DIGGING DEEPER: Helping the hands that feed us

How Purdue Extension is addressing mental health and stigma in the farming community
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 3:23 PM EDT
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INDIANA (WPTA21) - “It is vitally important that we help take care of those who feed us everyday,” Angela Sorg told ABC21′s Digging Deeper team. The Purdue Extension counselor is talking specifically about Indiana’s farmers. She’s part of the group’s farm stress team, which launched in 2018 due to an increase of 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 tied up into my job. I don’t eat, sleep, and breathe it — but for a farmer, they eat sleep and breathe the farm.”

Sorg, along with health and human sciences educator Rachel Dillhoff, have been working together on educational programming that they hope accomplishes two goals: bringing awareness to mental health, and reducing stigma among rural communities. And though most, if not everyone, can relate to what it feels like to be under pressure — farmers work in the most intense environments. In fact, the CDC describes agriculture as “high-risk and high-stress”.

“We also began to see an uptick in farmers, either completing suicide or discussing suicide, with family members,” Sorg added. “Our communities are unsure or uncomfortable on how to have those conversations.”

And farm stressors are in high number. They include:

  • Rising costs and inflation (i.e. fertilizer costs are up 200-300% from last year)
  • Weather (i.e. excessive rainfall in northeast Indiana leads to mold and fungal growth in corn and soybeans)
  • Diseases (i.e. tar spot, which has been reported in almost every Indiana county, can lead to a $130-400 loss per acre of corn)
  • Harvest (concern over enough time, issues, and equipment breakdowns before harvesting fields)
  • Family (standard family stressors compounded with daily struggles of the job)

But perhaps the biggest concern, is around the homestead legacy. “If there is a farm loss, there is an identity loss. We hear that from our farmers all the time,” Sorg said. “‘Why couldn’t I keep it continued, because grandpa did? My dad did it. My mom did it. Everyone in my family did it — why couldn’t I do it? I have failed my future children and my future grandchildren. ‘”

Kunkel Farm in Adams County
Kunkel Farm in Adams County(Chris Brown)

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

Several years ago, the dairy industry took a big hit. It faired even worse during the pandemic. “I saw stories where they couldn’t sell to their normal places they would sell to,” 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 dump all that milk. What is that going to look like down the road?”

Drive south off Fort Wayne on U.S. 27 and you’ll pass Kunkel Dairy. The Decatur homestead has been managed by the same family for nearly 175 years. Fred Kunkel made the tough decision to stop producing dairy, to keep the farm profitable. “In the spring of 2019, that’s when we kind of put our plan together. What we were looking at as far as shutting it down,” he detailed. “I just told my son he’d be better off getting a job with benefits. The facilities are old… the milk industry wasn’t giving us enough to stay in business.”

Even before slimming down operations, the Kunkels have been wholly 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 over three decades, he would begin his day at 2:30 a.m. Before the sun rose, his cows would already be milked. Then he would prepare for his bus route — a job for the local school district that made sure his family had health insurance. Kunkel would take breaks for breakfast and lunch, make a couple more trips to the farm, and pickup his students from school. His day would often end around 7 p.m. No days off, and no vacations.

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

All that work isn’t always for nothing. “You put all that money on the line? Sometimes you get good yields, prices are good. Just like, everything kind of aligns — the perfect storm. Things are good,” Kunkel explained. “Then you get those years where things don’t line up, and you can have a loss.”

The financial risk is probably the big thing that people don’t understand,” he continued. “How much money we have invested out here. Every year, we’re putting it on the line.” And though he says he’s financially conservative with how he manages his farm, he’s still seen his share of bad years. Uncertainty and factors out of his control, putting his family’s legacy and livelihood at risk. “There’s been a couple times I look at the hotline number and said, ‘yeah, maybe I need to talk somebody’,” Kunkel admitted. “But then I don’t know… get a good night sleep and maybe the next day things don’t go so bad and you carry on.”

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

The topic hits close to home for Dillhoff, who lost her father — also a farmer, to a heart attack. “There’s more to farmers than being in the tractor. They’re people too, and they have families” she said. “Having lost my dad at a young age, that was something that I knew more about. And I wish my family had a little more support.

So how does the Purdue Extension Farm Stress Team plan to help?

  • Prevention: educators are working with 4-H and youth development to reach kids at a younger age, encouraging them to recognize their mental health, and address it if they need help
  • Programs: Purdue Extension has three programs for educating rural communities on how to help recognize and assists farmers who may be in a crisis (Communicating with Farmers Under Stress, Weathering the Storm, and Cultivating Resiliency)
  • Podcast: Sorg and Dillhoff have seen success with giving farmers a platform, via their podcast Tools for Today’s Farmers
  • 988 call centers: When the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched nationally earlier this year, Purdue Extension began developing a plan to educate call centers in Indiana on how to specifically work with farmers in crisis

Though their efforts are making headway, there’s still a lot left to be done. A 2021 survey by the National American Farm Bureau Poll revealed 61% of farmers and/or farm workers were experience more stress and mental health challenges than the previous year. But unfortunately, resources remain scarce.

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

Statistic on mental health providers to residents in Allen, DeKalb, and Adams Counties
Statistic on mental health providers to residents in Allen, DeKalb, and Adams Counties(Daniel Beals)

“They don’t ask for a lot. They feed my family every day, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a farmer complain about one thing,” Sorg concluded. “If I can do anything to help the farming community sustain themselves, then I feel like it is my right and responsibility to do so.”

“All farmers have a passion for farming,” Kunkel shared. “We’re stewards of this ground here. God gave it to me here for a lifetime — and I want to pass it on as good as, or better — for the next generation. And I think if you interviewed any farmer at heart, he’ll say the same thing. Our livelihood depends on it.”

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