Farmers and ranchers are no strangers to hard times.
Producers regularly experience fluctuating commodity prices, trade disruptions and extreme weather events that make their already challenging jobs even harder. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic disruptions have only compounded the situation, increasing farmers’ stress.
But misconceptions about “toughness,” perceived stigma around seeking help, isolation and lack of mental health services in rural communities mean rural residents are often reluctant to discuss the hardships they face and may not know where they can turn for help. Farmers need resources to help them manage their own stress and support other members of their community.
That’s why Farm Credit, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and National Farmers Union (NFU) have joined together with Michigan State University Extension (MSU Extension) and University of Illinois Extension (Illinois Extension) to create Rural Resilience, a free, online training course to help farmers, as well as their families and neighbors, cope with this mounting stress.
The curriculum teaches participants to understand the sources of stress, manage their own stress, learn the warning signs of stress and suicide, identify effective communication strategies, and connect farmers and ranchers with appropriate mental health and other resources. The course is free and accessible to the public.
Strength means asking for support
AFBF president Zippy Duvall is a farmer himself, and he too has experienced stress. Speaking from his own experiences, Zippy expressed the hardship of watching Bonnie, his beloved wife, battle an illness that eventually took her life. After Bonnie’s death, Zippy felt a responsibility to carry his children through the painful time, leaving him little energy to cope with his own feelings.
“It was like a bubble blowing up inside of me,” Zippy said. “One day, I let it out. The more I talked about my wife, the better I felt. We have to help ourselves so that we can help others.”
Despite what he may have learned about what it means to be strong growing up, by the end of this experience, Zippy had come to his own conclusions. “Being strong doesn’t mean going at it alone and it doesn’t mean being silent,” he said. “Strength is asking for help when you need it.”
Inspired in part by his own experiences, Zippy is fighting to change the culture of silence in rural communities by sharing the Rural Resilience curriculum with Farm Bureau members across the country.
NFU is also committed to empowering its farmer-members, both to ask for the help they need and be able to provide that help to others, which is why the organization joined the Rural Resilience collaboration.
Brent Brewer, a member of the Oklahoma Farmers Union (OFU) experienced first-hand how having a tough conversation with a neighbor can save their life.
Brent attended a train-the-trainer session on the Rural Resilience curriculum at NFU’s annual convention in March. Two short months after he returned home, he picked up a call from the OFU farm stress hotline only to hear a distressed farmer weeping on the other line. The farmer told Brent he was standing in his family room with a loaded shotgun. “This guy is three and a half hours from where I live,” Brent said. “There’s no way I could’ve got there in time.”
But Brent had been trained for this exact scenario. He knew how to talk the farmer off the ledge, gain his trust, and persuade him to go to a health center. “I’m not a professional psychologist, but, as you can tell, I can talk until I can get you some real help,” Brent said.
This is just one example of the many lives that the Rural Resilience partners hope to impact with the help of leaders like Brent.
It is easy to wonder how Brent’s situation could have been different if the farmer he had talked with had sought mental health support earlier. However, just like Zippy described, many individuals in rural communities face significant stigma regarding mental health, preventing them from seeking the help they need.
Courtney Cuthbertson serves as assistant professor and extension specialist in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was a key contributor to the Rural Resilience curriculum. From their viewpoint, decreasing stigma is one of the curriculum’s primary goals.
“By engaging in this course and by speaking with others about it, as well as the topics of stress, mental health and suicide among farming and ranching communities, we are all working to reduce stigma, which, in turn, can make it easier for someone to reach out and ask for help,” Courtney said.
The phrase “safety net” used in an agricultural context usually leads to a discussion about economic support for farmers, such as crop insurance or federal assistance programs. But for Courtney, decreasing the stigma surrounding mental health enhances another type of safety net for farmers: community. And through their work on the Rural Resilience curriculum, Courtney aims to build even stronger rural communities by educating individuals about how to support their peers.
Farm Credit: cooperatives that care
As a farmer-owned cooperative, Farm Credit is dedicated to the success of its customer-owners, and that means a farmer’s mental health just as much as their farm business’s financial health. Many of our more than 14,000 committed employees are farmers and ranchers themselves, living in the same communities that they serve and possessing first-hand knowledge of the stress their customers face.
Taking this partnership a step further, Farm Credit is working with MSU Extension to develop a new version of the Rural Resilience training that will be tailored to the specific needs of Farm Credit loan officers and other front-line staff. This version will help Farm Credit’s farmer-facing employees learn strategies for communicating with farmers experiencing financial stress and ways to help manage their own stress.
“Farming is a stressful job, even in good times, and the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic turmoil have only added to farmers’ stress,” said Todd Van Hoose, Farm Credit Council president and CEO. “We hope that rural residents, including farmers and their families, who are feeling stressed will take this free training and use the tools provided to seek support as they navigate this unprecedented situation.”
To learn more about the Rural Resilience course and enroll for free, visit our Rural Resilience page.