Farm and Ranch Mental Health: Stressors, Barriers, and Strategies

Behind the Research: Q & A with Dr. Andy Smolski, lead author

SAgE: Can you briefly talk about the purpose of this research brief?

Andy Smolski, PhD

AS: Our main goal was to be able to provide a summary of our current understanding of farm and ranch stress, in terms of three components. The first one was on stressors. What are the things that make farmers feel anxious, depressed, or nervous about the ability of their farm to provide a steady income? And so we wanted to first provide that overview.

The second overview we wanted to provide was regarding barriers to care. What are those things that present obstacles for farmers? For instance, affordability to be able to pay for mental health services is a definitive barrier to care.

And then the third piece that we wanted to talk about was the strategies to address farm stress. These can be called livelihood strategies, or survival strategies, or even coping strategies. There are different ways, depending upon the discipline, that researchers are having this discussion. Because we have an interdisciplinary applied research team, this gives us a shared starting point that each of our different disciplines can approach farm stress from a different angle. And we wanted to be able to bring all of those pieces into dialogue.

SAgE: So the purpose was to give those summaries of the of current research that's out there. And then does that set the stage for further research? Or just give us a baseline from which you can see what else needs to be looked into?

AS: We wanted to demonstrate the utility of a systematic framework. We're not following a specifically biomedical model of mental health. We're not talking about farmers in terms of possible neurochemical imbalances or or  genetic propensity for increased levels of stress. Instead, we're trying to set a research agenda, as well as a programming agenda. The way you understand and address farm stress is by understanding the environmental factors that are social, economic, and environmental.

What this brief does is provide an overall statement on the systematic and comprehensive framework that we want to utilize when doing any kind of research, programming, and training around farm stress.

This kind of extension-focused review—which is going to inform not only the general public, but practitioners, and farm service providers—can really draw those clear distinctions in terms of where there are gaps in the literature and where we can fill those.

SAgE: So, having looked at the stressors, and the barriers, and the strategies, what stands out to you as the next thing that should be researched?

AS: This brief does touch on one of the things my colleagues and I feel has been omitted, which is discrimination—the role of race, the role of gender; those pieces are often not addressed in the literature because the literature often focuses on farmers as an occupational category. And this doesn't have to just be about race, gender, or sexual orientation, for instance. It's also about the differentiations between farmers and different stressors for different commodities. If I'm a strawberry farmer, I might have a different relationship with the climate than a farmer that is rearing hogs. That's not necessarily about discrimination, but discrimination can come in also when we talk to farmers at different scales. They feel that that the lived experience of their scale might lead to certain viewpoints of the public about how farming impacts the environment, or that they might not feel served in terms of programming because they're not large enough used to when we think about what's being emitted. The sociological term, positionality, needs to be brought into the conversation much more.

SAgE: I want to go back to what you said about gender and race as broad categories where discrimination might happen. Where the brief talks about the statistics on on suicide, it says there was an increase among white, male, older farmers. But then it said that the same information wasn't really known about women, because the categorization was not broken out such that they could really tease that out, which I thought was interesting, because they did specifically say older white males, who were farmers.

AS: So, to quote what is stated there: “While the suicide rate for females within the occupational category, farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers was not reported, it is known that female farmers and ranchers have specific stressors related to their roles in both farm production and maintenance of the Farm Household that merit attention.”

I'm glad you're bringing this up, because it gets to the positionality point. If we're not differentiating between populations of farmers, we're going to miss specific pathways for farm stress that are highly dependent upon their experiences in terms of race, class, and so forth. And we're also going to misunderstand some of the drivers behind why older white male farmers are experiencing such high rates of farm stress. These things are important, and they're going to pinpoint ways that certain groups end up with heightened stress that we would not be able to pinpoint otherwise.

That's part of our focus here—we're going to do comparative work, because the research is showing that not only is that a gap, but that's a gap that's going to tell a very important story about how we can best begin to address farm stress. Whether those farmers are older white male farmers, whether those are new and beginning women farmers, we want to make sure that we can also tailor our responses to them, because then that's going to assure that ability to bounce back. What they call resilience is to persist, adapt, and transform. We want to make sure that we build that.

SAgE: Another distinction that I didn't really see in in this brief was between was to talk about farmers versus agricultural workers. I understand that the census data doesn't really break out agricultural workers—it’s generally farmers as owners of a farm in terms the data that is available, but can you talk a little bit about how to capture some of this same information with with farm workers?

AS: Yes. I'm glad you're putting this question on the table one because I just sent an email today to put two researchers in dialogue around doing a systematic review of the literature on farm worker mental health, because this is something that is crucial. Farm workers, especially migrant farm workers, are more likely to be socially isolated, they might not have access to transport, they might not know anybody in the labor camps that they are housed at. We know that those can be risk conditions for heightened stress and also for heightened negative outcomes from stress. And so we are moving in a direction where we want to include them—they are a separate group, and that's why they weren't in this brief. There's a distinction between being a farmer and rancher who has ownership of the tools, the land, the implements and only having the capacity to sell one's labor. Those are distinct groups.

SAgE: It’s a different set of stressors for those two groups.

AS: Exactly.

SAgE: Any final words about this brief that you’d like to share?

AS: I would like to recognize our colleagues who contributed to this brief: Shoshanah Inwood, Florence Becot, Andrea Bjornestad, Carrie Henning-Smith, Andrew Alberth. And I want to end on this point: Research is not happening in a bubble. Research is happening in conjunction with programming being carried out by extension, by farm service providers, by nonprofits, by the Southern Ag Exchange Network—to find the best ways to make sure that farmers have support and that farm service providers have tools to provide pathways to help navigate stress.