Helping the hands that feed us

INDIANA (WPTA21) — “It’s vitally important that we help take care of those who feed us every day,” Angela Sorg told ABC21’s Digging Deeper team. The Purdue Extension adviser speaks specifically to Indiana farmers. She is part of the group’s Farm Stress Team, which was launched in 2018 due to an increase in suicide rates among Hoosier farmers. “If I lose my job tomorrow, I can go find another job,” she explained, “because my identity is not so much linked to my job. I don’t eat, sleep, or breathe – but for a farmer, they eat, sleep, and breathe the farm.

Sorg and Rachel Dillhoff, a health and humanities educator, have worked together on educational programs that they hope will achieve two goals: raise awareness of mental health and reduce stigma within rural communities. And while most, if not everyone, can relate to what it’s like to be under pressure – farmers work in the most intense environments. In fact, the CDC describes farming as “high-risk, high-stress.”

“We also started to see an increase in the number of farmers, either committing suicide or discussing suicide, with family members,” Sorg added. “Our communities don’t know or don’t know how to have these conversations.”

And agricultural stressors are plentiful. They understand:

  • Rising costs and inflation (i.e. fertilizer costs are up 200-300% over last year)
  • Weather (i.e. excessive rainfall in northeast Indiana leads to mold and fungus growth in corn and soybeans)
  • Diseases (for example, tar spot, which has been reported in almost every county in Indiana, can result in a loss of $130-400 per acre of corn)
  • Harvesting (concern about time, problems and equipment failures before fields are harvested)
  • Family (standard family stressors compounded by day-to-day work difficulties)

But perhaps the biggest concern is with the legacy of the farm. “If there is an agricultural loss, there is a loss of identity. We hear this from our farmers all the time,” Sorg said. “’Why couldn’t I continue, because Grandpa did? My father did. My mother did. Everyone in my family did it — why couldn’t I do it? I failed my future children and my future grandchildren. ‘”

Kunkel Farm in Adams County(Chris Brown)

And in a booming agricultural state like Indiana, concern is widespread. “According to the ISDA, there are approximately 57,000 farmers or farms in the state of Indiana,” Dillhoff told us. “They said about 96% of these farms are family owned and operated.”

Several years ago, the dairy industry took a hit. It got even worse during the pandemic. “I’ve seen stories where they couldn’t sell at their usual places,” she continued, “because the schools weren’t in session — so what are you going to do with all that? You hear about people having to throw away all that milk. What’s it going to be like on the road?”

Head south off Fort Wayne on US 27 and you will pass Kunkel Dairy. Decatur Farm has been run by the same family for nearly 175 years. Fred Kunkel made the difficult decision to stop producing dairy to keep the farm profitable. “In the spring of 2019, that’s when we put our plan in place. What we are looking at in terms of its closing, “he detailed. “I just told my son that “he better get a job with benefits. The facilities are old… the dairy industry didn’t give us enough to stay in business.”

Even before reducing operations, the Kunkels were entirely dedicated to the land. “We just do it because we love it,” he said. “70 hours a week is a normal dairy schedule – because we work seven days a week!” For more than three decades, he started his day at 2:30 a.m. Before sunrise, his cows were already milked. Next, he was preparing for his bus line – a job for the local school district that made sure his family had health insurance. Kunkel took breaks for breakfast and lunch, made a few extra trips to the farm, and picked up his students from school. His day often ended around 7 p.m. No days off and no holidays.

He says he has slowed down since. There are no cows to milk, but the Kunkel farm still has hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans. They also produce hay, care for alpacas, and raise cows to use for beef. And he still drives that school bus. “I don’t get up until 5 a.m. anymore,” he laughed. “I’m going to say this for all the farmers I know: Farmers never retire. »

All this work is not always for nothing. “You put all that money on the line? Sometimes you get good returns, the prices are good. Just like, everything lines up – the perfect storm. Things are going well,” Kunkel explained. “Then you get those years where things don’t line up, and you can have a loss.”

Financial risk is probably the big thing that people don’t understand,” he continued. “How much money we have invested here. Every year we put it on the line.” And although he says he is financially conservative in the way he runs his farm, he has still experienced his share of bad years. Uncertainty and factors beyond his control, endangering his family’s legacy and livelihood. “There were a few times when I looked at the hotline number and said, ‘Yeah , maybe I need to talk to someone,'” Kunkel admitted. “But then I don’t know… get a good night’s sleep and maybe the next day things won’t go so wrong and you will continue.”

Kunkels’ response appears to be similar to that of other farmers facing the same challenges. “As a therapist, farmers aren’t just going to talk to me,” Sorg explained. “But they will talk to the clergy. They will talk to the other people present at the Sunday breakfast. They will talk to their lender whom they have known for 40 years. So we need to empower the community to start having conversations. »

The subject is close to Dillhoff, who lost his father – also a farmer, following a heart attack. “Farmers are not limited to being in the tractor. They are also people and they have families,” she said. “Having lost my father at a young age, it was something I knew better. And I wish my family had a bit more support.

So how does Purdue Extension Farm’s stress team plan to help?

  • Prevention: educators work with 4-H and youth development to reach children at a younger age, encouraging them to recognize their mental health and address it if they need help
  • Programs: Purdue Extension has three programs to educate rural communities on how to help recognize and assist farmers who may be in crisis (Communicating with Farmers Under Stress, Weathering the Storm and Cultivating Resilience)
  • Podcast: Sorg and Dillhoff succeeded in providing a platform for farmers, via their podcast Tools for today’s farmers
  • 988 Call Centers: When the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched nationwide earlier this year, Purdue Extension began developing a plan to educate Indiana call centers on the way of working specifically with farmers in crisis.

Although their efforts are progressing, much remains to be done. A 2021 survey by the National American Farm Bureau Poll found that 61% of farmers and/or farm workers were experiencing more stress and mental health issues than the previous year. But unfortunately, resources remain scarce.

For example, data compiled by countyhealthrankings.org shows that there is one mental health care provider for every 480 residents of Allen County. The numbers increase in more rural communities. In DeKalb County, there is one mental health provider for every 1,620 residents and one for every 2,240 residents in Adams County.

Mental Health Care Provider Statistics for Residents of Allen, DeKalb, and Adams Counties
Mental Health Care Provider Statistics for Residents of Allen, DeKalb, and Adams Counties(Daniel Beals)

“They don’t ask for much. They feed my family every day, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a farmer complain about a thing,” Sorg concluded. “If I can do something to help the farming community support itself, then I feel it’s my right and my responsibility to do so.”

“All farmers have a passion for agriculture,” Kunkel said. “We are the stewards of this land here. God gave it to me here for a lifetime – and I want to pass it on as well, if not better – to the next generation. And I think if you interview a farmer at heart, he’ll say the same thing. Our livelihood depends on it. »

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or having a mental health crisis, call 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline today. You can also find more resources and support on this website.

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