Battle Creek

New program offers ways for Michigan farmers to deal with stresses of their business

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Alarm bells began going off in communities throughout the United States in 2018 after the release of a Centers for Disease Control report which said that the incidences of suicide among farmers were on the rise.

This was no surprise to people like Roger Betz, a District Extension Farm Management Agent with Michigan State University’s Extension office who is also a farmer. Betz covers the southern half of Michigan and has worked with farmers for the past 38 years doing business analysis, succession and estate planning, and financial projections.

“There’s a high stress-level because of continued pressures,” Betz says. “Agriculture by its very nature is extremely stressful. There’s price risk and insect and disease risk and normal health risks. The margins are thin, and it is competitive.”

Roger Betz, MSU Extension
The release of that 2018 report was prompted by an earlier 2016 CDC report which misclassified farmers as farming, forestry, and fishery or “Triple F” workers. In the 2016 report, statistics for this particular group were alarming with about 84 of every 100,000 of these workers dying by suicide. The media at the time widely reported a crisis of farmers committing suicide that was not borne out by the statistics, since the media did not differentiate between farmworkers and farm owners.

Those representing the “farming” part of this “Triple F” group were agricultural workers whose median household income is between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, according to the latest National Agricultural Workers Survey—and are 80 percent Hispanic. They are often employed by farmers, whose median family income is around $79,000.

Under the federal occupational guidelines, farmers are classified as having a “management occupation,” not a “farming, fishing, and forestry occupation.” The suicide rate among managers, in contrast, was exactly average, according to the CDC report. 

Even though the depth of the problem for farmers originally was overstated the problems are real. Those like Betz, who work closely with farmers, say increased levels of stress are being seen.

As a way to address the many stresses farmers are increasingly dealing with, MSU Extension now offers resources to farmers through a Managing Farm Stress program that began about six months ago. It's under the direction of Eric Karbowski, whose title is Extension Educator, Farm Stress.

“We’ve really been working to do lots of outreach and engagement,” Karbowski says. “MSU has created two programs for communicating with farmers under stress and weathering the storm. We’re trying to get the word out about supports and resources available to the farming community. We’re directing people to our website and trying to direct farmers in need to the resources available.

“We are partnering up to teach people who interface with the farmers how to identify some of the signs and symptoms, what are best practices, and how to have that discussion if they are concerned about suicides.”

When asked what is causing the elevated levels of stress, Karbowski says he thinks there are a lot of layers. They include lower commodity prices, a five-year slump in dairy prices, and less than optimal weather conditions. For example, cold soil through April of 2019 eventually warmed up enough to begin planting, but the respite was short-lived with the onslaught of heavier than average spring rainfall totals that never gave the soil time to dry out, says Eric Anderson, Crops Educator with Michigan State University’s Extension office. Anderson, who focuses on the St. Joseph/Centreville area, says the biggest concern for farmers was the ability to get their crops planted in a timely manner.

Eric Karbowski, MSU Extension Educator, Farm Stress
Calhoun County, he says, was not nearly as bad off as county’s in the eastern part of the state.

“If you go in and the ground is too wet to plant, you’re just going to rut out the ground,” Anderson says. “A lot of folks chose to wait and once it started to get towards late May, then the concern arises whether or not they’re going to get planted by the cutoff date for federal crop insurance. If you do get planted, are going to go ahead and grow crops without federal crop insurance?”

The less-than-perfect weather conditions and the uncertainty that came with it laid the groundwork for a record-breaking year for Prevented from Planting, which is acreage that cannot be planted because of a flood, drought, or other natural disaster and so is eligible for compensation.

An estimated 7.4 percent of the total farming land in Calhoun County came under Prevented from Planting. Kalamazoo County came in at 18 percent and Michigan counties further east, like Lenawee and Monroe, were somewhere between 35 or 36 percent, Anderson says.

Karbowksi says he sees more and more farmers that are farming part-time now or seeking out other occupations to make ends meet. He says he doesn’t think farmers generally are comfortable with the topics of mental illness or suicide and he says he understands that these are not easy to talk about. 

“We want them to know that there is help out there and that they are not alone in their struggles,” Karbowski says. “We are working hard to create new opportunities and outlets available to them. There are a lot of people who genuinely do care about their health and well-being.”

Some resources are here and here.

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.