Down on the farm: With outsize stresses for farmers fueling a mental health crisis, program seeks to lend a helping hand

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman prunes and trellises tomatoes at the farm in Wilbraham.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman prunes and trellises tomatoes at the farm in Wilbraham. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman hoes the onion field at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman hoes the onion field at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman moves a wheelbarrow full of cabbage that bolted after a recent heat wave at the farm in Wilbraham.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman moves a wheelbarrow full of cabbage that bolted after a recent heat wave at the farm in Wilbraham. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman hoes the onion field at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman hoes the onion field at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman hoes the onion field at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman hoes the onion field at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning.

Stony Hill Farm owner Alice Colman at the farm in Wilbraham on Thursday morning. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

By LEAH VERESS

For the Gazette

Published: 07-05-2024 7:32 PM

Alice Colman recalls the day a routine fennel harvest turned into a wake-up call. As she stood in her field, carefully examining a plant’s feathery leaves, she felt herself growing increasingly frustrated with the crop’s appearance. When she kneeled down to cut the stalks, Colman was startled by the warm tears trickling down her face.

“I remember thinking ‘this is not normal.’ I should be able to get through a harvest without crying. Nobody else cares about what the fennel looks like,” she said. “I was not responding in a normal way to this little hiccup in my day.”

Between long hours, financial stress, unpredictable weather and a slew of other stressors, Colman had reached her breaking point.

“So I got a therapist. Just talking to her each week for a couple months in the summer helped me feel a lot better,” she said. “I used to think I had to solve everything on my own, but now I really believe in the power of talking through my problems.”

In Massachusetts, suicide rates for workers in agriculture and other outdoor sectors are over three times the state average, according to a 2022 data brief from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The National Rural Health Association confirms that these statistics are consistent across the country.

In the landscape of American agriculture, focusing on farmer’s mental health is somewhat new. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which provides grants to states to establish networks connecting agriculture workers to stress assistance programs.

Using those funds, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in 2023 launched MassGrown Wellness, a program to connect agricultural workers with mental health resources. This May, a statewide peer support group has been added to the program, for which Colman is a volunteer.

“Agriculture is a very stressful way of work and life, it has very high suicide rates,” said Greg Porell, project coordinator for the state Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized this for a while, and finally started to fund (mental health) programs specifically for farmers.”

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In a statewide survey of over 200 agricultural community members conducted in 2022, MDAR found that of the 80% of respondents who reported being aware of mental health and wellness resources, 63% neglected to use them.

“There’s a pretty significant stigma associated with farmer’s mental health and not being strong enough to solve their own problems, which is a major obstacle in the ag community,” said Porell. “Farmers think that they should be able to handle things themselves.”

While post-pandemic rates of mental illness have skyrocketed nationally and as pressures on farms — both economic and weather-related — have risen, the plight of farmers is dire. Now, farmers across Massachusetts are trying to come together to try to mitigate the burden.

Mental health landscape

Like many agricultural workers struggling with their mental health, Colman attributes her “fennel incident” to a culmination of stressors.

Colman founded Stony Hill Farm in Wilbraham nine years ago. For the first seven years, she said, everything was manageable. She worked hard to develop 9 acres of her parcel into farmed land that she planted and harvested herself.

But in 2022, she started running a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, a production and marketing model that allows community members to purchase a “share” of a farm in exchange for a portion of the harvests. While CSAs are designed to help farmers by providing them with funding at the start of the season to invest in equipment and seeds, Colman found that the pressure of adding the CSA, compounded by an extended drought, only exacerbated her stress.

“Suddenly I had to harvest 20 weeks’ worth of shares for 50 people,” she said. “If we can’t fill out the shares, then I feel like I let them down. I feel very, very stressed out. There were too many things that I was worried about all at once.”

She said she felt like she was frozen, unable to make crucial decisions and devise solutions to problems that arose on the farm. To make matters worse, Colman’s brother had committed suicide two years earlier. Despite the grief, her proximity to her brother’s mental health challenges enabled Colman to recognize the importance of intervention and human connection in averting similar tragedies maintaining a healthier mental equilibrium.

While workers in the agriculture industry face many of the same stressors people in other professions grapple with, like balancing professional and personal life, the impact of these stressors is often exacerbated by industry-specific factors that remain largely out of their control.

“For a lot of us, farming is the only thing we can imagine doing with our lives,” said Laura Harlow Leighton, a vegetable farmer and founder of Rock Harvest Farm in New Braintree. “Emotionally, it’s overwhelming to have no control over so many parts of your business. It can be hard to cope.”

A survey conducted by MDAR found that 59% of participants cited “weather and other forces out of my control” as having an impact on their mental health and wellness. Fifty-three percent of participants cited “long hours and stressful working conditions,” and 47% cited “financial stress and uncertainty and estate planning.”

“Climate change and changing weather patterns are some of the biggest concerns of the agricultural community. After last year, we really recognize that it’s out of our control when the weather hits,” said Ashley Randle, the MDAR commissioner and fifth -eneration dairy farmer on Indian Acres Farm in South Deerfield.

A freeze in February, a frost in May and flooding in the summer months destroyed crops, flooded farmland and cost farmers millions.

Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley, for example, lost $225,000 worth of forage crop to the unprecedented flooding of the Connecticut River and subsequent rainfall that hit the region last summer.

“We had 165 acres under water on July 10, and then it was very slow to drain. About 40 acres of our corn rotted and the rest was stunted in growth,” said Denise Barstow Manz, a member of the seventh generation of Barstow dairy farmers. “We usually get five cuttings of hay. We lost the entire second and third cuttings to the rain, and the fourth and fifth were small.”

Losses mirroring those of Barstow Longview Farm were suffered across the state by farms of varying sizes, experiences and value.

Recovering from such difficulties may be even more trying for farmers who are relatively new to the business, said Dicken Crane, co-owner of Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton.

“I see the mental health challenges as being more of a problem for the younger generation, because there are so many challenges and they don’t have the resources to deal with it,” Crane said.

Yet one of the largest barriers to agriculture workers accessing mental health resources is a generational stigma against it, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“I think that there’s like this old guard of farmers that would be skeptical about things like therapy, and, you know, there’s this idea that you just can suppress all of the stress,” said Leighton, a first-generation farmer.

“And, you know, just break something when you’re upset. I’m seeing that a lot. A lot of thrown tools, a lot of like ... smashed equipment. I mean whatever however, you gotta get this right now — I’m not here to judge anybody’s methods.”

Peer support network

Colman and Leighton are now implementing the lessons they learned through their personal experiences with the struggles of farming and their mental health to reach out and help other farmers across the state.

Both serve as volunteer peer support network team members for MassGrown Wellness. When MDAR was awarded a $500,000 grant from Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in 2020, Porell said FarmFirst in Vermont was the only state-run farmer mental health program they were aware of. Since then, several other New England states have developed similar programs in tandem with MDAR.

The Peer Support Network, which connects farmers to volunteer peer counselors, is the newest addition to the program. It launched in May during National Mental Health Awareness Month. Once the federal Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network funding is exhausted in August, Porell said the program will be funded by MDAR.

The state agriculture agency has been working closely with farmworkers across the state to develop a program they will be comfortable using, said Porell.

“Farmers have expressed that if they’re going to be willing to discuss their concerns, certainly those surrounding mental health, they wanted to speak to someone that understood agriculture,” Porell said. “As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of therapists in the field dedicated to just the agricultural community.”

The Peer Support team consists of 13 members from across the state with varying levels of experience and ages.

In addition to the peer support team members, Porell said MDAR has trained close to 100 people from the agricultural community and MDAR on the QPR Method of psychological first aid — “question, persuade and refer” — to establish empathetic connections with distressed callers.

“That’s the connection with the farmers talking to a farmer, they’re able to empathize. ‘Oh, you lost your flock to avian flu this year? Well, I lost mine two years ago,’” Porell said.

When Leighton first sought professional psychotherapy, she said she felt a disconnect with her therapist.

“It felt like I was just telling her how to farm more than talking about how it made me feel,” said Leighton. “It’s good to talk to other farmers because we understand each other. We already know how the season is, you don’t have to catch up on things like that.”

Leighton said talking to peers can also provide callers with an opportunity to vent and release their frustrations.

“If someone calls me, I can talk s--- about farming all day long. I understand. I get the stupid Farmers Market drama, the Farm Bureau drama, I’ll talk s--- about customers,” she said. “I think that can help open people up. I don’t think therapists would want to talk s--- with you, but other farmers will. That’s how you crack someone’s shell.”

The peer support team can also refer callers to partner organizations that act as a “contact hub” for the agricultural community members in their regions. Partner organizations consist of member-based agricultural programs like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and the 4-H foundation.

MassGrown Wellness’ resources are free of charge. Porell said the aim of the program is to be an accessible resource for all Massachusetts agricultural workers and their families.

While the program is still in its infancy and the discussion surrounding agricultural worker’s mental health is just starting to gain traction, community members and orchestrators alike are optimistic that things are heading in the right direction.

“It excites me that [farmers] are talking more openly about being stressed and the problems they’re going through — not just pretending that everything’s great,” Colman said.

Even if callers ultimately do not use the resources MassGrown Wellness provides, just having a human connection and outlet can make all the difference, she said.

“Just verbalizing the things that are stressing you out so that they’re not just like, whirling around your head ... helps put stuff in perspective,” Colman said. “[When] you [can] bounce stuff off with people and get suggestions for problems that are coming up during the day … it can make it a lot less isolating.”

Leah Veress is a Smith College student. This article was written as part of a project in Professor Naila Moreira’s journalism course this spring. Veress grew up in Montana surrounded by an agricultural community. She currently writes for Smith’s newspaper The Sophian.