What’s Eating America’s Farmers?

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

The last time the Farm Aid hotline rang like this, Ronald Reagan was president and Willie Nelson was playing a huge concert to raise money for hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country who were facing financial ruin. By the autumn of 1985, America’s “farm crisis” was suddenly a thing.

Three decades later, a call to 1-800-FARM-AID rings the cellphone of Joe Schroeder. Callers are in such dire straits that the father of two toddlers answers day and night. “I talk to suicidal farmers regularly,” he says. “Almost all of them are facing foreclosure.” Call volume is on the rise: Schroeder averaged 38 calls a month in 2016, and 56 calls a month in 2017; so far, the average this year is more than 70 calls a month. His job is to connect farmers with mental health services and low-cost financial and legal advice — anything that can help. “It’s about just being there for them,” says Schroeder, “and warming them up to the idea of filing for bankruptcy, which is often the only option left by the time they call me.”

The average farm income dropped 45 percent between 2013 and 2016 and continues to fall — a trend precipitated by a global glut in agricultural commodities. Meanwhile, the costs of land and supplies are growing, pushing farmer debt far above 1980s levels. Farmer bankruptcies are indeed rising, though agricultural economists say that today’s low interest rates are staving off a crisis on the scale seen in Reagan’s day, when rates climbed as high as 20 percent. The authors of a January report from CoBank, a major ag lender, saw no cause for mass hysteria just yet, but they did sound an early alarm bell: Economic indicators, they say, are “creeping closer to the concerning levels of the 1980s.”

The days when farm foreclosures top the headlines again may not be far off. But there is no question that something is deeply askew in rural America, as evidenced by a different set of stats. Part of what garnered public attention about the plight of farmers in the 1980s was a wave of suicides sparked by financial stress, yet the farmer suicide rate is now 50 percent higher. Farmers today have the highest suicide rate of any occupation in America — about five times higher than the general population and twice that of veterans, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that farmers also have the highest rate of death due to stress-related conditions, ranging from heart disease and hypertension to ulcers and nervous disorders.

Unlike bankruptcies and foreclosures, these trends can’t be pegged to downward swings in the bushel prices of corn and wheat. In the course of speaking with farmers and farmer advocacy groups for this article, it became clear that systemic, generational issues are coming to a head in agricultural communities. It’s as if the stress and instability of the 1980s never disappeared but rather became the norm in agriculture.

Late last year, another disturbing report made it clear that the situation in farm country is worse than initially feared. Three in four farmerssurveyed said that someone they know has been affected by opioid addiction, and one in four admitted that someone was them. That’s compared to about five to 10 percent of the rural population at large, and it’s a far cry from the estimated one percent of all Americans who are thought to suffer from opioid addiction.

The opioid epidemic, characterized by users who first get hooked on prescription painkillers and then move on to street drugs like heroin, fentanyl and the mind-bogglingly fatal carfentanyl (a dose the size of a grain of sand can kill you), has made drug overdoses the number one cause of death among Americans under the age of 50, having surpassed homicides, heart disease and car crashes last year. The epidemic is well known in the hinterlands — the per capita overdose rate is highest in rural counties and increasing three times faster than in urban areas — but the outsized role of farmers in that picture has come as a shock to many.

“It’s an explosive issue,” says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), one of the organizations that commissioned the survey. “There has been a lot of surprise about it, but when you talk to farmers, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I know some people.’”

Farmers may recognize that drug addiction is a problem in their communities, but the survey found that they think the bigger opioid problem resides in cities. Johnson believes that this gap between perception and reality reinforces the stigma of drug addiction in rural areas. People feel like it’s a case of a few bad apples, he says, not something that three in four of their neighbors are dealing with, which subverts any effort to do something about it. “The families affected often don’t realize that the family down the road is affected, too,” says Johnson. “We need to make it OK to talk about this.”

In January, the NFU and American Farm Bureau Federation (which co-sponsored the survey) rolled out Farm Town Strong, a joint campaign to raise awareness of how opioid addiction is eating away at the folks who feed this country. So far, it has largely amounted to a media blitz — the hope is to reduce shame and denial by reframing the choice to enter drug treatment as an act of courage rather than a sign of moral failure.

But there’s also a political bent. The left-leaning NFU represents the interests of its 200,000 members in Washington, alongside the larger, right-wing Farm Bureau. They often disagree on agricultural policy, but one would hope this topic rises above partisan politics, says Johnson. “This town could use some better examples of folks working together,” he says.