Shock is the usual response whenever I share with non-farmers the statistic that suicide rates for farmers are rivaled only by suicide rates for the military. I am fortunate to get to visit with a lot of people who come to Harrison Farm, and from time to time I share that information to give perspective on the struggles of the farm community. Inevitably, those outside of agriculture have absolutely no idea about the current mental health crisis within the farm community. As a farmer and as someone who has struggled with depression, I am heartbroken to see the struggles that are affecting my fellow farmers.
The factors that play into this mental health crisis are complex. Since 2013, farm income has continued to drop. According to USDA, net farm income has dropped 52% since that year. Imagine if your pay continually dropped over the last five years, and you were trying to live on 48% of what you made in 2013. This creates economic uncertainty for farmers & their families. Markets fluctuate based on consumer choice, and dairy farming is a perfect example of how this can negatively spiral. American consumers are drinking less milk, so milk processors need less — which means families that are heavily invested in their farm, their animals, and their equipment can suddenly receive a notice that their milk will no longer be bought. Imagine have a family to feed, a hundred cows to feed, a job that is demanding as it is, and then finding out you have nowhere to send your product. Now add in the current “trade wars” that are resulting in tariffs on farm products. If your dairy was already facing a decrease in profit, but you planted soybeans to help weather the economic storm, you might have thought you could struggle through. In the last couple months, due to international trade issues, the market on soybeans has absolutely collapsed. This is impacting me personally, as I rely on our acres of crops to pay the annual tax bill. Taxes are rather expensive in an urban county, even as a farm. I was fairly confident about our ability to pay the next tax bill by selling soybeans this fall. Now, I am hoarding every penny I can as I worry about the thousands of dollars that will be due come January.
Beyond these economic factors, I believe isolation is one the key issues that we face as farmers. Isolation can come in many forms. Farms are usually located in rural areas. Farmers by nature are independent individuals who come from a culture that prizes resourcefulness & strength. It can be very isolating to bear the burden solo of making the appropriate decisions for every living being on a farm, while carrying the responsibility of ensuring finances are strong, in an area far from many urban resources, and in a community that esteems individual strength. Isolation comes in many forms. You can be surrounded by other people, and still feel the isolation from weight of the burdens that sit solely on you. For me, isolation can be very physical as a single person who runs a farm solo.
As the mental health crisis has affected agriculture, Aubry & I have discussed what we can do to help this situation. With her studies in public health, Aubry is keenly aware of how depression & suicide can impact a community. The topic touches me personally, as I have had my own battles with depression & suicidal tendencies. I was incredibly fortunate to have a good support network when I was grappling with suicide, but not everyone does. As Aubry & I analyzed what we could offer, the resounding theme was the importance of community. It means a great deal to me that so many people who visit the farm continue to be connected to it, and I perceive that they value the community that we are trying to build around the farm. Thus, we decided to launch a monthly community dinner.
In July, we invited many of our friends to join us for a casual potluck dinner as we shared our ideas. We were delighted by the positive feedback, and so we are launching our First Thursday series of community dinners. This is a casual, low-key event so guests can connect and learn. No RSVP is necessary, just show up with a dish to share. Every month we will ask someone who has a unique story to share it with the group, and then engage in conversation. I always find speakers to be the most interesting after they leave the podium, when they directly engage in conversations. This is designed to be a relaxed situation where speakers are interacting with attendees.
The schedule for First Thursday:
6:00-6:30 arrival at the Farm & self-serve goat snuggles
6:30-7:00 potluck dinner — bring a dish to share & BYOB
7:00-7:30 our speaker shares their story & takes questions
If you are not yet departed by 8:00pm, you will be pressed into labor for night chores
Aubry & I hope that this event will be an opportunity for guests to meet other amazing individuals, and walk away having gained a new perspective from someone else’s story. We are hopeful that by building connections & community, that we can nurture a forum where people feel welcome & valued. Our farm mission is to connect people with animals and farming, but my vision is to create a community where every human & animal life is valued. I want each person who comes to the farm to feel welcome and to feel appreciated, and I am optimistic that this will nurture the mental well-being of those who are a part of the farm. I recognize just how fortunate I was to have good people around me during my own mental health struggles, and so I want the farm to be a place where others find comfort & support.
I hope you can join us for First Thursday!