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Farm Town Strong effort involves reducing stigma, increasing help for opiate addiction

NASHVILLE — If a rancher gets plowed over by a cow and ends up in the hospital, people come to help fix fence. If a farmer learns he has cancer, a neighbor will come combine his grain.

But when someone in a rural area is struggling with addiction, that response may not come. And that’s something National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson and American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall would like to see change, particularly in the case of opioid addiction.

“If someone is hurt, the whole community turns out to help them,” Johnson said. “This issue needs to be viewed as ‘someone is hurt,’ not something folks need to be ashamed of.”

Johnson and Duvall, along with Anne Hazlett, assistant to the secretary for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke on a panel entitled Overcoming the Opioid Crisis Through Unity on Jan. 8 at the AFBF convention in Nashville.

Though Farm Bureau and Farmers Union often are viewed as rivals — the country’s two largest farm groups find themselves on opposite sides of many issues — the two have plenty of common ground, Duvall said. He explained that he and Johnson have become friends and have talked about ways their organizations could team up for the good of agriculture.

The idea to work together to confront the opioid epidemic came from Johnson, Duvall said.

“It was his idea. His organization brought it,” Duvall said.

The two groups commissioned a survey to learn about the impacts of opioid addiction on agriculture and rural communities. The survey showed that impacts are widespread, including 75 percent of farmers and farm workers surveyed who say they have been personally impacted, and awareness that opioid addiction hits rural areas harder than urban ones remains low.

“I spent most of my life on the farm. I kind of understand how this impression is created,” Johnson said. “This impression that somehow it’s the cities that are worse off, that it’s an urban problem.”

Hazlett discussed some of the reasons opioid addiction is hitting rural areas particularly hard: Manual labor increases the risk of injuries that lead to opiate prescriptions; living in rural areas tends to lead to geographic isolation; limited law enforcement resources can allow the problem to fester; and a lack of behavioral and mental health resources means few people have help close at hand when they have a problem.

Duvall said one of the challenges is changing the mindset of many to acknowledge that addiction is a sickness, not a weakness or character defect.

“Any one of us, under the right conditions, could fall victim to this,” Duvall said.

The panel spoke of people they knew, or knew of, who had been affected by opioid addiction. Moderator Sherry Saylor, chair of the AFB Women’s Leadership Committee, called the matter a “sobering and serious epidemic” as she recounted that she lost a “dear friend” to addiction. The man, a farmer, had suffered a back injury, and his addiction began with prescription medication. He died by suicide after struggling with his addiction, Saylor said. Two other young brothers in her town also died in connection with addiction.

“This is a very personal, personal topic,” she said.

Hazlett said the programs of USDA Rural Development are closely aligned with the effort Farm Bureau and Farmers Union have begun in fighting opioid addiction, including support for things like telemedicine.

“This is a health issue,” she said. “But it’s also one of rural prosperity.”

Johnson and Duvall indicated their groups will continue their joint effort, called Farm Town Strong, which strives to find solutions to the problem and support for those in rural areas dealing with it. More information is available at https://farmtownstrong.org.

They talked about the need to reduce stigma and to latch onto solutions that are working. Leveraging the social supports and local knowledge of their respective organizations seems likely to be part of the game plan.

“What if each one of those (county) boards empowered themselves to be the loving neighbors they would be if someone got hurt by a cow?” Duvall pondered.

“It likely started with that cow, Zippy,” Johnson said. “So let’s treat it the same way.”

The two leaders also indicated the opioid addiction may only be the beginning of further partnership in the future for their groups.

“I’m sure this is just one of many areas we can work together to make something very positive happen in our farmland,” Duvall said.

Agweek is interested in telling the stories of those in rural areas affected by addictions to opioids and other substances. If you are willing to talk about your experiences, please contact Jenny Schlecht at 701-595-0425 or jschlecht@agweek.com.

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