Even as the U.S. economy continues to hum along, farmers and ranchers in rural America are facing a different reality.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent Farm Sector Income Forecast, farm profitability for 2018 was down 12 percent from the previous year. Adjusting for inflation, net farm incomes last year were at the third lowest level when looking at the last 20-plus years.
And 2019 is expected to follow a similar downward trajectory. With ongoing trade disputes and stalled government payments combined with increasing inputs, intensive capital risk and rising costs for family living expenses (including the high cost for health care), and it becomes quite obvious that producers are facing some tough times.
Yet, it's rare for a farmer to ask for help. What's worse, agriculture is often an isolating career path, as producers work day-in and day-out alone on their farms. In times of great stress or financial crisis, this isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, despair, depression, anger and hopelessness. Unfortunately, these emotions can lead to the ultimate loss - farmer suicide.
According to Irina Ivanova for CBS News, "The figures for rates of suicide among farmers today are unclear. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a widely cited study, now retracted, pointing to high rates of suicide among agriculture workers.
However, suicide is much more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones, according to other CDC studies. Between 1990 and 2016, suicide increased in almost every state, with the largest increases in western states. The link between farm failures and suicide has been demonstrated outside the U.S., in places like India, where tens of thousands of farmers have died by suicide in recent years."
To address this ongoing issue, in January Avera Health launched a new free and confidential hotline, which is designed to provide support to those in the agricultural industry who may be experiencing stress, depression and crisis.
Dr. Matt Stanley, Avera Behavioral Health Service Line clinical vice president, said in a press release, "They feel like they're responsible to maintain their family, maintain their family farm."
The Farmer's Stress Hotline is available to producers 24 hours each day. Counselors are available to connect with producers in confidential calls. Resources are available to further assist callers in case medication or additional treatment is needed.
"I saw what farmers and ranchers went through in the 80s," said Jim Woster, retired livestock marketer who worked at the Sioux Falls Stockyards for 40-plus years. "It was a tough time for so many, and although things aren't as bad now, we are seeing some of the same emotions build up." Woster works with Avera Health and has been active in promoting the hotline in South Dakota and the surrounding states.
"Sometimes, I don't care who you are, it just becomes more than you can handle," Woster told the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader.
Certainly, farmers need a few critical things to happen in 2019 to feel more secure - a solid farm bill, a positive outcome on trade disputes, limited regulatory barriers, and of course, good weather to grow crops.
However, if the going gets too tough, and you need to talk to someone, the Avera Health Farmer's Stress Hotline is available. Simply call 1-800-691-4336 to connect with a qualified and trained mental health counselor. If you're going through a tough time, please don't suffer alone. If you're struggling and need someone to talk to, don't hesitate to reach out to the counselors on the hotline. Help spread the word by sharing this column on social media.