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Writer Debbie Weingarten On Suicide And America’s Farmers

James Thompson/Creative Commons

Earlier this week, farmer-turned-journalist Debbie Weingarten published an article in The Guardian, in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, that poses the question: “Why are America's farmers killing themselves in record numbers?

Updated numbers from the Centers for Disease Control now indicate that the suicide rate for farmers is more than double that of veterans. Weingarten traveled the country to interview farmers, survivors and mental health professionals to understand why and how to help.

I spoke with Weingarten about the piece and what people living in urban centers in rural states, like Louisville, can learn from the article.

How long have you been working on this piece?

"I have been working on this piece for nearly five years. It started accidentally. I had been farming up until 2014 and I started writing about farming and the challenges that small farmers were facing as a way to explore the challenges that I was facing as a farmer. I ended up going down this research rabbit-hole about farmer suicide and farmer behavioral health issues, and lack of access to behavioral health resources. Primarily, because I was struggling and I was having a really hard time finding resources that were culturally relevant to me as a farmer. I ended up quitting, leaving my farm, and I couldn’t put down the topic."

When I read this story, I was a little shocked by the numbers regarding the rate of farmer suicide. Was that something that surprised you as you dug deeper and deeper into this piece?

"It did surprise me. I think that as I talked to people, I get a couple of different reactions. One is complete shock that our farmers have such a high suicide rate. The other response, primarily from farmers, is “Of course.’ Everybody knows somebody or multiple people who have taken their own lives. Everybody knows somebody who was killed in a ‘farm accident’ that people actually suspect wasn’t an accident.

"These stories are all across rural America, America’s farmscape; bringing numbers to it really brings urgency to it."

What are some of the things that farmers are facing that contribute to these numbers?

"The potential for financial loss is huge. An increase in farm suicides is kind of in correlation with the economy. I write in the article that in 2013, the net farm income for U.S. farmers has declined 50 percent. The median farm income for 2017 is projected to be -$1,325. The huge financial stress and crisis in rural America and for farmers is a huge contributing factor…

"There are other factors including social isolation, geographical isolation; there is a lack of mental health services in rural communities. There is also a cultural component, I think, that I heard over and over again — farmers are proud. They are not generally asking for help, so that cultural barrier is a challenge.

"Then there is increased access to lethal means — guns, pesticides, et cetera."

What are some things that need to change to help our farmers?

"We absolutely need a better agricultural economic structure for our farmers; that’s just systemic. Then there is access to health care for people in rural areas. We need more infrastructure as far as crisis lines. You know, hot lines are not the answer, but they can help manage crises.

"More programming where psychologists are trained to go out into rural communities, are trained in the language of agriculture so that they know the seasonality, they know the stressors that farmers are facing from one month to another and can respond in a way is culturally appropriate.

"There was a program that was called the ‘Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network’ and it was approved as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, but ultimately no money was appropriated to it, so it never got off the ground."

What do you hope people who maybe live in the suburbs or the city, who feel a little separated from rural America —  what do you hope they take away from this piece?

"Well, it was very hard for me to place this story, in part, because I think some of these people are removed from the farm. I heard as I was pitching this story to different outlets, ‘Well, nobody farms anymore. This is not very relevant.’

"In actuality, for only the second time this century, the number of farmers under 35-years-old is increasing. So, we are gaining new farmers which is absolutely critical; we can’t eat if we don’t have farmers.

"For me, this story is everybody’s story. I think you go to the grocery and look at the bag of rice, a bag of wheat, your cotton t-shirt — all of that came from farms, from the land. And the fact that farmers are ending their lives at such a high rate in the U.S. and across the globe is relevant for everybody. 

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