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This Rural Mission

Feb 10, 2021

*PLEASE BE ADVISED: This episode discusses very sensitive and triggering content including suicide and self harm. Please continue reading/listening at your own discretion.

This Rural Mission is a podcast brought to you by Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Family Medicine Department. We are so excited to bring you season three. I'm your host, Julia Terhune, and I hope you enjoy this episode.

On January 24th, 2020, the CDC published the following, "In 2017, nearly 38,000 persons of working age, that is, 16 to 64 years, in the United States died by suicide," which represents a 40% rate increase in less than two decades. 79% of those 38,000 people were male. And the breakdown of those men in different occupations was as follows, fishing and hunting workers, machinists, welders, soldering, and brazing workers, chefs and head cooks, construction managers, farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers, and retail sales persons.

In addition to this devastating data, the CDC has shown that suicides are around 30% higher in rural communities in general when compared to urban communities. What do these two things have in common? Farmers. That's the population that I want to pay attention to on this list, though I want to acknowledge the depravity and the sadness that this list holds.

The thing about farmers is that they are a really important population. They take care of our plates, of plates around the world. And in 1900, 40% of the workforce was in agriculture, but by 2002, that number was down to a staggering 1.9% of the workforce. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will actually be an even greater reduction, a 6% reduction in farming jobs over the next 10 years. And since the 1990s, the rate of suicides by farmers when compared to the general public is 3.5 times higher.

So here we are. In the last six years, more than 450 farmers have killed themselves. The numbers of farms totally has decreased, but the productivity and output of the farms that are left has increased more than 50%, partly because it's had two. And the total amount of debt that farmers owe has increased 5%, which may not sound like a lot, but that number equals $16.4 billion, billion with a B, that farmers owe since 2017, in addition to what the debt already was.

There's a fantastic article that USA Today has published, and we will link to that on our website. This article goes over many of the reasons why this phenomenon of farmer suicide is happening, but I wanted to provide all of you a perspective from the people who are working with this population, live with this population, love this population, and are trying to do something about this problem.

I conducted interviews for this podcast in late 2019 and early 2020, but the stressors and complexities for farmers that my interviewees talk about are not outdated. If anything, they've become more acute than they were before.

The first thing I want to show is that the stressors that the CDC, NIH, USA Today, and so many others have identified as problems were also identified by my interviewees. And I think that these are issues we're all worried about. We all care about the environment, and obviously we all want to have financial stability, but these are all real stressors for farmers because it affects their livelihood, and their livelihood affects our livelihood. Literally. It's actual food. They make our food. Without farmers, we don't eat.

And of course, there's a lot to say about small farms versus big farms and how that business phenomenon and how that transition is affecting our food, but the idea of farm stress and the idea of farmer suicide doesn't hit one sized farm over the other. It's something that is taking a toll on everyone, and something that my first guest, Sarah Zastrow, knows firsthand and professionally.

So I grew up on a farm out kind of in Freeland, south of Midland a little ways, and my dad and his brother farmed sugar beets, corn, soybeans, and wheat. And I swore that I would never shovel manure again after I left for college. And my dad said, "Don't marry a farmer," and so of course I did.

So we just farm a little bit, both with his grandparents, and so that's kind of fun. It's interesting to see the dynamic of several different farms. We've got a lot of farming families, and so it's kind of cool to see that dynamic and the different ways that every farm operates. So that's kind of cool.

And then what I do is I have my own wellness business where I teach people how to manage stress, which has turned into teaching farmers how to manage stress. And so that's been really, really interesting this year and really has just taken off this year with this terrible farming season and all the pressure with these tariffs and different things like that.

So you came across the issue of farm stress organically?


Can you tell me that story? How did this come to into your purview?

Yeah. So I think that farm stress has always been really evident in our family, both my mom's brother's farm and my dad and his brother's farm, and everybody sort of has a touch of anxiety and you just notice things that are affected by that stress. And so I think that I have always known that sort of growing up and that people just handle stress very differently, however, it's always been really apparent to me that farmers in particular are stressed out. And especially when the weather doesn't cooperate and when there's so many factors outside of your control, that contributes to a level of stress because everything feels so crazy and so out of control. And so I think that that was kind of the first introduction I had to farm stress.

We had a farmer neighbor who committed suicide a little while ago earlier this fall. And it was just devastating. And I'm going to be honest, I didn't know him at all, however, we heard the gunshot and then heard through the grapevine later that day that he had committed suicide. And I thought, "This is terrible."

And then we went out for breakfast a couple of days later, and the girls in the restaurant at the breakfast joint realized that there was something different about him, but what do you do? What do you say? And when you notice something is off like that, at what point do you say something? At what point do you mind your own business? At what point does another person need to reach in and help?

And so that was another kind of determining factor for me that this and what I'm doing, this talking about stress management, giving people the tools to communicate with their spouse, with a counselor, with different people, whoever you feel comfortable with is really, really important and really, really needed on every single farm.

This issue of farm stress and farmer suicide is so big that people from the community and people outside of the community, people at the state and federal level have taken note.

Eric Karbowski is a community behavioral health extension educator for Michigan State University Extension, and Eric's job was created by Extension to tackle the immense social issue that is plaguing Michigan farms. Eric's job is to help find large-scale solutions and also develop grassroots and educational efforts to help this targeted population.

Well, my name's Eric Karbowski. I'm behavioral health educator working with Michigan State University Extension. My path to becoming here, I really had no intentions of working for Extension. I grew up in a rural area. My grandparents were farmers. I had the opportunity to participate as part of the CMU football team, which is really part of the reason I actually went to college. My parents never attended a university or anything like that. My dad worked for GM and my mom worked in the post office. And so athletics really was my opportunity to go to the university.

And then, so after that, I started my career. I worked in inner city Saginaw in Detroit, working with individuals with mental illness and helping them find jobs, competitive employment.

Eric's job was created by Extension, and Sarah was developing her business at the same time that the CDC and other health entities were shocked at the suicide rates among farmers, a discovery that was being published and made known at the same time that huge tariffs and trade wars with China were being conjured up by the Trump administration, an administration that was largely supported by a rural farming base.

It was a great opportunity for me to give back, because I married into a farming community, and give back and stay connected with really where my roots are, working with the farmers and talking about farm stress, talking about a lot of the hard discussions, suicide, mental health, mental illness, that really aren't comfortable conversations for people to have. And so it's been a really unique and good opportunity for me to connect with the farmers and really try to make a profound difference in their lives.

So with an America first mindset playing out internationally, huge hurdles for selling commodity farm goods were being positioned for farmers in the United States, something that has led to new cultural and social issues that are developing for many farming families, families like Carolyn's.

Carolyn is one of our leadership and rural medicine students and she grew up on a small farm in the center of our state, one that is still running today, and one that has been managed by her parents, partly because they ran it as a second full-time job, having other means of income outside of the farm.

Yeah. So I just spoke with my father about the tariffs and what his perspective of it was. And he thinks that they lost, because of the tariffs, about $40 to $50 an acre money-wise for... I guess we had soybeans for the tariffs [inaudible 00:12:19] how prices went down.

And then a big conversation that's been at I guess Thanksgiving dinner was whether or not they went and got aid packages, whether they got their Trump checks, and my brother did receive aid. So he went and applied to get this emergency aid for his smaller farm, and I think he got around $1,000, $1,500 for the money that he potentially lost because of the tariffs. My father did not collect any aid. And he said, "Why would I want other Americans to pay for my misfortune?"

What are these Trump checks?

So with the tariffs that happened, there was emergency aid that was given out to farmers in the past couple of years. And so they originally, from my understanding, they originally put a cap on how much that you can collect, but larger farms were using multiple names to go collect more. And then so far, smaller farms weren't able to collect as much. But I think overall, the emergency aid that was given out was just seen as a band-aid. There's no way to really collect that money that was truly lost. You can't get all of that power back, that money back?

So here we are. If I can be so bold, I would say we're in a culture war. We have political, environmental and social issues that are trickling, no, rushing down to our food systems and the people who are taking care of our plates and the plates around the world. This is a totally rural issue and there's too much at stake to turn away from this problem, but I do have a hopeful message for all of you today, and it is from people like Eric and Sarah, people who are caring about this population and trying to do something unique and person first to solve this problem of farm stress, not only for the people who are in this work, but for the future of this work and the future of all of our communities, specifically rural communities.

So I think some of the changes in the industry that we've really been observing and trying to create some unique opportunities for are that farmers don't communicate as much as they used to. A lot of it is done via social media now. And so you don't see a lot of the farmers connecting at the local coffee shops or gathering where they may have in the past. And I think that it was a pretty interesting feedback to hear from especially a couple of the farmers themselves, but then even locally, we tried to do just an observation where we worked with the local elevator just to create an opportunity for the farmers to get together.

We made chili and bean soup, and it was awesome to see even though amidst of all of the difficult times and the financial struggles and the delayed planting and the tough growing season that we had this year, that there was a sense of comradery and there was a lot of smiles and laughter and talking. And it was really cool to see and experience that.

I think there is kind of, there's generational differences for sure. I mean, a lot of the things, especially the more I've transitioned into this role and learning that, I think the average average age of a lot of the Michigan farmers are in their early to mid-60s. And then, if they do have a son or a daughter that are going to start working on the farm, Facebook, internet, cell phones, those didn't exist when they were growing up. And so now those are all kind of parts of where they're at or where we're at today, and I think that creates some communication challenges for sure.

And part of your job is now almost trying to get people back to that grassroots community piece. Is that what I understood?

Well, I think that's kind of one of the things that we're looking into is, if we create some of these social outlets for the farmers that they kind of naturally had in the past, will that help? Because you always feel good when you talk to your peers or your coworkers, or somebody that you know has something in common with you, right? It's like you're speaking the same language, and farmers are no different. It's an opportunity for them to vent, to talk about stuff, maybe good, bad, or indifference, or even just a chance to catch up. And it's amazing just to see really the atmosphere and the environment, how it changed, even just over the course of those two hours. And there was no formal programming or no formal lesson that was being taught at that. It was just, it was farmers talking to farmers.

So what I would hang my hat on are community involvement and stronger relationships in your family, with your spouse, with your community in general, and really just working on and focusing on the things that you have control over. Because at the end of the day, we don't have a lot of control over many things. We don't have it over the weather. We don't have it over the grain market or any commodities market. We don't over the tariffs and things like that. Focus on what you can control.

And I always tell people, you need to figure out a way to manage stress now. Create habits for stress, stressing less over the long haul, and then building those relationships. Those are the three things that we can focus on and those are the three things at the end of the day that are going to make the biggest difference in our lives, in our families and in our neighborhoods, and that is what is important. And then at the end of the day, whatever happens to China happens to China because I have a good home life and good community and things are going to be okay.

Sarah's efforts with her business are helping people and giving people creative solution, and Eric's time with the farming community is starting conversations that need to happen. We can also have hope that the work that farmers are doing is not just feeding us. They are shaping and molding people who are coming out of these communities and working to return and make a difference. Maybe they're not going to be behind the wheel of a combine, but their work will directly affect those drivers.

I guess being on a farm where I have to help my father do things that I've never done before or I've only seen done, it's given me a little bit more confidence in the medical setting that, "Hey, I've done things in the past and I can do them in the future."

So in that aspect, it's been helpful. I don't know if farming has influenced me to go into medicine, but I know it's influenced in where I want to practice in the future. I know I want to be in a small community where I can rely on neighbors and friends and they can rely on me.

Thank you to Eric, Carolyn and Sarah, for speaking with me today. There's so much more to say on the issue of farm stress, and we will be revisiting this issue in season four. So if you have ideas for people, you think would be a great interview for that episode, please email us at, or message us on Facebook or Instagram. Our Facebook and Instagram handle is @MSURuralHealth.

Our last thank you as always goes out to another farm descendant, Dr. Andrea Wendling. We are so grateful that your time growing up on a centennial farm brought you back to rural Michigan, where you have helped serve so many.

We hope you enjoyed this podcast, and I hope that it inspired you to make rural your mission.