Congress must protect the lives of America's Farmers

Recent articles in The Guardian and Newsweek discuss the high suicide rate among farmers in the US and globally. Agricultural workers now kill themselves twice as often as veterans, and are on of the most suicide-prone occupations. A July 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that farming, fishing, and forestry have the highest rate of suicide of any occupational category.

Many factors are entering into this, but the primary cause is the dropping income from farming. The median income of a farm in 2017 is projected to be a loss of $1,325. As the old joke goes, the tendency for farmers is to try to make up for that in volume, which has not been working for small farmers. The world of farming beyond the mega-corporation has always been difficult, but current farming conditions are almost impossible. Global warming and the lack of attention from the federal government ot small farming operations will continue to exacerbate the problem. 

In 2008 with the passing of the farm bill, many believed help was on the way. The 2008 bill included a provision for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which was intended to provide affordable behavioral health services for farmers throughout the country. The plan was based on the successful Sowing Seeds of Hope program which was started in Wisconsin in 1999 and provided help to farmers in seven midwestern states. However, although Congress passed the bill authorizing the FRSAN, no funds have ever been authorized to pay for the program, so it remains a voluntary unfunded program that has not gotten off the ground. Congress has consistently considered the program to be an unneccessary expenditure despite the efforts of Tom Harkin and other legislators to fund it. 

In the meantime, the small amount of money for the Sowing Seeds of Hope program has dried up, and that program is shuttered as well. 

Even if we consider farmers expendable and ignore the heartbreak and personal loss in farming familes, surely the economic cost of these suicides is also immense. In general prevention of problems is much less expensive and wiser than cleaning up after the fact. We must find better ways to support farming in this country. In the long run it needs to be possible for farmers to earn a living, but in the short term Congress must pass full funding of the FRSAN program. Either we must learn to respect farming both philosophically and economically, or pay the much larger price of negligence in the long run. 

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Published on

December 10, 2017

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