WILLIAMS LAKE – Growing crops and raising livestock are not only physically demanding, the seemingly endless uncertainties that go along with the work can take a toll on mental health. Between wildfires, drought (or floods), extreme heat, crop and livestock losses, financial concerns, changing regulations, COVID-19 and family expectations, there’s a lot that could keep you awake at night.
“There’s a tremendous amount of stress right now,” says AgSafe superintendent of field operations and ranching safety consultant Reg Steward. “A lot of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, frustration and anger.”
Where do you turn if you reach the tipping point in your ability to cope? Google lists page after page of links to programs, resources and studies offered by a wide variety of organizations. On the plus side, it shows that mental health is finally something people are talking about. On the downside, few of those links provide access to immediate help.
Farm Management Canada (FMC) executive director Heather Watson says farmers are more likely to participate in mental health support programs offered by providers familiar with agriculture and the unique needs of farmers.
“Lack of access to mental health support in rural Canada remains a critical gap in supporting public health,” says Watson.
Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms, a 2020 study by FMC, indicated that 76% of Canadian farmers reported mid to high stress levels. The leading causes were unpredictability, workload pressures and finances.
AgSafe has just wrapped up its own evaluation of the situation in BC as part of the first phase of a project to study available programs and support for farmer mental health and welfare. This included a review and comparison of existing programs and interviews with industry to identify which models would work best for primary producers in BC. In-person events and digital resources scored highly.
The second phase of the project is now underway and will establish a mental health strategy for BC farmers. AgSafe also piloted a series of half-day mental health workshops in May and June called In the Know, developed by the University of Guelph. These workshops will likely be offered again in the future, but AgSafe is considering a different format to better fit producers’ schedules.
Steward says the project is built around four pillars: creating awareness of the situation, reducing the stigma, providing self-help tools and providing access to available resources.
While industry associations are much more aware of the urgency of the situation than they used to be, the stigma issue still remains.
“There’s a lot of reluctance to identify that I am struggling with this, or I am stressed, or I am frustrated, or I am angry,” says Steward, who admits that he’s also fallen into the “Suck it up, buttercup” mentality. “We tend to, in industry as a whole, see these things manifest themselves but not be articulated. If I had a damaged body part, I wouldn’t hesitate to find a person to help me deal with that, and we need to reduce the stigma so that we have that same comfort level that says it’s okay to have that conversation [about our mental health].”
Stigma is a topic that BC Grain Producers Association vice-president Jennifer Critcher echoes.
“There’s been this stigma that you just deal with it, you don’t talk about it,” says Critcher, who was part of the first phase of the AgSafe project. “I’m glad there’s more discussion about it for sure now, going forward. But when there’s so many things out of your control and you’re working so hard every day, it makes it really disheartening.”
Bulkley Valley Dairy Association president Lindsay Heer, also a director of the BC Dairy Association, says summer is always challenging for dairy farmers. They’re spending long hours in the field while trying to balance business and family demands.
“Burnout isn’t spoken widely about, but it’s present in the farming community, especially during this season,” says Heer. “On top of all that, recent weather has added a layer of uncertainty. Extreme heat, drought and wildfires are contributing an extra layer of stress.”
Livestock producers are especially susceptible to burnout because there is no downtime. Even when dairy farmers have bad days, they still have to get up to tend to their animals.
The dairy and grain associations have both offered mental health workshops for their members, and the Bulkley Valley Dairy Association had a mental health speaker at its annual general meeting last year. Canadian Cattlemen’s Association scheduled a virtual mental wellness event for its members in late August.
“We need to meet farmers where they are,” says Heer. “Some are comfortable attending a seminar with their peers, and others prefer to take in a webinar on their own time.”
At the weekly Talk it Out sessions put on by Saskatchewan’s Do More Foundation, common concerns are drought, weather, supporting someone struggling and stigma. These sessions, offered on Zoom, Instagram Live and Twitter, are open to any farmer across the country.
For Critcher, financial stress is the elephant in the room.
“Financial stress is the No. 1 stressor because it’s something that can basically crush you,” says Critcher. “Farmers don’t shy away from a heavy physical workload; it’s the financial stresses that seem to be the most burdening on their mental health because it’s something that weighs on them a lot.”
FMC recommends developing a farm business plan as a means to create some peace of mind. It’s not about predicting the future; it’s about planning for it. The BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries points to the suite of business risk management programs under the Canadian Agriculture Partnership that farmers and ranchers can access. These include AgriStability, AgriInvest and AgriInsurance.
In the growing field of mental health, you can expect to see new tools cropping up for BC farmers from time to time. There are a couple already in the works.
The Do More Foundation is currently fundraising to launch a national 24/7 agriculture-specific support line. Its community fund will accept applications beginning in September to bring its half-day mental health workshop, Talk Ask Listen, to rural communities across Canada for free.
AgSafe is set to launch a mobile app this fall called Avail that is a social media-style platform that will include mental health checks, links to resources and networking.
“It’s not like building a safe work practice for a round baler, where pretty much once that’s dialed in it doesn’t change very much,” says Steward. “This is an ever changing field. There are improvements and new resources all the time.”
Steward says the agriculture industry is a family that wants everybody to succeed.
“We are in this together,” he says. “There are producers facing the same kinds of challenges and dilemmas. You never have to walk alone.”