Chris Oaks spoke with Ed Lentz, Hancock County’s Ohio State University Extension educator.
Q: A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the suicide rate among farmers and those in the agriculture industry is the highest of any occupational group, and five times higher than the population as a whole. What are the reasons behind this alarming statistic?
A: I think the primary reason is that the agriculture industry has been in a recession for the past three years and it doesn’t appear that’s going to change anytime soon. This is leading to a great deal of stress for some operators. Declining profits make it hard to pay back loans, and in some cases operating losses leave farm families without the money to make ends meet beyond just a business standpoint.
Q: Obviously, this is also a profession where a great deal of what influences success or failure is out of a farmer’s control. To what extent does that contribute to the struggle?
A: Sure. We don’t control commodity prices. Rising interest rates and declining farm values are not something we can control, but they certainly affect farmers. And then, there’s the weather. We’ve certainly seen a number of significant weather events in recent years that have led to catastrophic losses. Of course, I’m speaking here about the industry on a national basis.
Q: Good point. The CDC did not break down the numbers on a state-by-state basis. Or, for that matter, by specific occupation (farming, forestry, and so on). That said, is this a concern locally?
A: It’s important to point that out. This is a national average, not something we see here in northwest Ohio. Not saying it can’t happen here, but we don’t have an epidemic or anything. That is likely because we don’t have as many farmers who rely solely on their farm income.
There are other sources, such as operators who have other jobs where they farm “on the side,” or families where there is income from the other spouse. That can make a huge difference when a family’s fortunes don’t entirely hinge on the farm operation alone.
I will say that one contributing factor we do see here is the lack of mental health services in rural areas. When those services aren’t as readily available, it’s difficult to get help in that time of need.
Q: One of the most interesting, and perhaps overlooked contributing factors to this problem is something you call the “legacy burden.” What do you mean by that?
A: Farms are unique businesses. Not only do farmers feel a great responsibility for the land entrusted to their care, that land is often handed down in the family over the course of several generations.
When an operator is struggling, he or she may feel as if they are letting down their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. There can be tremendous pressure to keep the family legacy alive and strong. And the burden of not being able to live up to that legacy, especially knowing that those previous generations also faced hard times and managed to succeed, only heightens the sense of failure both professionally and personally.
Q: Some industry experts are comparing today’s economic conditions to the farm crisis of the 1980s. Would you go that far?
A: Well, most of us who have been in the industry for a long time know that things go in cycles. We’ve been through tough times before. We know things will get better and, to the extent we can, we know what to do — and what not to do — to make it through the hard times.
But where we’re really concerned is for the young farmer who hasn’t been through this before. Those who came into the business during the boom years earlier this decade are experiencing it for the first time. This is especially true of the first-generation operator who doesn’t have dad or granddad to fall back on for advice.
But back to your question, I don’t think conditions now are as dire as they were in the ’80s. Many farmers had enormous debt burdens because they had overstretched themselves, and I can remember interest rates at 18 percent or greater, which we certainly don’t have now. That said, when you dig into the numbers on the economic conditions, we do have some of the same problems occurring that are worrisome. But, no, I don’t think we’re there.
“Good Mornings!” with Chris Oaks airs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays on WFIN, 1330 kHz. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 419-422-4545.