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opinion

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

Legislation proposed in Congress aids USDA agencies and farmers

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., proposed legislation to Congress last month that is designed to train employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Risk Management Agency in the detection and management of stress and suicidal behavior experienced by farmers and ranchers.

Entitled the Seeding Rural Resilience Act, the legislation basically augments the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network provisions that were approved in the 2018 Farm Bill and which are currently being implemented by the USDA, albeit slower than distressed farmers and their providers of farm crisis services would like.

When implemented, the FRSAN establishes state and local farm crisis hotlines where they don't exist and offers counseling without charge to financially pressured farm people and community education programs to farmers and rural residents. Thus far, four regional FRSAN Centers have been designated that are expected to provide technical assistance and to evaluate state and local programs when they become operational, to train licensed professionals in behavioral healthcare that is occupationally and culturally appropriate for agriculture producers and to conduct research.

The proposed act supplements the FRSAN by promoting services at the FSA and NRCS offices, which farm owners and operators visit, and through newsletters, thereby addressing stigma problems that lead some farmers to avoid seeking help even when needed. Moreover, the local FSA and NRCS staff are familiar with the stresses experienced by farmers, and they already have ongoing professional relationships with agricultural producers.

The proposed legislation is not a complete solution to the behavioral health problems that farm people may face, however, because it directly reaches only the operators of farms and ranches who are required to report their farming plans and other information in order to participate in USDA programs. Farm workers are mostly left out of the proposed campaign of public service announcements and other detection and stress management activities that address the mental health of farmers and ranchers.

This is important because farm workers have a higher rate of suicide than farm owners and operators, according to the National Violent Death Reporting System data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the CDC reported in July 2016 that farmers had the highest rate of suicide among 30 national Standard Occupational Classification groups, the CDC recalled the report about a year later because it didn't adequately define who was a farmer.

A revised CDC report issued in November 2018 indicated that farm workers had the highest rate of suicide of any segment of the agricultural population. Like its predecessor, the revised report was based on 17 states and didn't include such highly agricultural states as California, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Montana.

The CDC is gradually filling in the missing state suicide reports. Most experts agree that when the data are complete for all states and combined with other studies, the suicide rate of the overall agricultural population will likely be about 45% higher than the general population of the U.S.

Many experts also observe that when the USDA definition of all persons engaged in agriculture (i.e., farmers, ranchers, fishers, lumber harvesters, migrant laborers and other agricultural workers) are included, the agricultural population will have the highest — or one of the highest — rates of suicide. Workers in the construction trades and extractive mining will likely also be at or near the top of the list of occupations in their rates of suicide.

There are concerns about how the Risk Management Agency of the USDA, created in 1996, will carry out the aims of the proposed act. The purpose of the RMA is to serve agricultural producers through market-based risk management programs and information that improve the economic stability of agricultural producers.

The agency helps set crop insurance premium rates, trains agricultural risk management specialists and offers grants to organizations that supplement its aims. Historically, a high percentage of grant awards have gone to other affiliates of the USDA, such as Extension programs, which usually address the issues faced by agricultural workers only peripherally.

Few Extension staff are adequately trained, experienced and licensed in a behavioral health profession to provide counseling services to farmers and rural residents, but such clinical expertise is crucial. Knowledge of behavioral health issues and treatment regimens specific to the agricultural population should be areas of expertise, such as exposures to agricultural pesticides and depression.

Refinements of the proposed legislation are needed. The USDA should recommend that the FRSAN program coordinate with behavioral healthcare organizations and training institutions to require Extension specialists and trainers to obtain advanced degrees in agricultural behavioral health professions in order to assist distressed agricultural producers and their families and to train ancillary professionals such as lenders, agronomists, veterinarians, emergency responders and others who interact regularly with agricultural producers. They must know how to manage crises and to teach all farmers behavioral healthcare management.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann, visit: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.