The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that the net income of farmers has decreased by 50% since 2013 and it may remain at the lowest level until the end of the 2018. According to the latest available Agricultural Census data, in 2012, over two thirds of farmers were 55 years or older and over half were in retirement age. Farmers’ advanced age, coupled with prolonged time of lower incomes are likely to affect farmers’ mental health. In 2016, the CDC estimated that suicide rates among “farming, fishing, and forestry" occupational groups are significantly higher than in any other occupation.1 We propose to evaluate what factors and to what degree have contributed to the higher suicide rates and mental health problems of farmers' and workers in farming, fishing, and forestry.
Specifically, we will investigate how demographic factors, commodity and inputs price variability, policy induced change, and climate variability, affect farmers’ mental health and suicide. Following previous works in the Southeast highlighting the importance of availability of mental health support, the proposed research will incorporate the availability of and the extent to which existing mental health support infrastructure in rural areas is helpful in countervailing some of the economic pressures that farmers face.
Specific objectives of the project are:
Identify the specific demographic, climate, market volatility, and policy changes that serves as external stressors and affect farm workers’ suicide and accidental death from on-farm injury (a proxy for mental stress). Estimate their marginal impact.
Identify if and how accessibility of mental health support infrastructure helps farm workers’ mental treatment and thus prevents suicide and deaths.
Estimate differences in suicide rates and their seasonal variability between the five southern states and other states.
Use the results and accumulated data to motivate larger grant application
Anticipated outcomes include a journal article, a dataset, and an impact analysis methodology, which can be used to motivate a larger research proposal that would bring attention to the topic within the NIH, USDA, and other granting agencies. We will provide the marginal value of the impact of various socio-economic, policy, and climatic factors on farmer suicide that can be useful for designing better policies and mental health interventions and suicide prevention.
1 While the CDC later withdrew their study and is recalculating these rates, a careful reading of the correction notice suggests that the overestimation is likely very small, if any. The first reason is that adding to the rate denominator the farmers-managers, which were accidentally excluded because farmers were classified as managers and not workers, does not change the rate much as there are not that many full-time farmers. The second reason why on-farm suicide rates are likely still high is because many farmers’ deaths are misreported as accidents, thus leading to the undervaluing of the nominator of the ratio.