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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Stress-Management Training Critical for Many Small-Scale Farmers

ALBUQUERQUE - Roger Hannan is no stranger to farm-related stress. He grew up on a 300-acre farm in southern Illinois with five brothers and sisters. Five years ago, one brother hanged himself in the family barn. The following year, another brother died of a heart attack at age 50.

The United States is losing about 50 small farms per day, said Edmund Gomez, co-chair of the National Small Farm Conference and director of New Mexico State University's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project. Educators, producers and officials with the agricultural agencies are discussing ways to assist small-scale farmers at the conference Sept. 17-20 in Albuquerque. (09/17/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Now, at age 63, Hannan is executive director of the Farm Resource Center in Mound City, Ill., a crisis intervention outreach service to help farmers and their families cope with stress.

"Farm-related stress was a major contributing factor in the deaths of both my brothers," Hannan said during a presentation at the third National Small Farm Conference in Albuquerque Sept. 17-20, hosted by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "We need to create much more awareness and sensitivity about this issue in farming communities across the country and help rural families cope with the emotional challenges they face."

Hannan and other conference presenters said stress is widespread among small-scale farmers everywhere, but lack of mental health services--or even recognition of the need for such assistance--is tearing many farm families apart.

New Mexico is no exception. Extension agricultural specialists say farm stress is particularly widespread this year because of the drought.

"It's creating major stress for rural families throughout New Mexico," said Edmund Gomez, executive director of NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project (RAIPAP). "We've got farmers who only raised about 10 percent of their crop this year, and many ranchers sold more than 50 percent of their herds. It's especially stressful because farming and ranching is the central source of income for many of these families, and nobody knows how long the drought will continue."

Gomez said farm-related stress has contributed to a sharp increase in social problems in New Mexico in recent years, especially in northern areas like Rio Arriba County, which leads the state in per capita deaths from heroine overdoses. Rio Arriba County also ranks second in deaths from drunken driving, third in male deaths from alcohol-related illnesses and fourth in suicides, Gomez said.

"All farmers face stress, but it's been particularly hard on New Mexico Hispanics and Native Americans, because they're traditionally land-based people whose culture is intimately connected to agriculture and rural life," Gomez said. "As they're displaced from the land, many tend to compensate emotionally by turning to drugs and alcohol."

Farming is considered one of the 10 most-stressful jobs, according to Iris Cole Crosby, who coordinates Alcorn State University's stress-management program for Mississippi farmers.

"Farmers and ranchers face so many challenges, from low crop yields and drought to stagnating prices and long, hard work hours," Crosby said. "Most farmers just accept these challenges as a way of life, so they don't have stress-management strategies in place and there are very few mental health services to help them cope."

Some state governments have recognized the need for services. In 1985, New York State established the FarmNet Program, which provides free financial and personal consulting services to farmers statewide. Run by Cornell University, the program includes a 24-hour telephone help line and a staff of 34 "field consultants."

"We provide on-farm consultation with the whole family to assess problems, seek solutions and reduce stress," said FarmNet director Cathy Sheils. "We sit down and discuss whatever problems need addressing, whether it's finances or family relations."

Hannan's program also provides on-farm counseling services for families in Illinois, West Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. "The first step is to create awareness of the need for these services," Hannan said. "Farmers have really fallen through the cracks with traditional mental health systems, and that has to change."

Like most states, New Mexico has no special stress-management services for farm families, but Gomez says recognition of need for such services is growing.

"We definitely need to help New Mexico farmers and their families cope with stress," Gomez said. "We can learn a lot from programs in other states like FarmNet and Illinois's Farm Resource Center. Stress management should be an integral part of all risk-management training, right alongside farm safety education and financial planning."