For COVID-stressed farmers, already more likely to die by suicide, OSU sending help

Patrick Cooley
The Columbus Dispatch
Earl Lehner harvests and stores soybeans on his farm in Delaware. Ohio State University's extension office is using a USDA grant to improve mental health services for farmers. A neighbor and fellow farmer recently took his own life.

Excessive rain in 2019 made planting and harvesting crops virtually impossible for Hallie Williams and her husband. The couple were in their first year operating a small Seneca County farm, making the setback especially frustrating.

“We felt like we were failing,” she said.

To make matters worse, Williams found herself contending with another problem on top of the crop failure: anxiety.

Earl Lehner harvests and stores soybeans on his farm in Delaware. Ohio State University's extension office is using a USDA grant to improve mental health services for farmers. A neighbor and fellow farmer recently took his own life.

Williams stressed that she never received a professional diagnosis of clinical anxiety, but felt that her mental health suffered from the stress of a difficult year.

“It was very, very tough, and I wish I could go back and tell myself to go and talk to somebody,” she said.

With the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic hitting the agriculture industry especially hard, mental health specialists with Ohio State University’s extension service worry stories like Williams’ will become more common. Not only will some farmers experience higher levels of stress, many won’t want to talk about it, experts say.

Farmers are already one and a half times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found farmer suicides rose 40% in the previous 20 years. When COVID struck Ohio in the spring of 2020, the rapidly spreading virus exacerbated many of the problems growers already face, putting officials in the agriculture industry on high alert.

That’s why the extension service plans to institute a mental health program this year with help from a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a behavioral health crisis, you can reach Ohio's 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741, or call the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300; or the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255/TALK (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers).

The extension is using the money to draft a curriculum for workers who visit farmers on a regular basis, helping them spot warning signs for conditions such as depression and identify those at risk for suicide, said Bridget Britton, a behavioral health field specialist for the extension service. They include the agents who sample soil and water, conduct inspections, and ride tractors with the farmers, she said.

Earl Lehner harvests and stores soybeans on his farm in Delaware. Ohio State University's extension office is using a USDA grant to improve mental health services for farmers. A neighbor and fellow farmer recently took his own life.

These individuals are now trained in what Britton calls “mental health first aid.”

“We share with them the warning signs and symptoms that the farmers may exhibit in crisis situations,” she said. “They are the ones that have that relationship. (Farmers) feel comfortable talking to them.”

They face an uphill battle as the pandemic fallout ripples through the broader economy.

The stresses made worse by COVID

It isn't hard to find someone in the agriculture community who has been touched by suicide. Delaware County farmer Earl Lehner said a neighbor and fellow farmer recently died by suicide. Understanding why someone choses to take their own life is often impossible, experts warn, but Lehner confirmed that growing crops and raising farm animals became more difficult during the pandemic.

Lehner grows corn, beans, hay, and wheat, and he raises dairy cows on his farm just north of Delaware. His family has deep ties to the property. The third-generation farmer tends corn and soybeans growing from fertile acres of soft dirt fields next door to his childhood home.

Earl Lehner harvests and stores soybeans on his farm in Delaware. Ohio State University's extension office is using a USDA grant to improve mental health services for farmers. A neighbor and fellow farmer recently took his own life.

“It’s in your blood,” he said. “It’s a way of life, a good way to raise kids. I feel proud to produce something that people need.”

Lehner, who works mostly with close family, barely noticed a difference in his daily routine early in the pandemic. And then the receipts for necessary supplies started to come in.

“It's getting harder to get some minor inputs like latex gloves to milk our cows,” he said “And like everybody else, we’re noticing the pinch at the pump. The tractor needs 120 gallons” of gasoline.

To make matters worse, milk prices plunged several months ago, falling low enough that farmers like Lehner are losing money on their dairy cows.

While he has struggled, the Delaware County farmer considers himself fortunate.

“We haven't gone without anything yet,” he said.

Supply chain pain

Even as restaurant sales are up and schools are again feeding students, supply chain problems cast a shadow of uncertainty over the agriculture industry. Prices are higher and farmers face long delays in acquiring necessary goods.

“We run John Deere equipment,” said Charlie Payne, who raises animals for meat on a farm in Radnor. The tractors sometimes need replacement parts, “and if it's not on the shelf, we’re looking at 30 to 45 days to get the part in.”

That’s if he can get the parts at all.

“There’s kind of a standing joke that if there's a shortage of it, it’s because of COVID,” said Keith Klopfenstein, who grows corn, beans, and wheat on a farm in Scott in far western Ohio.

The farmer needs a new tractor and a new pickup, but finds himself out of luck on both fronts thanks to a microchip shortage grinding production of new vehicles to a halt.

And the agriculture sector hasn’t been immune to the staffing issues confounding industries across the economy. 

“We don’t have a ton of people that work for us, but we’re struggling getting help,” Payne said. The bigger problem is the meat processing plants that can’t find enough workers.  Without labor, they have to tell farmers to wait when their animals reach the optimal age for slaughter, he said.

One of the few items that increased in demand at the onset of COVID was freezer beef, which is marketed directly to consumers, cutting out the middleman and garnering higher profits for farmers. When restaurants closed, farms saw freezer beef orders skyrocket, but fulfilling the public’s desire for farm-grown meat wasn’t as easy as increasing production, said Gary Baldosser, who grows crops and raises beef cattle on a farm in Seneca County.

"When it takes 14 months to raise an animal to market weight, that isn't something you can just ramp up in the supply chain system," he said.

Many farmers are reluctant to grow their herds, unsure if the spike in demand is a fad or a lasting trend.

Earl Lehner harvests and stores soybeans on his farm in Delaware. Ohio State University's extension office is using a USDA grant to improve mental health services for farmers. A neighbor and fellow farmer recently took his own life.

"Just suck it up" and don't complain

Convincing farmers to acknowledge they need help is frequently the first obstacle to helping them.

“It is definitely a challenge to get them to open up,” said Sarah Noggle, an extension educator who works with farmers.

The source of that reluctance is a matter of debate, but the specialists who work with farmers say they tend to keep their problems to themselves and don’t want to give the impression that they are complaining about anything, especially when most of the people around them are in the same situation.

For growers, it’s a generational problem, according to Williams.

“You're taught as a kid to just suck it up, and that's one of the beginning issues,” she said.

Lehner said most farmers don’t want to be seen as raising a fuss when so many others are struggling with comparable troubles.

“People have it worse than me,” he said. “I’m not the guy who says, 'Feel sorry for me.’”

Even those willing to discuss mental health struggles might find a lack of services available in farming communities far from the state’s major cities. Rural counties have fewer hospitals and even fewer mental health specialists than the state’s most populous regions.

Farmers “could have to drive 45 minutes to get to any kind of health care, let alone mental health care like a therapist or counselor,” Britton said.

And a lack of reliable broadband service in some rural counties makes telemedicine impossible, she said. 

Utica farmer Andy Hollenback was stung by that lack of broadband when the vendors he buys farm supplies from transitioned mostly to online business. His family had to use their phones to access the internet, which was hit or miss.

"We had several teachers that did lessons on YouTube videos, but getting them to load here at the house to where (our children) could watch it was virtually impossible," Hollenback said.

He called broadband service "critical to our business."

Earl Lehner harvests and stores soybeans on his farm in Delaware. Ohio State University's extension office is using a USDA grant to improve mental health services for farmers. A neighbor and fellow farmer recently took his own life.

How are extension officials tackling the problem?

To account for the lack of access to mental health services, extension educators are inserting information on mental health and stress into a farmer’s regular routine. Some farmers, for example, need pesticide certification that requires a four-hour training course. That class was recently expanded, Noggle said.

“For 15 minutes, we talk about the whole topic of farm stress, that it can become a safety issue when there is so much stress in their life,” Noggle said.

The initiative is relatively young, making it too early to draw conclusions, but educators like Noggle are optimistic that giving growers more chances to discuss stressors and seek therapy will improve their well being.

“Just talking through those things, I think it makes a big difference,” she said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a behavioral health crisis, you can reach Ohio's 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741, or call the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300; or the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255/TALK (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers).

pcooley@dispatch.com

@PatrickACooley