A New Network Provides Support to Cope With the Pressures of Farming
Crops don’t grow on a nine-to-five schedule. Calves can be born in the middle of the night. Drought, floods, pests and diseases remain ever-present threats to a farmer’s bottom line.
While many jobs are stressful, farmers face unique challenges that can exacerbate anxiety and depression. That’s why Extension specialists Seth Wilner and Olivia Saunders have stepped up to help farmers navigate the challenges of this demanding profession which, for many people, is much more than a job.
With funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the New Hampshire Farm & Ranch Stress Assistance Network (N.H. FRSAN) is a collaborative effort to address structural root causes of farmer stress, mental health conditions and suicide. With leadership from Wilner and Saunders, Extension is partnering with organizations across the state to deliver trusted resources and support for agricultural communities facing these issues.
Lorraine Merrill, of Stuart Farm in Stratham, explains that this network, “is opening doors for farm families in New Hampshire to access a full suite of professional services geared to the theme of reducing the myriad sources of stress — family, business, financial and mental health. For farm families, these tend to all be interrelated.”
Farmers are more than five times as likely to die by suicide than the general population and are more likely to report substance abuse. Financial burdens, isolation, long hours, crop loss, frequent regulatory shifts and climate change can all contribute to a feeling of hopelessness.
To provide confidential support for farmers struggling with their mental health, FRSAN has established a mental health hotline through which farmers can speak with a N.H.-based licensed therapist. The program will cover six therapy sessions, primarily through telehealth. These therapists have received training to help them better understand the unique experiences and needs of farmers. For assistance with navigating resources like insurance, food instability and childcare, farmers can also speak with a social worker.
Many farmers carry the weight of a family legacy — some farms have been in families for several generations and pressure mounts to not only sustain a livelihood, but also ensure that family expectations are upheld. This can be complicated by the death of family members who own parcels of land. What happens to that land? What is a fair decision? Who will keep the tractors running, the horses fed, the lights on?
N.H. FRSAN offers conflict resolution services through N.H. Agriculture Mediation. Mediation is a voluntary and confidential alternative to traditional legal and regulatory processes. A third party can help facilitate discussions, identify issues, explore options and record agreements. This process can aid communication between family members, lenders, neighbors or employees.
Running a farm business requires legal acumen. Whether farmers have questions about taxes, creating or changing a business structure, establishing succession plans or end-of-life documents, FRSAN can help offset costs for legal services up to $1,500 per farm family.
General legal questions can be submitted to FRSAN by email and will be answered by lawyers from the Farm Commons, an educational nonprofit created to empower ag communities to address legal vulnerabilities.
Farmers can receive one-on-one assistance with tax planners, accountants, economists and others to help them address profitability issues that are a major source of stress and anxiety. Farmers can learn about opportunities for assistance for financial management by calling the FRSAN resource line.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Extension specialists set up recurring Zoom meetings where farmers could connect with one another as they navigated the complexities of the pandemic. Guidelines, protocols and business regulations forced farmers to change their operating practices and it became important to learn from one another as everyone shifted to meet the demands of unprecedented times.
This framework has inspired the creation of peer-to-peer networks, including a network specifically for queer farmers and a network for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities.
Farming can sometimes feel isolating, especially for rural farmers who might not receive much face-to-face interaction with other farmers. By establishing these networks, Extension specialists want every farmer in the state to know that there is always help available and no one should ever feel alone.