Overcoming the stigma

  • Adam Martin of Martin’s Farm in Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Adam Martin of Martin’s Farm in Greenfield feeds his growing herd of black Angus cows.

  • Adam Martin of Martin's Farm in Greenfield works on a hay rake with a broken wheel. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Adam Martin of Martin’s Farm in Greenfield bolts a wheel back on one of his trucks. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 9/20/2019 10:02:54 PM
Modified: 9/20/2019 10:02:40 PM

Last year, Troy Asher of Atlas Farm in Deerfield watched his crops drown in an unseasonably wet summer — more than 62 inches of rain fell on Greenfield compared to the historical average of around 50 inches of rainfall, according to the National Weather Service. He couldn’t do anything about it.

“There are many things you can do to address and deal with stress when you have some sort of control over a situation, but when you are growing crops in an unpredictable environment, it’s tough to not feel stressed out over the lack of control,” Asher said. “Farmers are entirely at the whims of mother nature. One 10-minute storm can destroy all of your hard work.”

On the one hand, Asher says that farming is a rewarding industry that requires a high level of quick thinking and a lot of persistence. On the other, it can be risky and demanding. Farmers work long days in the fields and face challenges beyond their control including weather, animal disease, pests, increasing prices and rising interest rates.

The job takes a toll, and often, Asher says farmers neglect their own mental health and well-being in order to get the job done.

“As it gets tougher to farm in this country, whether it’s climate change or competition from the global market and large age corporations more farmers are falling prey to anxiety, depression and even suicide,” Asher said.

For farmer and owner Adam Martin of Martin’s Farm Compost and Mulch in Greenfield, these stressors are an everyday reality. Currently, Martin says his business is more than $1.5 million in debt, a result of last year’s extreme rainfall. Because of that abundance of rain, Martin says couldn’t use his equipment or generate revenue.

Martin attributes his faith for helping him navigate the darkest of times.

“Farming is high stress physically and emotionally. It’s all day, all hours of the night and all year long. It doesn’t stop,” Martin said. “I always have to keep myself in check to make sure that this place doesn’t rule my life. I want to be a good husband and father.”

In a recent national survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation, four out of five non-farmers polled said they would feel comfortable talking to a family member or friend about a mental health condition. Comparatively, only one in three farmers or farm workers said the same. Further, farmers and farmworkers reported their leading barrier to seeking mental health assistance was the cost of help or treatment (87 percent), followed by embarrassment (70 percent) and a lack of awareness of mental health (65 percent).

Within Massachusetts, the agricultural industry is large. According to the state’s Department of Agriculture Resources, Massachusetts has 7,241 farms covering 491,653 acres. The industry directly provides employment to 22,828 farm employees and produces an annual market value of over $475 million in agricultural goods. The average farm produces $65,624 worth of agricultural products on 68 acres. Small farms account for 94.2 percent of farms in Massachusetts while family or individually owned farms account for 79.7 percent of Massachusetts farms.

Isolation is another factor, according to Karin Jeffers, a mental health counselor and the chief executive officer of Clinical and Support Options, a social services organization that has offices throughout the region including in Greenfield.

“The rural nature of where farms are located could lead to more isolation which we know is a key factor in depression and suicide,” Karin said. “One thing we do notice in Western Mass. is a high number of farmworkers who are migrants and who sometimes have language barriers. Not only they are isolated from their home country, but they are also isolated from people who can speak their language. It can be particularly difficult to reach out and get support.”

Long hours are yet another stressor. Angie Facey, vice president and general manager of Our Family Farms of Massachusetts in Greenfield, says she typically works 12-hour days and wears many different hats, simultaneously balancing being a mother of three young children and a dairy farmer. Facey’s husband manages the farm and takes care of the crops.

“I’m stressed out most days. It’s hard to pay your bills selling milk because when milk prices are set by the federal government along with other factors, it doesn’t take in consideration how much it cost me to produce the milk,” Facey said.

On most days, Facey says she starts working around 6 a.m. feeding cattle. After, she takes her children to school and daycare before working at the farm’s office into the afternoon. Later, she checks in on and feeds the cows a second time. Once chores are done, she makes sure the house is in order before getting her children ready for the next day.

“It’s a never-ending job. You have to work seven days a week. Even on the weekends and holidays, milking those cows, feeding them and cleaning them out twice a day,” Facey said. “People say to me, ‘you need to take a few minutes for yourself,’ but how do you do that when they aren’t a few minutes?”

One of the things that Facey says would help to alleviate her stress is to be paid a fair price for her milk.

“I love cows and it’s in my blood,” Facey said. “That’s relaxing to me is working with cows. I know we’re producing an amazing product that’s nutritious and healthy that makes me very proud.”

While there are programs and organizations out there to help farmers manage their stress and mental health, Courtney Breese, a program manager with the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says many farmers are not aware of them.

“In my experience, farmers are very private people. I can’t speak to why that is, but it seems that a good number are. When you keep things to yourself, especially challenges and bad news, it’s hard to open up,” Breese said.

In her experience, Breese said farming and depression is a subject that’s rarely talked about. And although the organizations that support farmers are aware of the link, Breese said it’s difficult to address it and create a meaningful discussion around it.

“Farming itself is unique. Farmers cannot be advised to take a vacation or search for a less stressful job. Their role as a farmer is at the root of their identity. It’s their culture, not just a job,” Facey said.

At the end of the day, Conway said farmers themselves must break the stigma.

“Farming is a very close-knit community,” Conway said. “There is always help for farmers who are struggling, whether it be friends, family (members) or rural support services. But only if the farmer asks for it. The farmer has to take it upon himself/herself to talk to someone and get the help that they need.”

For information on the state’s agricultural mediation programs, which Conway says are a good resource that farmers should be aware of, visit agriculturemediation.org. If you’re a farmer who needs to talk to someone directly or someone who is worried about a farmer, call the Farm Aid hotline at 800-327- 6243. Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., eastern standard time.

Miasha Lee is a resident of Hatfield. She loves writing about music, health, culture and everyday people in the community. Contact her at miashalee2@gmail.com.




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