More programs address financial loss than emotional pain
By TIM HEARDEN
When the going gets tough, where can farmers and ranchers turn?
In Midwestern states, help lines that specialize in serving farmers have seen about a 20 percent increase in callers this year, said Michael Rosmann, executive director of the Harlan, Iowa-based AgriWellness Inc.
But there are few farmers' helplines in the West, so those who struggle with stress from crop failure or economic losses have to turn to their local mental health professionals or to county farm advisers to share their pain.
In California's Central Valley, where a three-year drought has caused the loss of thousands of acres of crops, there's plenty of pain to go around.
"It's devastating," said Beverly Anderson, a marriage and family therapist for the Visalia, Calif.-based Sychrony, a nonprofit counseling agency.
"We're having family farmers who've been in farming for generations who have to lose their farms or are just feeling overwhelmed," Anderson said. "They're losing money and hope.
"This is typically not a group that asks for help," she said. "They're self-sufficient and keep things close to the vest. That makes it more difficult. We're just trying to make people aware of what the issues are."
Financial help is available for many farmers who have fallen on hard times, particularly those for whom the hard times were caused by a drought or other weather-related disaster.
The USDA's Farm Service Agency has grant and loan programs ranging from emergency loans to assistance for livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish. Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to call their local Farm Service Agency or Natural Resources Conservation Service offices for details.
But emotional help for distraught farmers is harder to come by, especially since Congress has failed to fund a farm and ranch stress assistance network that was included in the 2008 Farm Bill, Rosmann said.
Some lawmakers are trying to insert language into a farm appropriations bill requiring the USDA to spend some of its budget on setting up telephone hotlines, providing behavioral health counseling and paying for farm mediators who can resolve disputes, Rosmann said.
In the meantime, AgriWellness, which promotes mental health in rural agricultural communities, has been fielding calls and e-mails from farm advocates across the country about how to set up support programs in those communities, he said.
Perhaps the most desperation is being felt in the dairy industry, which has been devastated by low milk prices and high production costs. In California, farmers this month are earning a statewide average of $13.89 per hundredweight for the milk they produce, still about $5 less than it costs them to produce it, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Pork producers reeling from the fallout of the H1N1 virus have also reached out for help, Rosmann said.
In Central California, Anderson and other counselors have been trying to improve farmers' outlook, both financially and emotionally. They recently worked with loan officers to advise them that denying loans can have devastating implications for the local economy, she said.
Anderson has also talked to ministers and physicians about the warning signs of stress among farmers.
"This group of these employed men who are farmers are at the highest risk right now," Anderson said.
The experts advise farming and ranching families to talk with each other to help relieve stress. Farms should have employee business meetings to discuss their operations' finances, and husbands and wives should sit down with their children.
People can also cope with stress by attending social events, laughing, taking part in recreation, exercising and having "comforting touches," Rosmann said.
As for the farming operation, Rosmann advised farmers to talk with their local cooperative extension offices, which have historically been the "farmer's friends," he said.
"You have to find someone who's a good counselor and who understands farming," Rosmann said. "Sometimes it's found at the extensions, sometimes it's a local counselor in the mental health system, sometimes it's in the churches or a nurse or a good veterinarian.
"It's funny where those people are, but you've got to search them out," he said.
The following assistance programs are available through the USDA's Farm Service Agency:
* Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments provide benefits for farm revenue losses in cases of a disaster or severely adverse weather.
* Livestock Forage Disaster Program provide benefits for grazing land affected by drought or public grazing land affected by wildfire or drought.
* Livestock Indemnity Payments are benefits for livestock death losses because of adverse weather.
* Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees and Farm-Raised Fish provides emergency relief for producers.
* Tree Assistance Program gives assistance for tree, vine and bush losses caused by adverse weather.
* Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program provides minimal coverage for uninsurable crops.
* Emergency loans are available to borrowers who are unable to obtain financing for emergency losses.