WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Highlighting the economic stress in agriculture and what the National Farmers Union called "the alarmingly high rate of suicide amongst farmers and ranchers," a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Thursday to provide more mental health resources in rural America.
The bill is called the "Facilitating Accessible Resources for Mental Health and Encouraging Rural Solutions for Immediate Response to Stressful Times," or FARMERS FIRST. It was introduced by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, along with Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
Ideally, the bill will serve as a marker to get added to the Senate version of the farm bill.
Farmer suicides have received a lot of focus over the last year as farmer incomes have fallen to roughly half of what they were in 2013. A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control on suicides in 12 states found that workers in the farming, fishing and forestry occupational group had the highest rate of suicide (84.5 per 100,000). Among males, farming, fishing and forestry also accounted for the highest rates of suicide (90.5 per 100,000). One note about that study was that it was based on 2012 data, when farm income was higher.
CDC suicide data from 2016 shows Western states have a much higher rate of suicide than other regions of the country. The data does not detail occupations, though.
FARMERS FIRST would reauthorize the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) and authorize $50 million for the program, which has never been funded even though it was first created in the 2008 farm bill. FRSAN would then provide grants to Extension services and nonprofit organizations that offer stress-assistance programs to farmers, ranchers and others in agricultural jobs. It would also establish an assessment committee to develop a report on farmer stress.
"Farming and ranching is a highly stressful occupation," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. "As the downturn in the farm economy worsens, many producers are finding themselves in a state of crisis. The FARMERS FIRST Act would provide farmers with support they need to weather these tough times. NFU has long advocated for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, and we applaud the efforts of these Senators to expand the program and set a funding target. We urge Congress to reauthorize FRSAN and provide it with robust funding in the next Farm Bill."
Baldwin and Ernst said the bill would ensure there are resources available to help farmers find a path to deal with tough times.
"Farmers are the backbone of our rural economy and leaders in our rural communities. Washington has been slow to recognize the challenges that farmers are facing, and the daily stressors that they experience during difficult years, Baldwin said.
"The incredibly high rate of suicide within the agricultural community underscores the urgent need to act to address this crisis," Ernst said. "We must do more to ensure those who work tirelessly from sunrise to sundown to feed and fuel our world have access to the mental health resources and supports they need."
The National Association of State Directors of Agriculture applauded the introduction of the bill, noting it fills a need to help farmers deal with the stresses facing agriculture, said NASDA CEO Barbara Glenn.
"This bill will enable farmers and ranchers to connect with real people who can help them through their uniquely stressful situations," Glenn said. "The outreach services and trainings highlighted in this bill can reach producers regardless of where they are located and what they're facing. State departments of agriculture are on the front lines with producers helping tackle these issues and the FARMERS FIRST Act will create needed coordination of these efforts."
Along with NFU and NASDA, the bill drew statements of support from the National Rural Health Association, National Family Farm Coalition, Wisconsin Farmers Union, National Corn Growers Association and National Milk Producers Federation.
"The continued slump in milk prices is creating both economic and emotional stress for dairy farmers, which is why we support the continuation of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network and the FARMERS FIRST Act, sponsored by Senators Baldwin and Ernst. We hope to see it move forward as part of the 2018 Farm Bill," said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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