It’s always something on this land: withering summers, freezing winters, flooding springs, trade wars, and pesticides. One third of our residents live in rural areas and agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of our local economy. Everyone here is connected to the landscape. Our lives and our livelihoods twist like a double helix with the landscape. As the earth trembles and shifts, so do we and so do our farmers.
Currently, our farmers and our land are in a fragile place. In September, bankruptcies for farmers across America rose by 24 percent, due to Trump’s trade policies with China. And while the administration is setting aside aid for farmers affected by the trade war, it does as little good as scrubbing down a pig in a mud pit. The American Farm Bureau Federation reports, 91 percent of farmers and farmworkers have financial issues that affect their mental health, and 87 percent are afraid they’ll lose their farms.
Val Farmer, in his Rural Stress Survival Guide, explains the predicament of farmers this way: “There is not a lot to do but worry. Some eat too much, drink too much. Some gamble. Anything to escape from anxiety. No crops, no harvest. No harvest, no income. Short-term notes come due. Nothing to do but wait and worry. There isn’t time to do something else, anything else to make ends meet. Belts tighten. No camps for kids. No Christmas. No dinners out. Fewer trips to town. The snowball has started and soon the towns and cities will feel the pain too.”
All of this exacts a price. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the suicide rate in rural America is 45 percent higher than in urban areas. Farmers are especially vulnerable to suicide. In 2015, the suicide rate for farmers and ranchers was 32 out of every 100,000 people in 2015.
This week U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley proposed a bill that would seek to help farmers who experience stress. His Seedling Rural Resilience Act builds on the $10 million authorized last year for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, by building a program that offers voluntary stress training for farmers. Grassley has also worked to further telemedicine and drug care pricing, but his plans, while good steps, feel like spitting on a wildfire.
Rural America is being decimated by loss on every level — churches, schools and hospitals. These problems began with the farm crisis in the 1980s and are being compounded by a failing health care system, lagging infrastructure and the trade wars.
Farmers and all Americans don’t need passive programs, we need comprehensive political and societal change that will ensure necessary and lifesaving access to health care for all and an end to tyrannical trade wars that hurt our economy and our farmers.
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Bootstrapping it is an American myth that needs to die. It isolates rural Americans in their loss and pushes a narrative that if something is wrong it’s their fault and not the fault of a system where no one can win. We are all connected, not just to the land but to one another. And addressing this farm crisis means we all need structural and cultural change.
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