind of leadership that we need and that our farmers are crying out for. This alarming suicide rate is that cry for help. There is great mental stress because of things that are oftentimes beyond the control of our farmers.”

Representatives Austin Scott (R-GA), Rick Crawford (R-AR), and Roger Marshall (R-KS) were also in attendance. They agreed that Congress needs to do more to impact as many of the factors causing farmer stress as possible.

“We need to get the price of these commodities up, and the No. 1 thing Congress can do is work on these trade deals,” Marshall said. He also touched on the importance of high-speed internet that would allow rural Americans to have access to mental health resources in larger cities without having to travel.

Dissemminating the Knowledge

Todd Van Hoose, president and CEO of Farm Credit Council, said, “Farming is stressful in good years. We found a great program the University of Michigan had developed through Extension. We were very happy to jump on that.”

Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that in his experience, farmers and ranchers have no problem seeking help for physical issues, but when it comes to mental health, that’s not the case, and it’s time for that to change.

“We are excited to bring in the experts to help train our trainers,” he said. State representatives will be trained in an all-day seminar next month, then they will take that knowledge back to their states and conduct training there. “We very much appreciate the opportunity to be part of this process,” Moore said.

Roger Johnson, who announced this week he will retire after 11 years as president of the National Farmers Union, said, “This problem isn’t something that’s going to go away quickly. This isn’t going to be the last time we’re faced with these difficult conditions for a variety of reasons.” He said NFU will provide training to leaders at its national convention in March. 

Johnson grew up on a farm in North Dakota, farmed with his grandfather, and worked as a farm credit counselor in the 1980s. “I know firsthand the challenges farmers and communities face. Everybody is impacted,” he said. “The one lesson I took from the ’80s is that everybody can help. If you see someone who’s really stressed out or think someone is suicidal, don’t ignore it. Talk to them. Be a friend. Listen. That alone will do more than almost anything else. This training gets a lot deeper than that. We’re delighted to be a part of it and we’re so pleased Farm Credit is providing funding.” 

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