COLUMBUS, Ohio — The corn was dying that summer.
So were the soybeans, drying out, shriveling up. What was the point of spraying for pests? It was 1988, one of the worst episodes of drought across the United States. That was the summer a 52-year-old northwest Ohio farmer who had been worrying about losing his crops, woke up one July morning, put on a fresh pair of jeans, a crisp white t-shirt, white socks and walked into the farm building where he had fixed tractors and stored wheat, and took his life.
Even now nearly 30 years later, his daughter-in-law, who is active in a support group for suicide survivors, struggles to think about it. She agreed to talk about his death while keeping her identity anonymous at the request of relatives who aren’t as open about it.
“For years, we wanted to forget the whole, awful story,” she said.
Farming has always been a stressful and risky business. So much is not under the farmer’s control: The weather. The rain. Pests. Commodity prices. In recent years, the stress on farmers has intensified as farm incomes have declined nationwide, and they’re not projected to go up anytime soon. Dairy farmers are particularly troubled contending with their fourth straight year of declining milk prices.
Legislation was introduced in Congress this month that would provide funding for mental health services for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers, as part of the next farm bill, the terms of which are being negotiated.
Concern about suicide and mental health treatment for farmers has been increasing in part because a July 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that farmers, foresters and fisherman, taken as an occupation unit, have the highest rate of suicide, 84.5 deaths per 100,000 people. The CDC report cites possible explanations including stress, financial risk, the isolating nature of the job, lack of access to health services and chronic exposure to pesticides that might contribute to symptoms of depression.
For many, farming is not just a profession, it is an identity. So, when farmers struggle financially, despite working hard, they sometimes see themselves as failures, particularly if their fathers were successful or their grandfathers.
“They not only feel as if they’re letting their family down. They might also feel as if they’re letting down future and past generations,” said Jami Dellifield, an Ohio State University Extension educator in Hardin County. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
Seeking help can be a challenge. More often than not, in rural areas, people have limited, if any options, for healthcare, particularly mental health professionals.
“You’re not going to seek it out if you’re going have to drive 1½ hours or wait a month to see a doctor,” Dellifield said.
No one knows, nor will ever know, exactly why the 52-year-old northwest Ohio farmer took his life. He doted over his grandchildren, was active in church. With his eldest son, he ran a farm with 1,500 acres of crops, hogs and beef cattle, and the two had a close partnership, spending their work days and whatever free time they had together. Then in the summer of 1988 he couldn’t seem to shake a dark mood that led him to constantly worry, lose weight, lose sleep, and become short-tempered.
One afternoon, the man’s daughter-in-law brought him a glass of lemonade in the field where he was spraying corn for pests. He lamented the futility of his efforts, snapping at her. What was the point of him spraying, if the corn was going to die, he asked.
The night before he took his own life, he seemed to have made a turnaround. He and his wife went out to dinner and played cards with friends. For the first time in months, he seemed light-hearted. The next morning his wife called their son. Come quickly, she told him.
Though he was not in dire financial shape, not at risk of losing the farm nor going broke, he may have thought he was, his daughter-in-law said. Sure, there would be losses that year, but there also would be years to come with prosperous yields – only he couldn’t envision that. He couldn’t see past the dying corn and soybeans.
“He was an amazing man who was very ill. Had it been a good summer on the farm, would he still have gotten sick? I don’t know,” the woman, now 60, said of her father-in-law.
Dellifield and Extension educators across Ohio have in recent years become trained in Mental Health First Aid, a program to identify and respond to individuals struggling with depression, anxiety and opioid abuse.
One of the hurdles in getting people help is the self-reliant nature of farmers. When a tractor breaks down, they can fix it. When their cow has trouble giving birth, they can figure out a way to bring those calves into the world, but for their own health, they may not be able to figure out a way out of distress. And too they may be reluctant to seek out someone who could help.
“Our hope,” Dellifield said, “is that we become as comfortable in referring individuals to help for depression and anxiety as we would be if they needed help with diabetes or a pest on their crops.”