As the backbone of Georgia’s No. 1 industry, farmers face insurmountable pressures that are often beyond their control. Increased input costs, market variability, environmental disasters and labor shortages are just a few of the challenges.
The 2023 Farm Stress Summit, held at Mercer University this week, brought together farmers, government officials, community leaders, health care specialists, university faculty and program staff from around the state to learn more about the unique stressors farm families experience and strategies for building a network of support.
Marshal Sewell, strategic accounts manager for Bayer Crop Science and a fifth-generation farmer, was invited to deliver this year’s keynote address. Charismatic and confident, Sewell captivated the audience as he shared his family’s story.
“I’ll never forget that day,” he said. “The day my father decided the world would be a better place without him in it.”
Sewell told the hushed audience that, following a crop failure on the family’s strawberry farm while he was in high school, he lost his father to suicide. It was then that he realized the nuanced challenges farmers face get buried under the generational stigma of openly discussing mental health in the farming community. A sobering reality for many in the agricultural industry, suicidal thoughts and depression are too often overlooked.
Georgia Department of Behavioral Health Commissioner Kevin Tanner said that farming is one industry where you can do everything right and your crop can still fail. “Nobody wants to be the one to drop the ball and lose it all, especially for multi-generational farmers who are carrying their family’s legacy,” he said. “It’s a tremendous burden to shoulder.”
As farms in the United States have increasingly consolidated, only 2% of U.S. citizens now work in agriculture. Farmers say this leads to elevated pressure and feelings of isolation, compounded by the fact that the majority of farms are in rural locales with limited access to health care and mental health services.
To break the cycle of stigma and address gaps in health care, Sewell and his wife started Mind Your Melon, a hub of resources and support for agricultural producers and their families. They hope speaking out about their own tragedy will create more dialogue regarding mental health and promote healthier lifestyles for increased well-being. Believing there is no division between physical health and mental health, the couple promotes exercise and fitness, food and nutrition, and financial wellness as a means to support farmers who face barriers to receiving traditional counseling and therapy.
A common refrain among farmers is there aren’t enough hours in the day to make time for themselves, “but I tell them there are, you just have to believe you’re worth the time,” Sewell said. “It should be something that is built into the business because they are the most important asset on the farm. You don’t need a diagnosis from a doctor to tell you that mental health is important and worth prioritizing.”
Commissioner Tanner said it is important for farmers to build supportive relationships and encouraged them to ask for help. “The more we talk about mental health, the less stigma there is. Our other job is to make sure that when they ask for help, it is available to them.”
A panel including medical professionals at the summit said that getting help is easier now than it ever has been. With broadband services continuing to grow throughout the state to reach rural communities, medical professionals hope telehealth options will help hesitant farmers to feel more comfortable reaching out.
While the most important step is making the appointment, panelists suggested farmers bring a trusted loved one to their appointment to help talk through their health and mental well-being concerns. Being prepared with notes and questions will also help ensure their needs are better addressed.
Another resource is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, a hotline for those dealing with a mental health crisis. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the free service provides access to trained staff in multiple languages and support for hearing-impaired callers.
With mental health awareness at the forefront of state and federal legislation, Commissioner Tanner said he expects this to be the decade of mental health reform.
“It’s truly heartening to see so many people taking off their gloves to develop strategies for enhancing collaborations at the local, state and national level to cohesively support farmers and their families,” said Maria Bowie, co-chair of the summit and University of Georgia Cooperative Extension grant and project management specialist.
Jennifer Dunn, a UGA Extension rural health agent who spoke at the event, added that farmers are great at communicating with their peers and learning from one another, and events like this highlight that strength.
“This event was a great reminder that farmers are willing to come to the table to help us plan and understand the stressors they are currently facing,” she said. “It’s encouraging to see Georgia farmers willing to share their stories and teach others the best ways we can leverage relationships to keep them as healthy as possible.”
For more information on resources, trainings and organizations that are working to raise mental health awareness for rural and farming families, visit the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network and UGA Extension’s Thriving on the Farm website.