Farm Workers’ Mental Health: What Role for the Farm Economy and Resources from the Broader Community

Current Pilot Project


A combination of factors such as the prolonged period of low farm incomes, a trade war with China, and a more extreme climate are affecting the U.S. farmers and their workers. Increased stress levels are associated with higher incidences of accidents (Fleming et al., 2003) and deterioration in mental health (Bryant & Garnham, 2014). Through a past SCAHIP project, we learned about the deterioration in the mental health of farm operators (managers-owners) reflected in their higher suicide rates and accidents. We attempted to explain how a variety of socio-economic factors related to the broader communities in which farmers lived affected their mental health and injuries. However, we know very little about the mental health challenges faced by farm laborers. Economists typically study farm laborers’ wages and access to health insurance to draw implications about the future of U.S. agriculture and specifically how labor cost will affect intensification of agriculture (e.g., Kandilov and Kandilov, 2018 & 2019). Mental health challenges, however, strongly affect the quality and availability of on-farm labor and are important to identify. A few, mostly epidemiology studies, have attempted to evaluate the individual- and family related factors that affect mental health and depressive tendencies of farm laborers (e.g., Alderman et al. 2018). We propose to expand this view and identify factors related to the broader community in which laborers work and the farming industry in particular. Building on our knowledge of how the environmental factors affect farm operators’ mental health, we refocus our attention on their farm workers. The objectives of the proposed research include understanding how farmworkers’ mental health is affected by the overall state of the farm economy; what is the role of employers’ support for farm workers seeking access to health services when they need it. We will also focus on how the availability of health providers and community support organizations in the wider community affects farm workers’ mental health. The analysis will include Southern states that are of interest to the Southeaster Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention as well as the available data. We can include all Southeast Regions for which the National Survey of Agricultural Workers (NAWS) collects data (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia). We propose to analyze unique individual-level data from a Work Organization and Psychosocial Factors Supplement to the National Survey of Agricultural Workers (NAWS), and more specifically, the occupational mental health data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted by the Department of Labor. These data will be supplemented by country-level data from the Census of Agriculture, BLS, and others. With these data, we will explore the degree of economic stressors related to laborers’ depressive tendencies. No previous work has evaluated how the farm economy affects farm laborers’ depression incidence. Taking

advantage of our unique access to operator-level data from the Agricultural and Resource

Management Surveys and the Census of Agriculture, we will develop measures of the severity of farm income loss, its volatility within the agricultural crop commodity producers in the county/state, 2 the level of debt burden, the age cohorts of both operators and farmworkers. In addition, we will add data on the lack, or the abundance of alternative employment opportunities (e.g., off-farm work) as well as availability of healthcare providers, religious and civic institutions whom we have shown in previous work to be related with the quality of operators’ lives (Odabasi and Hartarska, 2018). Next, we will use these aggregate measures to evaluate how individual workers’ depressive tendencies are affected by the broader environment in which farmworkers operate.