Farmer suicide crisis in the US
December 6, 2017 6:16 PM   Subscribe

Wow. I have no idea how to make any of that better, but it’s tragic. Thanks for posting,
posted by greermahoney at 7:22 PM on December 6 [1 favorite]

Farmers markets! It pays better to sell direct.
posted by aniola at 7:43 PM on December 6 [1 favorite]

This is a pretty good read of the Australian perspective on the subject. It has been expanded into a book.

It's to do with our supermarket duopoly, so is only partially about farming, but the gist is: Coles and Woolworths have spent decades grinding farmers into dust, locking them into unforgiving contracts that leave the farmers with no choice but to a) go deeply, deeply into debt, b) hire what is basically slave labour, c) drastically lower their quality in favour of unimaginable quantity (up to 40% of which is discarded before even leaving the farm), d) fuck the environment even more than they already have, all the way to z), where they blow their fucking brains out.

This is before you even get to the question of ethical treatment of animals on Australian farms which, overwhelmingly, follows the shitty American model, and then you factor in the hideous debacles of live export, mulesing, on and on it goes.

I've met a lot of farmers, growing up in north Queensland in a primary agricultural region, going to boarding school with hundreds of them (well, their kids) for many years, and now working in a government department that engages directly and voluminously with them day in and day out. I'll be honest, about 1 in 4 is what I would consider a "decent" person. The rest are bogan scum with wide-brimmed hats.

The whole system is fucked from top to bottom. All I can really do is buy locally (and expensively) from places that I know do the right thing, and support them as much as I can, but that's only because I'm lucky enough to be doing fairly okay, financially. A lot of people aren't, and the supermarkets are predators in every possible direction.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:55 PM on December 6 [25 favorites]

Even the slave labor is getting older, at least in the U.S.: Health Risks To Farmworkers Increase As Workforce Ages (NPR, Dec. 1, 2017)
More than 90 percent of California's crop workers were born in Mexico. But in recent years, fewer have migrated to the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Researchers point to a number of causes: tighter border controls; higher prices charged by smugglers; well-paying construction jobs and a growing middle-class in Mexico that doesn't want to pick vegetables for Americans.

As a result, the average farmworker is now 45 years old, according to federal government data. Harvesting U.S. crops has been left to an aging population of farmworkers whose health has suffered from decades of hard labor. Older workers have a greater chance of getting injured and of developing chronic illnesses, which can raise the cost of workers' compensation and health insurance.
There's no mention of mental health in that article, though.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:04 PM on December 6 [5 favorites]

Farmer’s markets are a precious yuppie trend I can get behind. I realize that finding people who are willing to pay $6 for a dirty imperfect bunch of carrots isn’t a winning strategy but there is something so affirming and human to buy produce directly from the people who grew it, at a price they determine is fair. Sometimes, the only hour of the week I’m not despairing of humanity is when I’m at the farmer’s market.

I would have liked to learn more about the economic forces that are driving these farmers to suicide— I suspect it’s large distributors who are able to provide reasonably priced raspberries in the middle of winter who are driving down the prices for the Iowa corn farmer. This is a clear example where capitalism is failing us — we *should* be paying more for local produce, rather than paying less for produce from places where labor is cheap just because petroleum and shipping are cheap. Eating locally and seasonally tastes better and keeps your neighbors employed, and probably keeps them from killing themselves. But my guess is that there is a giant agriculture distribution system that’s making bank and promising the world to these independent farmer’s and little infrastructure to allow these people to market the literal fruits of their labor to appreciative consumers.

In summary, capitalism sux (and kills) and it’s way past time to embrace the value of human labor.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:06 PM on December 6 [12 favorites]

This is something that people in Iowa talk about. I heard a thing about it on Talk of Iowa, a statewide NPR show, a while back.

My sense is that one of the big causes is social isolation. A lot of farmers live in places that aren't doing very well economically. The typical farmer is middle-aged or older, and their children, siblings, etc. have often left for places with more economic opportunity. Farms are bigger than they were in the past, so there's more space between neighbors. I think it's also acutely stressful to be subject to forces (weather, markets) that are outside your control, and there's a huge sense of responsibility that comes from being the steward of a family legacy, which is how a lot of people think about family farms. And there is definitely a huge mental healthcare shortage in Iowa, which is particularly bad in rural areas. Of course, people in rural areas persist in voting for candidates who are making that shortage worse, but that's kind of Iowa in a nutshell.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:22 PM on December 6 [16 favorites]

Two thoughts: One, of the farms in my family's hometown, most are still small and family-owned, and anecdotally, I have witnessed some very unhappy family farm dynamics. There must be a singular pain in having your dysfunctional workplace also be your dysfunctional family (and in doing the exact same, grueling job that your parents did, but making much less money).

Two, the article focuses on family farmers but cites a "study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [that] found that people working in agriculture – including farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers, and lumber harvesters – take their lives at a rate higher than any other occupation."

I find the presence of farm laborers in this category important -- not only are they doing backbreaking work, without the benefit of owning what they produce, but at least in California, over half are undocumented, meaning they (especially now) live in constant fear of deportation and have no legal protections if they are mistreated by their employers.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 8:56 PM on December 6 [7 favorites]

I grew up in a town of 500 people in North central Idaho. My parents still farm 300 acres of mostly wheat. My cousin has taken over his dad's more than 3000 acres. Farming is so insanely stressful. You live in the middle of nowhere. You are completely reliant on the weather. And the weather in central Asia and how that effects prices. And multi million dollar machines that you only need for a month or two but you run them 15 hours a day for 40 days straight. I haven't paid attention to the numbers in a while but in the late 90's my uncle would have to take literally million dollar bets on how much fertilizer to spread. Too much and not enough rain a month later and it would kill off the wheat. Not enough and good rain later means your neighbors are getting an extra 10 pounds a bushel more than you which drives down the price. God forbid you have a family emergency or illness during harvest, when everyone is working long hours around giant dangerous machines. Hopefully your neighbors are kind like my hometown who got together to harvest a family’s fields for them because the father was getting chemo in August.
You want farmers to stop killing themselves? You take away the worry of healthcare for their families. Just like every other god damn problem with American "society" you fix it by making it not terrifying to just fucking live and raise children. It's an amazingly beautiful and rewarding life. We have enough money in the world that it doesn't need to be so full of terror that people literally can't live in it. We need people to grow grains because bread and beer are good.
posted by Uncle at 8:56 PM on December 6 [41 favorites]

So, in the linked video, the chief complaint is that wheat is at 18 percent of 'parity.' As best I can tell, this refers to purchasing parity as benchmarked by like 1910. Or maybe the most recent decade? Which is itself problematic, because of how farmland appears to have been affected by the 2008 subprime cycle. This chart shows that over the last five years the price of wheat has fallen by about half -- about 13 percent a year.

That's not great news if your business involves borrowing against future proceeds. Every year you borrow money to plant your next crop with, and get less and less back. And with falling prices is tied falling land values. I don't have a neat time series for that, it seems Kansas farmland value of 'high quality' has been hovering around $4k/acre. If your plot produces at the average rate and sells for the article's market price, that farmland is generating revenue of 3 percent of its value annually. Profit is lower, because you have expenses like any other business, including those aforementioned interest payments . Futures market suggests wheat planted last month sells for $4.25 a bushel in March, so perhaps there's some hope there. Or that I don't know how futures markets work.

Meanwhile, Kansas has basically fucked up all social safety nets it can think of. Brownback continually targets mental health for cutbacks, as part of an ill advised tax plan that he attempted to enforce with a veto. Which was then overridden by a Republican legislature. Of course, the same legislature failed to override a different veto on Medicaid expansion, which is between 50 and 90 percent funded by the federal gov't.

And rural populations continue to shrink. The article's example of Pawnee County, only saw a single uptick in census data since the Dust Bowl. There were more people in the county in 1910 than are now. When you consider that modern farming involves a lot of driving tractors in straight lines, social isolation on and off the job is basically the norm. Which is why they sell tablet holder attachments on virtually everything, because it turns out the tractors can pretty much drive themselves. You can imagine why talk radio is so popular.

When I try to think about why I'd hold onto a million dollars of farmland rather than sell it and live a stress free life paid for by dividends, it seems like it'd be out of a duty to other members of my family. I should probably speak to my grandfather about how he came to leave the family farm and become a railroad clerk before he loses this knowledge himself. I guess I should at least be thankful nobody in my family has anything of value to bequeath, lest it become an anchor.
posted by pwnguin at 9:18 PM on December 6 [5 favorites]

I would have liked to learn more about the economic forces that are driving these farmers to suicide— I suspect it’s large distributors who are able to provide reasonably priced raspberries in the middle of winter who are driving down the prices for the Iowa corn farmer. This is a clear example where capitalism is failing us — we *should* be paying more for local produce, rather than paying less for produce from places where labor is cheap just because petroleum and shipping are cheap. Eating locally and seasonally tastes better and keeps your neighbors employed, and probably keeps them from killing themselves. But my guess is that there is a giant agriculture distribution system that’s making bank and promising the world to these independent farmer’s and little infrastructure to allow these people to market the literal fruits of their labor to appreciative consumers.

This all seems pretty crazy to me. Large distributors providing reasonably priced raspberries are a clear example where capitalism is absolutely succeeding, for all of us. And if you want to be specific, the Iowa corn farmer may very well be enjoying a tax-funded subsidy. And for really stupid reasons involving things like biofuels. It seems we *should* be paying pretty much exactly what a farmer/vendor can get away with. Local or not. Eating locally and seasonally tastes better? Need citation for that. For a lot of people, that means something closer to the opposite. But then again, I don't eat to keep people employed. Or to keep people from killing themselves. OK, so it might sound good and noble, suppose you spend more money to keep local farmers content. What about the far off farmers who can no longer lure you with their less expensive and diverse wares? Fuck them, right? And I can't tell if your last sentence is supposed to be self contradictory or not. A "giant agriculture distribution system" would likely be (and is) a tremendous infrastructure allowing even independent farmers to appreciative consumers. Maybe the definition of "independent farmer" needs to be more clearly defined. Independent in what way? Is that synonymous with "small"?

In summary, capitalism sux (and kills) and it’s way past time to embrace the value of human labor.

What you describe is embracing the value of human labor for more than whatever its value may be. Or at least the value of a certain kind of human labor. Farmer Joe is determined or destined or whatever to make a living as a farmer. And you've decided that you'll support his vocation. Good on you, I suppose. But consider this: who among us doesn't want their labor to be more highly valued? I know I do. But human labor isn't equal. You can spend all your waking hours digging a hole in your back yard. And then filling it back up. Over and over again. Day after day, breaking your back with pick and shovel. Is that labor valuable? Probably not to anybody. Good luck getting someone to compensate you for it, no matter how valuable your think your time and effort is.

The actual article really doesn't explain much. Farmers and farm laborers are fundamentally different things. As are lumber harvesters, for that matter. I tend to think ArbitraryAndCapricious may be closer to an answer, the idea of social (and perhaps literal) isolation. The article seems to explain farmers as a certain "type" whose very identity is highly entwined with farming. Where business failure is more akin to failure of a personal nature-a failure of one's very identity. I think this is true for many people well beyond farming. But perhaps it's particularly strong among people involved with agriculture.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:44 PM on December 6 [7 favorites]

Uh, about those farmer's markets...I swear there was an FPP about this before, but anyway, my understanding is that the great majority of people selling things at farmer's markets are just people who buy ugly produce that the supermarkets don't want and resell it.
posted by Literaryhero at 9:46 PM on December 6 [2 favorites]

I was surprised to see no mention of climate change in the article. Surely changing weather patterns and changing water availability are compounding the stress in many states. I think a lot of CA farmers spent a lot of time denying climate change was a thing, but at this point all but the most delusional know it's happening, and nobody's sure what California's endgame is. Until very recently my family still had some grapes in the Central Valley and they were all looking at the Wine Country fires just thinking, holy crap, it's only a matter of time, glad we sold the farm and got out. And people who grow table grapes and raisin grapes have a lot less dough to throw around than winemakers. If you need good weather to make your livelihood possible, the idea that the weather is going to change dramatically and unpredictably in the decades to come feels pretty world-ending.
posted by potrzebie at 9:48 PM on December 6 [9 favorites]

I was surprised to see no mention of climate change in the article. Surely changing weather patterns and changing water availability are compounding the stress in many states.

When I was in school, one of the engineering deans was trotting around his work on rainfall modeling and climate change. IIRC, in the short term he was finding increased rainfall both historically and predictively. I don't think it's about good vs bad weather, since that will affect everyone approximately equally. Bad weather might lead to low yields, but low yields also lead to higher prices, counteracting that somewhat. It's more about variance, like Uncle suggested. If it's a quarter inch more or less rain, fine. If it's drought followed by flooding that erodes your precious topsoil, well, that's a lot different. And if you plan differently than your neighbors, that magnifies the variance.

And in the PNW, you might argue that decreased cloud cover and rain activity might improve mental health with additional sun exposure.
posted by pwnguin at 10:25 PM on December 6

Yup, that's exactly what I meant. I think if we knew what the future holds, weather-wise, at least it could be planned for and mitigated. But having the potential for high variance, and really catastrophic years without warning, would really get to me if I were in a weather-dependent profession.

Obviously California is what I know, and in California the water situation is a ticking time bomb, but there's no place that's immune to global climate change.
posted by potrzebie at 12:08 AM on December 7

I also wonder about the impact of farm subsidies on this issue and the agricultural crisis in general. I believe the article said something like 48% of Iowan land is planted wth corn, which can't be sustainable ecologically or economically. I reckon these are also insidiously destroying rural communities by taking power away from farmers, control in crop choice, and--in the case of corn, especially--impacting local and national health as subsidies drive the production of corn syrup and other food additives/substitutes that come to dominate the diets of Americans, especially those without food security.
posted by stillmoving at 12:27 AM on December 7

Re: farmer's markets - I think it's a sensible solution, but if it's done systematically. FWIW in Malaysia, it was introduced and is under the purview of a federal agency. We call it Pasar Tani (farmer's market, literally), and yes, there's a connection to the ethno-centric poverty redistribution policy plank (where middlemen are a sector dominated by the Chinese - as encouraged by the British, and this scheme was designed to bring farmers directly to the buyers), but I will say growing up with it did spoil me that my first British market I went to felt like a shock.
posted by cendawanita at 12:33 AM on December 7 [4 favorites]

Farmers markets are fine for fresh greens and assorted small scale vegetable production, but what are you going to do with your 100 tons of wheat at a farmers market? So a farmer near a city might be able to put in a polytunnel and sell salad greens direct to a restaurant at inflated prices for a bit of money on the side, but it deosn't really help the one that plants and grows 50 acres of potatoes.

My mom grew up on a farm in rural Vermont. They literally grew 90% of their own food and then sold their cash crops to cover other expenses. It isn't an easy life and what you ended up doing was quite varied. My grandfather used to sell mink pelts in NYC on 5th avenue back when doing something like that was possible. I think he made about $500 or so per trip with him taking the risk of getting robbed.
posted by koolkat at 2:06 AM on December 7 [4 favorites]

Well, fwiw, in Malaysia for example, while we don't consumer wheat to such levels, our daily carbs is rice, and rice farmers sell them to the national rice board, and rice is a controlled price item, which helps price stability.
posted by cendawanita at 2:29 AM on December 7 [3 favorites]

And the farmer's market infrastructure in the country is such that it's in coordination with the other available itinerant markets (morning and night markets forex) plus access to marts and supermarkets so that there's always a market somewhere every day.
posted by cendawanita at 2:30 AM on December 7 [1 favorite]

High Rates of Suicide, Depression Linked to Farmers' Use of Pesticides

Interestingly, the Ecowatch article on the link between neonicotinoids and suicide mentions the couple from the Guardian article, Matt and Ginnie Peters, and says that he was using neonicotinoids when he committed suicide.
posted by MrVisible at 3:25 AM on December 7 [1 favorite]

We have a comparatively supportive agriculture policy in France, as well as one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and yet the numbers show that correlation/causation is likely more complex:
The US farmer suicide crisis echoes a much larger farmer suicide crisis happening globally: an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.
There's a decent article on French farming suicides here, 600 a year, so that would actually be almost two suicides a day, not one every two days :-/ As in the US, revenue is brought up:
One farmer with personal experience of suicidal depression, Louis Ganay, also spoke to BFM TV. “Getting up early every day, knowing that in a month you'll only be able to make €200 or €300 with 80 hours of work each week, it's a real torture,” said the 35-year-old, who runs a farm of fifty dairy cows.
Francis Le Ferrand, who found her farmer husband dead told France 2: "It's inhumane to work without pay. When you work 70 hours per week and there's no pay at the end, believe me, it is very difficult to live."
posted by fraula at 4:24 AM on December 7 [7 favorites]

I got my degrees at a little university on the prairie back in the mid-80s. In a sociology course I took, the prof lectured us one day about how the farm crisis had caused domestic violence -- physical and sexual -- to explode on the farms across the nation, including those surrounding us. The hard work, the physical and social isolation, the low crop prices, the high interest on the loans, etc. All of this played into these hideous ills just as it did with suicide. My then-future wife was a few years younger than me and was growing up in rural America. When we married, I got a far better understanding of what the academic discussions had been about. But those are not my stories to tell.

My marriage ended, in great part, because I am a city boy and wanted desperately to leave a place I couldn't stand. She, being a farm girl, wanted no part of that idea -- despite the conditions she had grown up in, conditions which had not changed dramatically in recent years. Whatever else had happened, and might still be happening, she still had The Land. We split amicably. I don't understand, and I don't believe most city dwellers understand, the rural attachment to The Land. TFA makes a nice approach to this idea in the part discussing the farmer's need to provide for himself and others. A former brother-in-law matter-of-factly referred to himself as a serf -- owned by The Land. I'm sure that to many farmers, if The Land is gone, there's no need to keep living.

It is this serfdom and Rosmann's agrarian imperative theory that keep each successive generation eyeball-deep in debt to keep the family farm going. Breaking their backs with no health insurance. Having more children so that there are more laborers. But as TFA noted, for all the kind words Washington has for farmers, politicians don't actually care about them. The campaign contributions come from Big Ag -- Monsanto and other massive agricultural corporations. When family farms die, Big Ag can take over for pennies. The masses still find bread in the grocery stores and don't know the difference.
posted by bryon at 4:36 AM on December 7 [9 favorites]

Farmers markets are great, as are the farmers that attend them, but commodity farming is different than what we think of as farmers market farming. Those circles don't often come together in a venn diagram, they're largely separate categories of agriculture.

It would be interesting to see those two parts of the demographic split out for the purpose of studies like this.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:44 AM on December 7 [2 favorites]

I've heard from non-farmer French friends that French farmers who switched to bio production do rather better, mostly due to being able to sell at higher prices, but this required waiting years for Roundup to disappear from their soil.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:50 AM on December 7

Would be curious to see what the numbers in Japan are since that's where I have my farming experience. Would guess that it might be lower given the nature of farming there (a good percentage of farmland is owned by "weekend farmers" -- folks that have day jobs and just do farming cause it's land their family owns and tradition). Though, they also face the problem, linked upthread a bit, of an aging population. I'm in my early 40s and at town meetings of local farmers I was always the youngest by far.

This is, no pun intended, a depressing read in that I have been thinking lately about getting back into farming here in the States. Moved back last year to try my hand at web-dev and am getting a bit tired of that (long story there...).
posted by snwod at 9:00 AM on December 7 [1 favorite]

I haven't seen mentioned, here or elsewhere, the question of externalities. Just like having a weak EPA allows polluters to fob off the cost of mitigation by dumping it down stream, the total cost of farming is not represented in the commodity pricing.
Indeed, the human cost of farming is under-represented in market pricing by design. In the case of everything except bulk grain, the external costs are shipped downstream to the migrants' home countries, or to the human cost of being at the margins of society (not to mention the artificially low wages paid to migrants). With corn, wheat, soy, etc, the human cost represented in the FPP's thesis is not taken into account by pricing. Nor are the secondary societal costs of having a basic need be subject to market whims; opportunity cost of arable land that *could* have been used for a profitable crop in years when it was planted with a crop that happened to be under priced that season; etc.

I've heard the suggestion, in the stock market, of the idea of a tiny transaction surcharge; just enough drag to make lightning purchase and selling (temporal arbitrage) unpalatable. It seems to me that a surcharge on commodity crop sales - just a little flow restriction, to strangle a piping metaphor - could be used to both mitigate the effects (by paying for social work, etc) and remove some of the artificiality that leads to these effects in the first place.
posted by notsnot at 1:57 PM on December 7

I used to work in extension and advise farmers about growing pumpkins. I had gone into agriculture to Help Fight World Hunger, but it appeared that instead I would be helping city people get better jack-o-lanterns. I was a little disappointed. However, I learned that to be a farmer on the east coast, with land values so high, you had to be incredibly smart to make a living. Lots of the growers went to college and had business degrees. They grew specialty vegetables for restaurants, planted microgreens for farmers markets, chose the right produce for farm stands, and entertained the public with butterfly gardens and corn mazes. To make extra money, they planted pumpkins. A U-Pick pumpkin patch could add an extra $5-6000 to their earnings for a year. The problem was that we were always telling them to rotate their crops to avoid build-up of diseases, and they couldn't, because U-pick patches needed to be by the roadside. So sometimes the entire crop would fail and the grower would not get that much-needed extra money.

Did I mention how smart they were? One year when disease wiped out pumpkins in the entire state, our local growers trucked in pumpkins from another state and artfully arranged them in the U-pick plots for the city people to buy.

Farming needs to be supported. If we lose small farming we lose jobs with independence and good quality of life.
posted by acrasis at 5:40 PM on December 7

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