Sowing the Seeds of Mental Health

Suicide is an epidemic amongst agricultural workers, but young farmers and state legislators are working to find solutions.

A stream of pedestrians sauntered through West Seattle Junction’s cordoned off main street on Sunday, their figures silhouetted against a blanket of gray sky. Potted flowers, slabs of cheese, and bins overfilling with leafy greens rested under covered stalls that lined the pavement. Some of the crowd huddled under umbrellas as they picked out fresh local produce, while others waited in a line nearby for fresh flour tortillas. The pastoral scene at the West Seattle Farmers Market was thrown into sharp relief by the busy California Avenue SW and Alaska Street intersection that teemed with cars and Sunday cross-walking brunchers.

Farmer and vendor Lucia Wyss hurriedly stuffed a wrapped chunk of meat into a white cooler on the ground as she cleaned up her table at the market’s conclusion. Tucking a gray cash box under one arm, the 24-year-old walked the stretch of glimmering, wet asphalt to the sidewalk where the market manager stood with a clipboard, making a note of all the vendors’s earnings. Despite the rain that drizzled down for much of that morning, it was a successful day for Wyss—a co-owner of Hidden River Farms, as about 40 customers bought her entire stash of Canadian bacon, plus a couple of roasts.

The Seattle native never expected to end up on a farm. Three years ago, her partner bought 100 acres of farmland in Grays Harbor County, where they now grow organic grain and raise livestock at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. At 24, Wyss is well under half the age of the average 58-year-old U.S. farmer. She’s the first to admit that it’s demanding, isolating work. Yet she and her partner are adamant about maintaining their self-care: ensuring that they rest one day a week and unwind by religiously watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN every Sunday after working at the farmer’s market.

News of Bourdain’s death earlier this month rattled Wyss as both a fan and previous volunteer at the suicide prevention hotline King County Crisis Clinic. “We look at high-risk professions, and farming is one,” Wyss said as she walked down Alaska Street, “but when it comes down to it, there’s no predicting factor.” Wyss is all too familiar with the unpredictability of suicide. Last May, her friend Justin McClane, a founding member of the Washington Young Farmers Coalition, took his own life. “Even when we know our friends are having a hard time, we never expect them to … kill themselves.”

Devastated by the loss of their friend, Wyss and other young farmers in the coalition became instrumental in advocating for the passage of statewide legislation designed to reduce suicides among farmers, who—along with fishers and forestry workers—have the highest rates of suicide of any occupation. According to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, farmers’ suicide rate was 84.5 deaths per 100,000 people, nearly five times higher than the rest of the population.

Their efforts resulted in the passage of House Bill 2671, which created a 16-member suicide prevention task force of mental health experts and representatives from various agricultural sectors under the purview of the State Office of Rural Health. The House and Senate unanimously approved the bill during the last legislative session, and it went into effect on June 7. The task force will produce a study by December 1 that includes data on the suicide rates, substance abuse, accessibility and usage of behavioral health services among agricultural workers, occupational factors that lead to suicide, components to be included in a preventative pilot program, and strategies for improving the behavioral health of agricultural workers and their families. The state Department of Health will then create a pilot program for workers in the agricultural industry in a yet-to-be-determined county “west of the Cascade crest that is reliant on the agricultural industry” by March 2019. The pilot program will also include free online or telephonic counseling and suicide prevention in English and Spanish. Along with bilingual services, immigrant farm workers—who compose 71 percent of the farm labor workforce, according to the nonprofit Farmworker Justice—will be represented by a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

In a country with a stark rural and urban divide, Wyss believes the legislation shows how agricultural matters can encourage people to reach across the aisle. “It’s about caring about the people who grow your food,” Wyss said, simplifying the issue over the phone. “And it’s easy in a city to forget, or dismiss people in rural areas, and to not realize how limited resources can be. But ultimately, we all want food grown by family farms, and young farmers are part of that. And the more farmers we lose, and the harder we make it to farm, the more our food is going to be grown by corporations.” Case in point, most of the goods from Hidden River Farms are sold in Seattle.

Lucia Wyss, a Hidden Valley Farms co-owner and West Seattle Farmers Market vendor, lobbied in favor of HB 2671. Photo by Melissa Hellmann

Lucia Wyss, a Hidden Valley Farms co-owner and West Seattle Farmers Market vendor, lobbied in favor of HB 2671. Photo by Melissa Hellmann

There’s also the secondary concern of the fiscal impact that workers in the agricultural industry have on the rest of the state, which accounts for 12 percent of Washington’s overall economy, according to Washington Farm Bureau.

The suicide issue hit close to home for Representative J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm), a fourth generation farmer who grew up on the beef and poultry farm in rural Pierce County that he lives on to this day. Although he had heard of farmers killing themselves in the past, he was unaware of the pervasiveness of suicides among the agricultural community until he read a story that appeared in the Guardian last year. Once he decided to sponsor the bill in the 2018 legislative session, there was an outpouring of calls from people and organizations that wanted to help.

“Farming is a lonely occupation,” Wilcox said during a phone interview with Seattle Weekly. “A lot of the social organizations that used to be a part of rural life are gone, or diminished.” Membership to Lions and Rotary Clubs in rural parts of the state have declined, Wilcox said, “and there’s nothing that’s really replaced these ties to the community that used to be a little bit stronger.”

Data on the rate of suicides among agricultural workers in the state is hard to come by because no state departments or organizations track it, and the deaths may be disguised as farming accidents. But the factors that contribute to their deaths seems to reflect national trends, according to agricultural workers interviewed for this story.

“Previous research suggests that farmers’ chronic exposure to pesticides might affect the neurological system and contribute to depressive symptoms,” the 2016 CDC report cited. “Other factors that might contribute to suicide among farmers include social isolation, potential for financial losses, barriers to and unwillingness to seek mental health services (which might be limited in rural areas), and access to lethal means.”

Farming is also a financially risky occupation. The United States Department of Agriculture projects the 2018 median income earned by farm households to be negative $1,316. Such bleak financial prospects require most farmers to pick up second or third jobs to make ends meet. “Farmers, because they are generally at the mercy of commodity markets, they go from a good year to a disastrous year,” Wilcox said. And crop farmers who often only have one or two pay days per year could lose their farms during an inauspicious time. “When you are experiencing financial stress, you feel the weight of your own worries, but you also feel the responsibility that you’re trying to continue a tradition that was started by your grandparents or your great grandparents, and that makes the risk seem even harden to bear.”

Unlike other jobs in which workers can quit in the face of uncertainty, agriculture is interwoven into a farmer’s legacy, identity, finances, and housing, posited Washington State Dairy Federation Policy Director Jay Gordon. He owns and operates a 600 acre dairy and crop farm in Elma, Washington that was homesteaded by his great great grandfather in 1872—a legacy illustrated in the government-issued deed signed by President Ulysses S. Grant hanging on his home’s wall. “Nobody wants to be generation that lost the farm,” he said.

Gordon has lost friends and acquaintances in his community to suicide, including a dairy farmer who lived next door to him and took his own life in the early 2000s. There were other close calls too.

Hearing anecdote after anecdote, he and a few other farmers created a suicide prevention service called the Family Farm Support Network with Washington State University in the mid-2000s. Grants allowed them to create a behavioral health and suicide prevention hotline, and eight Wenatchee-based on-call volunteer consultants who were familiar with the agricultural industry and available to make house visits to farmers in crisis. The volunteers served 652 family farms, and even received phone calls to the hotline from as far away as Ireland and England. “When we looked around at that time, there was literally no other farm-based rural crisis hotlines in the West,” Gordon said. “You put a hotline up that says, ‘Hey, we talk farm language and we’ve got resources to help you talk about finances or farming…’ We were surprised by how far and wide that hotline got phone calls.”

Despite their success throughout the mid-2000s, the network lost its funding and eventually ceased operations. But other farmers in the community put Gordon in touch with Wilcox when he expressed interest in sponsoring the bill, helping plant the seeds for a new pilot program that could put some of the lessons learned from the Family Farm Support Network to work.

The public health crisis of suicides may only be worsening. The occurrence of suicide deaths are rising throughout the U.S., cited a recent CDC study, which showed an 18.8 percent increase in Washington state between 1999 to 2016. And according to the University of Washington’s School of Social Work’s Forefront Suicide Prevention data, over 1,130 people died by suicide in 2016, putting it at the eighth leading cause of death in the state.

A lack of access to mental health resources in rural areas targeted towards agricultural workers can also make farmers in crisis feel all the more isolated, noted Washington Young Farmers Coalition member Brian Estes. Although the coalition reaches about 1,700 people statewide, the nearly 36,000 farms spread throughout Washington are separated by hundreds of miles. He was another close friend of McClane, the farmer who died by suicide last year, and wished that a program created by the legislation had been in place to help him. When the coalition caught wind of the bill, members called local legislators to voice their support, and testified at hearings in Olympia.

In the wake of McClane’s death, the coalition members have mostly focused on their own personal grieving and healing. There’s also been an unspoken cultural shift in the community, with members expressing a greater willingness to check in on each other’s mental health. For instance, Estes recently ran into another coalition member in Walla Walla who went out of his way to ask how he was doing and to express gratitude for Estes’s hard work. “I think that there are some new layers of recognition in those sorts of conversations about how as a group of folks with a shared experience—and a shared experience that can be really stressful, and isolating, and taxing at times—how we can be supportive of one another,” Estes said.

Pigs on Hidden River Farms. Photo by Lucia Wyss

Pigs on Hidden River Farms. Photo by Lucia Wyss

When Wyss heard about the legislation, she dove head first into organizing by helping others testify and writing articles, op-eds, and press releases about the bill. “There’s no question that farmers need more resources of every kind,” Wyss said. Nearly half of the 4,746 young farmers who responded to The National Young Farmers Coalition 2017 survey listed health care as a “significant challenge.”

At the national level, the Senate Agricultural Committee recently passed a 2018 Farm Bill proposal that would re-authorize a mental health resources program called the Farmer Rancher Stress Assistance Network created in 2008 that was never funded. The bill would allocate $10 million of funding to increase access to mental health resources for agricultural workers throughout the nation for five years.

As Seattleites visit their farmers markets this summer, Wyss hopes that they acknowledge the humanity of the person selling them their food, and their role in supporting a sustainable food system.

“Whether or not you’re a farmer, or whether or not you’re interested in agriculture, you should be looking at agriculture as an opportunity for bipartisan compromise, and working together in a very divisive political time that scares all of us,” Wyss said. “We can look at farming and find common ground.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

The West Seattle Farmers Market on June 10, 2018. Photo by Melissa Hellmann

The West Seattle Farmers Market on June 10, 2018. Photo by Melissa Hellmann