New US Tragedy: Farmer Suicides

Turbulence in US agriculture, the world’s leading exporter, leaves a mark on its economy and social structure. One cannot help but wonder about the broader public’s near indifference to such a decades-long crisis. Economic hardship compounded with farming-associated risks are among the main causes leading farmers to an ultimate act – taking their own lives. Looking at the US today, fields in Iowa and Nebraska are left unplanted. The Missouri River, through its broken levees, has repeatedly submerged its surrounding communities since March. Last year’s loans are left unpaid as those waiting for federal disaster relief or crop insurance witness a spoiled season. Parallel, dairy farms in New York are selling off their cows. Milk prices have been so low for so long that farmers cannot hold on. As farms foreclose, milk production swells with consolidation. Industrial holdings benefit year after year, ripping out small farmer’s economic and social fabric.

Wider public interest in US farmer suicide sparked following a 2017 Guardian article shedding light on the fact that farmers are killing themselves at severe rates. Suicides among Farmers, Ranchers, and Managers in a 17-state survey ranked more than three times as high as the national average in 2012, and almost twice as high as the national average in 2015. Awareness eventually supported existing grassroots efforts to provide behavioral health services for agricultural populations and their rural communities. Last year, bipartisan Congressional interest led to passing the Facilitating Accessible Resources for Mental Health and Encouraging Rural Solutions For Immediate Response to Stressful Times (FARMERS FIRST) Act in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Act provides seed funding through the United States Department of Agriculture, reauthorizing the Farm & Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) and providing helplines, suicide prevention, and support groups.

Nevertheless, an aversion to agricultural life and their rural populations has deepened to the point that farm stress is met by those who revel in it. Even farmer suicide – a transnational phenomenon unconfined to the US – has encountered a new kind of denier. Some view farmer disappearance as a form of progress that in the end, aligns with the “get big or get out” ideology.

In Iowa, fourth-generation farmer and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael R. Rosmann faces the most recent wave of farmer suicides. Developing the field of agricultural behavioral health for over 40 years, Rosmann explains this phenomenon through his theory, the agrarian imperative. According to Rosmann, the agrarian imperative is a basic human drive to produce life’s essentials – food, fiber, and renewable energy while leaving the land better than when the farmer began working it.

Perseverance, self-reliance, and risk-taking are all qualities inherent to this work.

Yet as Rosmann has observed, these same personal qualities can turn against if the farm is threatened or if one’s purpose is left unmet. Farm crisis lessons have demonstrated to him that perhaps only the death of a child brings more strain than a jeopardized family farm. This stress may lead to suicide.

Farmer suicide is in fact a universal reality with rates higher than nonfarmers in almost every agricultural country. One only needs to look at France, India, Australia, or Japan. Rosmann’s agrarian imperative conflicts with a liquidity and finance-based system. Tracing farmer suicide back, one might find a basic feature of modernity, that is, rural eradication in all its nuances – from Italy’s mass mid-20th century urbanization as described by Pasolini and De Martino, the Maya genocide of Guatemala, or the burning of Kurdish villages in Southeast Turkey. A common anthropological war threads the divergent socioeconomic transformation. The agrarian imperative becomes an endangered human quality – if not a declared target. Without this drive, without the world’s cafoni, campesinos, Kurds, and farmers, we may face the end of our own survival.