“It’s hard to part with the farm”

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Stress and burnout higher among farmers than general population, survey finds

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COVID-19 and rising business costs have brought anxiety and depression to Ontario farms.

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Researchers from the University of Guelph surveyed 1,200 farmers in early 2021 and found higher rates of stress, emotional exhaustion and burnout than in the general population.

Farmers were twice as likely to have considered suicide, with one in four respondents saying that “their life was not worth living, (they) wished they were dead or had thought about killing themselves in the past 12 month”.

“It’s a troubling situation,” said Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, who led the research.

“Farmers have long faced work stressors from weather, workload and finances,” Jones-Bitton said.

“The pandemic, however, has added new stresses, such as rising costs, reduced seasonal agricultural workers due to 2020 travel bans, and agricultural treatment backlogs due to sick workers and truck drivers from the COVID-19.”

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The results came as no surprise to Burford farmer Larry Davis, who said farming is stressful at the best of times. A bad harvest can scuttle a year’s work, and as fuel, fertilizer and other inputs become more expensive, farmers feel the effects.

“A lot of times it wakes me up at three in the morning and you can’t go back to sleep because your mind keeps thinking ‘how am I going to make money from this?'” said Federation manager Davis. of Ontario Agriculture representing Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk counties.

“You have all this money tied up and you are dependent on the weather, you are dependent on the whim of the consumer,” he said. “There’s a lot of stress there.”

COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges.

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“Farmers get COVID or get sick like everyone else, but there’s no one to replace them,” Davis said.

“They have to make sure the cattle are fed. If they have crops to sow or harvest, it can’t wait a week or two for someone to come back from an illness. It’s a lot of pressure.

A similar survey in 2016 also found that farmers were more stressed than most Canadians, and the gap widened further during the pandemic, when high levels of anxiety and cynicism about the future led many farmers to withdraw from their usual social circles and turn to alcohol to cope. .

Women in agriculture have reported poorer mental health than men, Jones-Bitton said, citing a “role conflict” that sees women shouldering the bulk of parenting and household responsibilities while working on the farm – and sometimes outdoors.

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“It puts a heavy burden on women farmers,” Jones-Britton said.

“We encourage men in agriculture to ask each other and discuss among themselves what they can do to better support and promote women in agriculture,” added Briana Hagen, postdoctoral fellow, who participated in the research.

Farming stressors can drive farmers out of the industry, especially if they don’t have family members interested in continuing their work.

“If there’s no one to take it over, you’re like, ‘What’s going to happen to this farm? Will it just end up being a development or a gravel pit? said Davis, who spoke proudly of how he’s made his soil healthier and more productive over the decades.

“I’m emotionally connected to this farm,” he said. “You get to where you’re part of this ecosystem that you’re trying to make a living from, and it’s hard to separate yourself from the farm and relax.”

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Despite efforts to reduce the stigma around mental health, Davis said farmers are still hesitant to admit they need help.

“Farmers are very independent and they say to themselves, ‘I can handle this stress and everything will be fine,'” he said.

“And when things don’t go the way the farmer thinks they should, the suicide rate goes up.”

Davis encouraged farmers and their family members to call a free advice line offered through the Farmer Wellness Initiative, a joint project of the OFA and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Help is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-267-6255. Callers will be connected to mental health professionals who have been trained in the unique challenges facing farmers.

“If you’re having trouble, ask for help,” Davis said.

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ACSM also offers a program called In the Know that teaches farmers and others related to agriculture — like veterinarians and seed sellers — how to spot signs of stress and approach the topic in a positive way.

“We want them to be able to recognize that a farmer is in trouble and be willing to open up the conversation,” Davis said.

Where to get help

If you are having suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, help is there. In an emergency, call 911 for assistance. Resources are available online at www.crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-833-456-4566, or Kids Help Phone at 1-800- 668-6868.

Distress and Crisis Ontario: dcontario.org

ConnexOntario: 1-866-531-2600

JP Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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