Columnist Claire Morenon: The burdens farmers carry

Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 1, 2021

Farming is a tough business — that’s no secret. Farmers work long, physically demanding hours and farm businesses run on extremely narrow margins, with their crops — and therefore, their incomes — at the mercy of the weather. Farmers have a reputation for stoicism, but these stressors can carry a real mental health burden for the people who juggle them.

Financial stress is at the core of this issue. This is true for all small businesses, but especially so for farmers because of how long it takes to see a return on their investments and because of how reliant they are on the weather. Each spring, fruit and vegetable growers buy supplies and hire crews — often depending on a seasonal line of credit — to begin growing crops that they can’t sell until many months later.

Each growing season brings weather-related perils that can seriously limit, or even wipe out, the yield of each crop. Meat and dairy producers, similarly, have heavy up-front costs, and they rely on good weather to grow and store animal feed.

When it comes time to sell their crops, many local farmers are stretched thin across every possible sales outlet: farmers’ markets, farm stands, CSA farm shares, and wholesale. This is a strategic decision that many of them have made in the face of global competition and artificially suppressed food prices, but it makes for an extremely complicated business model with a million details to manage every day.

It’s easy to talk about all of this in bland terms that don’t really capture the stress, anxiety, and loss that can come along with it. Farmers can spend months growing a crop, just to see it — and the income it promised — destroyed by rain or disease. They make their plans each winter knowing that the weather, changing markets, or a thousand other unknowns can derail them.

For many farmers, there’s not much space between their businesses, their family structures, and their own identities. Many family farms support multiple generations, so the entire extended family’s financial well-being — and often their very homes — depend on it. Farmers feel a responsibility to previous and future generations to steward their land and keep their businesses healthy, regardless of how circumstances around them change. This is both a privilege and a heavy emotional burden to carry.

COVID-19 has brought new stressors. From the moment that COVID-19 shut down winter markets and threw all of 2020’s plans up in the air, sales for local food have been on a roller coaster. Farmers have been hustling to stay on top of rapidly changing circumstances and to make plans in the face of countless unknowns. The pandemic has also intensified long-term problems — the Valley is experiencing an affordable housing crunch, which makes it harder for people who work on farms to find places to live. Many businesses are having a hard time finding workers, which points to much bigger problems in how labor is valued and compensated.

On top of all of that, 2021 has been a very wet growing season, which has caused increased disease pressure, crop losses, and unworkably wet fields for many farms. July was the second wettest on record for western Mass, with almost 12 inches of rain. Farmers have been telling us at CISA that this is the worst growing season in decades — and with climate change bringing more rain and more extreme weather events, this pattern is likely to continue in future years.

We will be opening CISA’s Emergency Farm Fund in the fall to offer no-interest loans to farms that have seen losses due to this year’s excessive rains, which can help relieve the financial burden and, hopefully, some of the stress.

This year, the USDA announced a new Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network grant program. The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources successfully applied for a $500,000 grant to establish a network that will better connect farmers and the agricultural community, including service providers, to mental health resources and address existing gaps in available support. This is a great, and necessary, opportunity to develop new resources to address this issue.

The farmers that we work with at CISA talk often about how much they love their work, how much farming means to them, and how grateful they are to be caring for their land and growing food for their communities. And we’re certainly grateful to them for all they do, too. Acknowledging the burdens they carry, and starting to break down the stigma around mental health, is just one step toward helping farming to be healthier and more sustainable work.

Claire Morenon, Communications Manager, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture