Columnist Claire Morenon: The burdens of farmers
Posted: 10/01/2021 11:08:46 AM
Farming is a tough business, and it’s no secret. Farmers work long, physically demanding hours and farm businesses operate with extremely narrow margins, their crops – and therefore their income – at the mercy of inclement weather. Farmers have a reputation for stoicism, but these stressors can put a real strain on the mental health of those who juggle them.
Financial stress is at the heart of this problem. This is true for all small businesses, but especially for farmers because of the time it takes to get a return on their investments and their reliance on the weather. Every spring, fruit and vegetable growers buy supplies and hire crews – often on a seasonal line of credit – to start growing crops they can’t sell until months later.
Each growing season brings weather-related hazards that can seriously limit, if not wipe out, the yield of each crop. Meat and dairy producers, likewise, have high upfront costs and depend on good weather to grow and store animal feed.
When the time comes to sell their crops, many local farmers are scattered throughout all possible outlets: farmers’ markets, farm stalls, CSA farm shares, and wholesale. This is a strategic decision many of them have made in the face of global competition and the artificial suppression of food prices, but it is an extremely complicated business model with a million details to deal with every day. .
It’s easy to talk about all of this in bland terms that don’t quite reflect the stress, anxiety, and loss that can come with it. Farmers can spend months growing a crop, just to see it – and the income it promised – destroyed by rain or disease. They plan each winter knowing that the weather, changing markets or a thousand other unknowns can derail them.
For many farmers, there is not much space between their businesses, family structures and their own identities. Many family farms support multiple generations, so the financial well-being of the entire extended family – and often their very homes – depends on it. Farmers feel responsible to previous and future generations to manage their land and keep their businesses healthy, regardless of changing circumstances. It is both a privilege and a heavy emotional burden to bear.
COVID-19 has brought new stressors. From the moment COVID-19 closed winter markets and threw all plans for 2020 into the air, local food sales have been on a roller coaster. Farmers have struggled to keep abreast of rapidly changing circumstances and to make plans in the face of countless unknowns. The pandemic has also intensified long-term problems – the valley is experiencing a shortage of affordable housing, making it harder for people who work on farms to find housing. Many companies struggle to find workers, indicating much bigger issues in the way work is evaluated and paid.
On top of all this, 2021 has been a very wet growing season, resulting in increased pressure from disease, crop losses, and unusable fields for many farms. July was the second wettest month on record for Western Mass, with nearly 12 inches of rain. Farmers told us at CISA this was the worst growing season in decades – and with climate change bringing more rain and more extreme weather events, this trend is expected to continue in the years to come. to come.
We will be opening the CISA Emergency Agricultural Fund in the fall to provide interest-free loans to farms that have suffered losses due to excessive rains this year, which can help ease the financial burden and hopefully. the, part of the stress.
This year, the USDA announced a new Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network grant program. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources has successfully applied for a $ 500,000 grant to establish a network that will better connect farmers and the farming community, including service providers, to mental health resources and fill the gaps existing in the support available. This is an excellent and necessary opportunity to develop new resources to solve this problem.
The farmers we work with at CISA often say how much they love their work, how much agriculture means to them and how grateful they are for taking care of their land and growing food for their communities. And we are certainly grateful to them for everything they do too. Recognizing the burden they carry and starting to break down the stigma surrounding mental health is just one step in helping farming become a healthier, more sustainable job.