Originally published September 14, 2018, in the Calgary Herald.
A storm rolls in during harvest time in southern Alberta on Sept. 11, 2018
It’s a bleak harvest season on Sean Stanford’s farm south of Lethbridge, where just three inches of rain has fallen since the first of May.
Like many farmers in southern Alberta, the 34-year-old Stanford had high hopes for his crop at the start of the year. But by mid-June the rains had stopped coming and his spring wheat, canola, flax and yellow peas baked in the dried-out fields. Now, it’s time to get the crop off, but Stanford already knows there will be no great payoff once it’s in the bin.
“The yields are not looking good,” said Stanford. “Basically we’ve just seen a whole year’s worth of work erode away because of something we can’t control.”
The near round-the-clock workload combined with the prospect of negative returns can make harvest a challenging time for any farmer. But for Stanford, who was diagnosed with anxiety almost two years ago, the mental health risks are real. When the negative feelings start to take hold, he makes a conscious choice to get off the combine and seek human contact.
“Taking breaks — something as simple as taking a grain sample to town and talking to the people at the grain elevator — can be enough to reset my mind and take me out of the monotony of combining a horrible crop,” he said. “And I make sure that I make phone calls throughout the day and talk to different people. It’s a distraction from what’s going on.”
Stanford is an outlier among his peers, in that he has chosen to be open about his struggles with mental health. A University of Guelph study in 2016 found farmers are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to mental health, reporting higher levels of stress, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout than the general population. The same study found 40 per cent of agricultural producers would feel uneasy getting professional help due to the stigma that exists around the issue.
“I was afraid to talk about it, when I first got my diagnosis, but as time went on I started to realize, ‘hey, I’m not alone,’ ” said Stanford, who tried three different medications before finding one that helped to control his symptoms, which he describes as a physical feeling, like “having a heart attack or a stroke or an aneurysm.”
“Farmers are supposed to be strong, independent, salt of the earth people who don’t need help from anybody,” he said, adding he has also found seeing a therapist helpful. “But the more I started to talk about it, the better I felt about it and the easier it was to start healing.”
The stresses ‘are huge, and so variable’
There are not a lot of statistics available about the mental well-being of farmers. A widely-cited study from the U.S. Centre for Disease Control reported the “farming, forestry and fishing” industry had the highest rate of suicide of any occupation, but that study has recently been withdrawn due to errors in the data. In Canada, suicides aren’t tracked by occupation.
However, Andria Jones-Bitton, the University of Guelph professor behind the 2016 survey that polled more than 1,100 Canadian farmers nationwide, said the results of her work point to a definite problem. According to the survey, 45 per cent of Canadian farmers polled had high stress, another 58 per cent were classified with varying levels of anxiety, and 35 per cent experienced depression. An additional 38 per cent had high levels of “emotional exhaustion.”
Jones-Bitton said there are a number of mental health risk factors associated with agriculture. Farmers work long hours, often in isolation. They are under significant financial pressure, often required to take on millions of dollars’ worth of debt just to purchase the land and equipment required to operate. And in most cases, a farmer’s place of business is also his or her home, meaning there is no easy way to separate from the workload.
Sean Stanford says he needs distractions to take his mind off “the monotony of combining a horrible crop.”
In addition, farmers are constantly vulnerable to unusual events and circumstances that can impact their bottom line — from weather and natural disasters to international trade disputes.
Some producers in the University of Guelph survey even reported increased stress due to the heightened public scrutiny around agricultural practices. Anti-meat and anti-GMO consumers often attack mainstream agricultural practices on social media, leading some farmers to feel their industry and way of life is under attack, Jones-Bitton said.
“If you look at some of the stresses that farmers face, they’re just huge, and so variable,” Jones-Bitton said. “So many of the stresses they’re experiencing in their jobs are outside of their control, and that leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness — which increases their risk for negative mental health outcomes.”
‘Us Cowboys, We Like to Think We’re Pretty Tough’
Brad Osadzcuk knows only too well how a farmer can be knocked off his feet by an unexpected event.
In 2016, Osadzcuk’s ranch near Jenner, Alta., was “ground zero” for a bovine tuberculosis scare, after a case of the disease was found in a cow traced back to his herd. The resulting months-long investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency saw more than 50 ranches in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan placed under quarantine. As a precaution to keep the disease from spreading, nearly 12,000 animals were ordered destroyed — including Osadzcuk’s entire herd.
“That TB thing was just a nightmare. It was by far the worst thing I’ve been through in my life, emotionally,” Osadzcuk said. “I was relying on sleeping pills. I wasn’t sleeping and I knew I had to get sleep, so I doped myself up.”
Osadzcuk said because the TB episode affected his entire community, he tried at the time to keep a brave face for his friends and neighbours. He acknowledges part of the reason for that may have been the ingrained culture of farming, where stoicism is valued and where producers have traditionally kept their problems to themselves.
“Especially us cowboys, we like to think we’re pretty tough,” he said. “My dad’s generation, you didn’t show weakness. It would literally eat you up inside, and then one day you’d find out you had a neighbour who shot himself or hung himself, and nobody even knew there’d been a problem.”
Producers affected by the bovine TB outbreak of 2016 ultimately received $39 million in government compensation payouts, but Osadzcuk said he knows of at least one producer in the Jenner area who had to check himself into the hospital for stress-related health complications during the height of the crisis.
“You think you’re going broke, you’re stressed and depressed. You literally think you’re going to lose your livelihood,” he said. “It was an awful time.”
A storm clears during harvest in southern Alberta. | Photo: LEAH HENNEL/POSTMEDIA
‘The stress level is quite high’; 2018 drought takes toll on crops, cattle
The mental health risks to farmers are amplified in a year like this one, where producers across the Prairies are dealing with the aftermath of prolonged hot and dry conditions. According to a federal government assessment, as of the end of August, large portions of southern Alberta are now considered to be in “severe drought” (defined as abnormally dry conditions occurring on average every 10 to 20 years) while a small area south and west of Medicine Hat is categorized as in “extreme drought” (occurring once every 20 to 25 years).
The Alberta government estimates that across the province, crop yields are six per cent below the five-year average, but 27 per cent below average in the hard-hit southern region. While some regions received rain and even snow this week, moisture during the height of harvest is a hindrance, not a help.
The poor weather conditions have meant financial stress and mental worry not just for grain, cereal and oilseed farmers, but for cattle producers as well. According to the Alberta government’s Aug. 28 crop report, 36 per cent of the province’s pasture land is rated in “poor” condition and in some regions that figure climbs to nearly 60 per cent. Cattle are getting thin and producers whose grazing land has dried up are struggling to source feed from elsewhere.
In some areas, according to Alberta Beef Producers chair Charlie Christie, the price of hay has nearly doubled from a year earlier. Many ranchers are being forced to make tough decisions — including selling off cows to feedlots prematurely because they know they won’t be able to feed them over the winter months.
“In the areas that are hurt the most, the stress level is quite high … Some guys are liquidating 20, 30 per cent of their herd,” Christie said.
At a recent Alberta Beef Producers board meeting, members discussed the toll that a drought like this can take on ranchers’ well-being. While — in general — agricultural producers are becoming more open about talking about mental health, Christie said his organization is well aware that some ranchers may be suffering in silence right now.
“Depending on what kind of genetics you’re using, it can take 10 to 20 years to build a cow herd and feel really comfortable and good about it,” Christie said. “If you have to liquidate it, it’s part of your life … so we’re definitely looking at that (the mental health aspect) and moving forward to see what more we can do there.”
New foundation offers mental health training
For farmers experiencing any form of mental distress, there are a number of factors standing in the way of getting help. Even those who are able to get past the stiff upper lip mentality that is prevalent in the industry may have difficulty finding counsellors or therapists in rural areas. And the demands of harvest or caring for livestock may make it impossible to take time off to travel into the city for appointments.
That’s part of the reason behind the 2017 launch of Do More Agriculture, a not-for-profit foundation that aims to create awareness about mental health on the farm and build a community of support and resources for those affected.
Co-founder Lesley Kelly, who lives and farms with her family east of Saskatoon, said the foundation has launched a pilot project that will provide 10 to 12 rural Canadian communities with mental health first aid training at no cost. Similar to traditional first aid in that it is meant to be used in emergencies until appropriate support is found, mental health first aid refers to in-the-moment help for individuals dealing with an urgent mental health problem or crisis.
“I like to explain it as, if I were to sprain my ankle, most people would know in that instant what to do,” Kelly said. “But if I were to have a panic attack, chances are people would not know what to do.”
Last July, Kelly and her husband, Mathieu, did an internet live-stream sharing their own mental health struggles — hers with the “baby blues” following the birth of the couple’s second child, and his with anxiety related to farm and financial stress. She said the response to that video showed her just how hungry the agriculture community is to have a real conversation about mental health.
“Our phones just lit up with people saying, ‘This is me. This is what I’ve been going through,’ ” she said. “It was a huge eye-opener to me.”
Do More Agriculture is also trying to keep the conversation going on social media, since many farmers work in isolation day-to-day but are able to connect with peers on Twitter.
“You really do think you’re alone, that everyone else is perfect and lives normal lives, and that’s totally not the case,” Kelly said.
Back on his Lethbridge-area farm, Sean Stanford knows he will need to keep an eye on his own mental health not just for this harvest season, but likely for the rest of his life.
Sean Stanford poses for a photo on his farm near Magrath.
However, Stanford said he has drawn strength from sharing his story, and the hope that other farmers will see his happy-go-lucky exterior doesn’t always reflect what is going on inside.
“Maybe other people can look at me and say, ‘hey, he looked like he had his sh*t together, but he actually doesn’t,’ ” Stanford said. “And maybe that’s ok.”