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Why My Fellow Farmers Are Killing Themselves

There’s no way to make a living growing food in America, and the poverty and shame are driving some to suicide

Last week, The Guardian published a powerful feature about how farmers and ag workers are killing themselves at a rate five times that of the general population.

As a farmer, none of this came as news to me.

Not in the least.

About a dozen years ago, when the population decline of my small farming community of Lane County, Kansas, was gaining momentum — we’re down to about 1,000 people now — my neighbors a few miles away were living through a particularly hard time. Like my family, they were farmers. But their farm pattern was more of a boom-and-bust cycle compared to the others in our area. This financial strife had started to bleed into their marriage, and stability had become out of reach.

She shot him first. Then herself. Fortunately, she let their three kids live. They were around my age at the time, which today would put them in their mid-30s and a little younger. The husband’s elderly father and an uncle still work the land they farmed, though someone else lives in the house on the hill overlooking it.

I was in the fifth grade when they built that house. Their son, who was in my class, would come to school with daily updates about the construction and shake with excitement as he detailed the progress. They’d previously lived in a trailer at the bottom of the hill, but they were convinced richer days were ahead. They invested heavily in their farming operation and put up a new shed and workshop alongside the older infrastructure on the property.

I passed their house along the two-lane highway that connected our farms everyday on my way to school, and it looked to me like they were doing everything right. In fact, I thought they had much more momentum going for them than my family. They had better cars and bigger trucks than other farmers and a big Harley-Davidson Softail Classic painted the colors of Kansas State University to ride on the weekends. I was envious.

This was a family on the rise.

The local story varies in detail, but generally, it goes like this: The couple’s relationship was falling apart, the whole thing complicated by not-so profitable farming years. Leading up to their deaths, he delivered to her a divorce settlement package of some kind, which she couldn’t accept. Then, not long after the 2004 wheat harvest, she loaded the magazine of her 9mm pistol and drove 20 miles to where he was looking at a new investment (turning an old veterinary clinic into a hotel, where he’d also set up a residence). She stood over him and pulled the trigger before turning the gun on herself. They were both 46. Their foreclosure sale on the farm land was judged at $1.47 million, according to the newspaper at the time.

In the years before they died, they’d come to town in the height of summer to watch the parade during the county fair, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else who called Lane County home. They were as much a part of the social fabric as they could’ve been.

Farmers’ dependence on the powers of nature is overwhelming. The joke in the Lutheran church where I grew up was about how farmers only pray when they’re in desperate need of rain — essentially only turning to God when there’s no one else to help them save their crop. And so, on Sundays during dry spells, our pastor would lead us in praying to God to let it rain on us, and we would nod and repeat, “Amen.”

Every farmer knows that one bad crop isn’t going to sink them. But two or three in a row, coupled with the high debt it takes to keep a farm going, and you’re done. That means you’ve failed not only yourself, but your parents and their parents, and any other generation who ever dropped sweat and blood on your land. It’s a wicked sort of self-imposed shame.

It’s only supposed to get worse, too. Ag economists say we’re pounding on the door of another downward spiral, especially true if NAFTA is swept aside and we’re left with dwindled markets on which to sell the food we grow. The result will be that farmers — at least where I’m from in the bread basket — will be living next to even more literal mountains of wheat, corn and sorghum (small grains) with nobody to buy them. (Our chief customer, Mexico, has been turning elsewhere for grain anyway since its relationship with our country soured with the election of our current president.)

The failures will be high — as bad as they were in the 1980s, some fear. I was young in the 1980s, and remember that times were lean — but I was a kid. I didn’t know that it was a living hell for farmers, and that pretty much all of our neighbors were sweating bullets. Somehow, my parents kept our farm going — making incremental investments and spending the bare minimum. But that wasn’t the case for thousands — the loss of farms and farmers to suicide was enormous.

As it did for my neighbors, the despair farmers feel has everything to do with money. Farmers think constantly about the costs they incur to produce commodity. That means, mostly: land investment, high-cost equipment, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, labor, and obviously, seed. Most of those input costs are constantly on the rise. Meanwhile, the price they get for their commodity stays the same. They get pinched, and unless they do some creative entrepreneurship (or some other job on the side), they feel that pinch as more of a vise-like squeeze. It’s the constant worry they won’t be able to make it work, living from crop to crop, herd to herd, birth to slaughter, minute to minute.

For as much as they think about making it work, they think about how their whole farm could fail. Every decision they make could be their last in the business.

That’s why I’ve often wondered why farmers (whose suicides correlate directly with economic trends) don’t ask for help. Stubbornness, machoness and a fear of appearing weak certainly have something to do with it, as does a quiet, stoic pride. But Iowa farmer and psychologist Mike Rosmann has a better idea, and developed something he calls “The Agrarian Imperative Theory.” As he told The Guardian:

“People engaged in farming,’ [Rosmann] explains, “have a strong urge to supply essentials for human life, such as food and materials for clothing, shelter and fuel, and to hang on to their land and other resources needed to produce these goods at all costs.”

When farmers can’t fulfill this instinctual purpose, they feel despair. Thus, within the theory lies an important paradox: The drive that makes a farmer successful is the same that exacerbates failure, sometimes to the point of suicide. In an article, Rosmann wrote that the agrarian imperative theory “is a plausible explanation of the motivations of farmers to be agricultural producers and to sometimes end their lives.

Rosmann says there’s hope in therapy for farmers — with the caveats that farmers need therapists who know the language of agriculture, and that it’s possibly funded via a future farm bill. The reasons are obvious — the cost of treatment pales in comparison to the loss of life and economic input from farmers who have killed themselves. Unfortunately, such efforts have failed in the past. Particularly an organization called Sowing Seeds of Hope, which connected uninsured and underinsured farmers from seven states in the Midwest with affordable behavioral health services. Again, per The Guardian:

For 14 years, the organization fielded approximately a half-million telephone calls from farmers, trained over 10,000 rural behavioral health professionals and provided subsidized behavioral health resources to over 100,000 farm families.

The program, which would have created regional and national helplines and provided counseling for farmers, was estimated to cost the government $18 million annually. Rosmann argues that U.S. farmers lost by suicide totals much more than this — in dollars, farmland, national security in the form of food and the emotional and financial toll on families and entire communities. In 2014, however, the federal funding that supported Rosmann’s Sowing Seeds of Hope came to an end, and the program was shuttered.

This, too, reminds me of my neighbors. One of the following summers after his parents were buried side-by-side in the Dighton Cemetery, I saw their son at a house party after the county fair. We stood in the yard across the street from our old high school. He told me he was struggling to figure out what to do with the farm. We were in our early 20s, and he was asking me what kinds of support there were for young farmers and wondering if he should even pursue his father’s work or if he should walk away.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

His interests were more in cooking, and he eventually worked in restaurants, including at least one of the two local bars (both of which served food, both of which have gone out of business within the last 18 months). The last time I saw him was two summers ago at an estate auction close to where we grew up. I was buying a ladder, and he was running the concession stand selling hot dogs, bratwursts, candy and pop by the auctioneer’s camper. I bought a brat, and he introduced his young son, who handed me the napkins.

I haven’t seen him since, probably because the chances of running into him are slim. These days, I primarily stay on the family farm — slowly finishing the interior of my house and publishing a monthly newsletter for farmers and an annual wheat varieties guide (as well as farming the family land — land that we’ve had for generations). It’s a good life, but not without its heartache. Ask anyone who works in a family business where the stakes are high and the fear of failing higher and they’ll tell you life is rarely sunny — or at least consistently sunny.

I just hope that I’ll be smart enough to ask for help when the darkness gets too great.