Historically dry summer
It’s been a very dry summer in southern Alberta, where in the Lethbridge area they’ve seen just 3 inches of rain since May 1st. This has contributed to an incredibly bleak harvest season for farmers such as Sean Stanford.
Stanford, 34, had high hopes for his crop at the start of the year. But, as experienced by many farmers in the area, by mid-June the rains had completely dissipated, and his spring wheat, canola, flax and yellow peas baked in the dried-out fields. Now being time to get the crops off, Stanford doesn’t have a very optimistic outlook.
“The yields are not looking good,” said Stanford. “Basically we’ve just seen a whole year’s worth of work erode away because of something we can’t control.”
A farmer’s life can be challenging at the best of times. Near 24-7 work, in years when there are negative returns harvest season can take a toll on any farmer. Stanford, who was diagnosed with anxiety nearly two years ago, knows all too well the mental health risks at stake. When times get tough and negative thoughts start to creep in, he consciously chooses to step away from the job and seek human interaction.
“Taking breaks — something as simple as taking a grain sample to town and talking to the people at the grain elevator — can be enough to reset my mind and take me out of the monotony of combining a horrible crop,” he said. “And I make sure that I make phone calls throughout the day and talk to different people. It’s a distraction from what’s going on.”
Stanford is not alone in his mental health struggles in the farming industry but is one of very few who’s decided to come forward with his challenges. A 2016 study done by the University of Guelph reported farmers are among the most susceptible groups when it comes to reporting high levels of stress, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout, and overall mental health issues vs the general population. The study also found that 40 per cent of agricultural producers would hesitate seeking professional help as a result of mental health stigma.
Stanford tried three different medications before landing on one that helped manage his symptoms, which he describes as feeling like “having a heart attack or a stroke or an aneurysm.” He also admitted the stigma played an early role in his fear to speak.
“I was afraid to talk about it, when I first got my diagnosis, but as time went on I started to realize, ‘hey, I’m not alone’.”
“Farmers are supposed to be strong, independent, salt of the earth people who don’t need help from anybody,” he said, adding he has also found seeing a therapist helpful. “But the more I started to talk about it, the better I felt about it and the easier it was to start healing.”
Stress taking a toll
University of Guelph professor, Andria Jones-Bitton, who in the 2016 survey polled over 1,100 Canadian farmers across the country, said the results concluded a definite problem. The survey suggests that 58 percent of Canadian farmers had varying levels of anxiety, another 45 percent of them had high stress, and 35 percent suffered from depression. 38 percent of them also had high levels of “emotional exhaustion.”
Jones-Bitton spoke of many mental health risk factors in the agriculture industry. Farmers work incredibly long hours, most often isolated to themselves. The nature of their industry means they are always under significant financial pressure, often required to take on inordinate amounts of debt to purchase more land and the ensuing equipment needed to operate. And being that most of their businesses are in the same place as their home, there is no way to differentiate home life from work life.
The survey even reported heightened stress due to increased public scrutiny around agricultural practices. If you’ve seen documentaries such as Before The Flood, a movement that is Anti-meat and anti-GMO attacks their practices and way of life, making some farmers feel as if their industry and livelihood is subject to being phased out.
“If you look at some of the stresses that farmers face, they’re just huge, and so variable,” Jones-Bitton said. “So many of the stresses they’re experiencing in their jobs are outside of their control, and that leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness — which increases their risk for negative mental health outcomes.”
2018 dry spell sends stress to new heights
In dry years like this one, with prolonged hot and dry conditions, the mental health risks of farmers are amplified. As of the end of August, a federal government assessment declared large portions of southern Alberta to be in “severe drought”.
Throughout the province, the Alberta government estimated that crop yields are down six percent below the five-year average, while the hard-hit southern region is 27 percent below average.
The poor weather conditions have meant financial stress and mental worry for grain, cereal and oilseed farmers as well as cattle producers. From the Alberta government’s Aug. 28 crop report, 36 percent of the province’s pasture land is rated in “poor” condition and in some regions that figure is nearly 60 percent. Cattle are more thin than usual and producers struggling to source feed.
Alberta Beef Producers chair, Charlie Christie, says that in some areas the price of hay has nearly doubled from last year. This is forcing many ranchers to make difficult decisions – including selling off cows prematurely out of fear for not being able to feed them over the winter.
“In the areas that are hurt the most, the stress level is quite high … Some guys are liquidating 20, 30 per cent of their herd,” Christie said.
New foundation offers mental health training
There are many factors preventing farmers that are experiencing mental distress from getting help. Rural areas do not have abundant supplies of counsellors or therapists, which doesn’t even speak to the stubborn mentality to seek care in the first place. And due to the always-on demands of their jobs it makes it next to impossible to travel to a city nearby for appointments.
These factors helped motivate the 2017 launch of Do More Agriculture, a not-for-profit foundation that aims to create awareness about mental health on the farm and help build a community of support and resources for those affected.
Co-founder Lesley Kelly, who lives and farms with her family east of Saskatoon, said the foundation has launched a pilot project that will provide, at no cost, 10 to 12 rural communities with mental health first aid training. Mental health first aid refers to immediate help for people dealing with an urgent mental health crisis.
“I like to explain it as, if I were to sprain my ankle, most people would know in that instant what to do,” Kelly said. “But if I were to have a panic attack, chances are people would not know what to do.”
Do More Agriculture is also looking to Twitter to keep the conversation going with these farmers working in isolation.
“You really do think you’re alone, that everyone else is perfect and lives normal lives, and that’s totally not the case,” Kelly said.
Back on his Lethbridge-area farm, Sean Stanford knows his mental health challenges will persist beyond the troubling harvest season.
“I know how to manage it (the anxiety) a lot better now, but it’s still there,” he said. “It’s not really anything that will ever go away.”
However, Stanford admits to gaining strength from sharing his experiences, and hopes that despite a calm and collected exterior, other farms will recognize you can’t always judge a book by its cover.
“Maybe other people can look at me and say, ‘hey, he looked like he had his sh*t together, but he actually doesn’t,’ ” Stanford said. “And maybe that’s ok.”