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Study finds high stress levels in ag producers

'With everything going on in the world, the prices and stuff have affected me for the last three years,' a participant said.

March 17, 2023

5 Min Read
Sugarcane harvest
A combine harvests sugarcane.USDA ARS

By Mike Wolterbeek

With rising production costs, increased workloads, family issues and livestock uncertainties – to name a few challenges – farmers and ranchers are facing health issues related to stress at higher levels than seen in the general population, according to a study led by the University of Nevada, Reno for a collaboration of universities around the western United States.

"With everything going on in the world, the prices and stuff have affected me for the last three years,” a participant in the study said. "It’s been really a hardship with the fluctuation; I mean we have always had fluctuation on cattle prices and hay prices, but nothing as severe as we have had the past three years.”

The study is part of a larger effort to reach out to farmers and ranchers across the West through the Western Regional Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Project. The overall project is funded by a USDA NIFA grant with the goal of developing programs to assist farmers and ranchers in 13 Western states and four territories to manage the debilitating effects of stress. A separate survey is underway for farm and ranch workers.

While the ages of respondents range from 18 to 70 years old, the average age of respondents is 45 years old, the average number of years working in agriculture is 21, and it’s a well-educated audience.

“While it’s a normal condition for all of us to experience stress, the agricultural producers appear to experience higher levels of stress,” Brenda Freeman, one of the authors of the study and a professor of counseling in the College of Education and Human Development, said. “Extreme stress can be debilitating, it affects our minds and our health.”

In her more than 25 years as a licensed counselor, Freeman, who is also an Extension mental health specialist at the University, has seen how stress can affect individuals.

“People often think stress is a lightweight topic,” she said. “But, they are missing an understanding of the multiple ways chronic stress can impact their work, their business, their health and their families. Chronic stress can seep into all aspects of their lives.”

Finding is concerning

The finding of higher than normal stress levels for farmers and ranchers is concerning because prior research shows chronic stress can be related to higher incidence of cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, mental health concerns such as depression, and other detrimental behaviors such as substance abuse and even suicide.

The top six issues identified as leading to stress for producers were: production costs (84%); legislative issues related to agriculture (78%); workload (77.9 %); family (77.9 %); livestock (disease and injury) (75.7 %); and lack of time (75.3 %).

In addition to identifying the types of stressors that agriculture producers are facing, the survey also identified the types of stress management topics the respondents would be most interested in learning more about.

"This report captures the perspectives of the Nevada farmer/rancher producers who responded to our survey on issues of stress and coping," Freeman said. “This helps us to build appropriate resources and programs available for them to manage the debilitating effects of stress and the best ways to reach out to farmers and ranchers.”

The study identified that the best strategies for supporting Nevada farmers and ranchers were social media and online classes with information and webinars. Older people want written materials only, and most respondents preferred online resources. 

“It’s a high-touch field, with neighbor-to-neighbor programs and tele-health for those who want it – using the College of Education & Human Development’s Downing Clinic,” Freeman said. “But because of the stigma of mental health, they don’t prefer high-touch solutions and would rather receive help anonymously.”  

Freeman’s colleague in the study, Lindsay Chichester, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor and Extension educator in Douglas County, is one of the researchers who designed the survey. She said producers often don’t have good “help-seeking skills.”

“We tend to be stoic, and not want to admit we need help, not even to ourselves,” she said.

Growers more reserved

A comment from one of the study participants affirmed Chichester’s assessment.

“People in this industry tend to be more reserved and less likely to talk about their problems,” the participant shared through the survey.

University of Nevada, Reno graduate students assisting with the research are Jessi Gutheil, Katy Breeding and Monty Minter. While the first survey was for producers, meaning farm or ranch owners or managers, a separate survey for farm and ranch workers is underway, and they are looking for participants.

“We are in the second round of data collection now, which is to gather survey data from frontline workers, including migrant workers,” Freeman said. “We’re looking at stressors the workers experience such as housing, working conditions and food insecurity. We are trying to better understand the stressors that agricultural workers face, as well as topics of interest for stress management.”

Workers in agriculture – either full-time or part-time or as a seasonal or migrant worker – are invited to take the 12-minute survey, which is available in English and Spanish. For their time, participants will be entered in a drawing to win a $50 Amazon gift card, as well as be given the opportunity to participate in a follow-up phone interview for an additional $75 gift card. Results will be used to create stress management resources for the farm worker population across the western U.S. The survey is open until March 31.

For more information on the survey or on assistance available to help producers experiencing stress, contact Freeman at [email protected] or 775-682-9353, or Chichester at [email protected] or 775-782-9960.

[Mike Wolterbeek is a communications officer at University of Nevada, Reno.]

Source: University of Nevada, Reno

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