I am a second year PhD student in the school of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, where my research focuses on the relationships between soil quality and farmers’ health. This research is informed by a twenty year career working with the BC provincial public service (in six different ministries), and by more recent work on a national policy scan for rural economic development, alongside advisory roles with the National Farmers’ Union mental health working group, the Pacific Regional Society of Soil Science, and the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture, among others.
In the summer of 2021, I had the pleasure of visiting 36 farms in rural communities on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and the Sunshine Coast. I visited these farms to collect soil samples as part of my PhD research, and to talk to farmers about the relationships between soil quality and farmers’ health.
Soil health keeps me up at night. I worry about soil erosion, brought on by the overuse of practices like tillage and the application of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. I worry about declining biodiversity, water quality and food security, especially in the face of COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing frequency of extreme climate events. I worry about what is happening to the mind-numbing variety of fascinating organisms that cycle nutrients and hold water in the soil. But more than anything, I worry about the health of farmers responsible for making decisions about what they grow and how it is grown.
Most farmers live, work and play in rural communities, where social connection is critical to physical, mental and economic well being. With a decline in the number of farmers over time, and increasing pressure on food systems, the mental health of farmers is of national concern, identified in a recent federal Standing Senate Committee report. Recent research by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and Dr. Briana Hagen (below) indicates that farmers are suffering, and that the pandemic only made things worse.
Why are farmers uniquely susceptible to stress and mental health pressures? The reasons appear to be complex and systemic in nature. With the mass movement away from the farm after the second world war, farms became larger, rural communities became smaller, and many of these people and places became invisible to the outside world. Urban areas continue to rely on rural areas, through the extraction of resources such as timber, water, and minerals. Current policies tend to focus on large-scale, provincial level priorities, which means that the rewards of this bounty are often not returned to rural areas. This can compound a feeling of rural isolation, and a sentiment of being left behind.
This sentiment is backed by evidence. Most small-scale farmers are virtually invisible to current policy frameworks. Despite occurring in rural areas, a recent policy review identifies that provincial and territorial strategies, plans and programmes related to natural resources, energy, climate and agriculture almost universally ignore opportunities for rural economic development. In agriculture, the vast majority of programming and funding is designed for the large-scale farmers that support global markets. The National Farmers Union Resources website shows that mental health resources for farmers are piecemeal, information focused, and treat only the symptoms of broader systemic issues.
Farmers, particularly those in rural areas, are on the front lines of climate change, as their homes and livelihoods are tied directly to the land and unpredictable economic and environmental conditions. Where farmers live is where they work and where they play. Most farmers operate under significant debt burdens and face pressures of legacy. Margins are tight, risks are complex, and costs are increasing everywhere. Yet farmers are some of the most innovative and intelligent people I know.
Most of the farmers I visited for field work managed small scale, diverse operations on less than 10 acres, growing products destined for local markets, CSAs, restaurants, friends and family. These farmers were former chiropractors, nurses, teachers, musicians, artists, sociologists, biologists, foresters, computer network designers, dental hygienists, real estate agents, architects and counsellors, among others. I could not have been more impressed with the level of intelligence and curiosity that these individuals brought to our conversations and their work. Their primary interest in the research I was undertaking often stemmed from a desire “not to make things worse.”
When I asked about the sources of stress they experienced day to day, the primary responses (perhaps not surprisingly) were financial, time/task management, labour and isolation. Despite working full-time, most farmers didn’t earn a salary, and farming alone did not cover the costs of running the farm, or living expenses. Someone is making money on expensive food, but it doesn’t seem to be the farmers. There are virtually no financial supports for farmers working at the small scale, especially for those looking to transition to climate-friendly soil building practices.
There is a mismatch between current policy objectives and farmers’ objectives. The current framework could be designed to improve environmental, economic, and social wellbeing that leverages the unique strengths and opportunities in unique rural communities. Small scale farmers are deeply integrated into local systems, and are critical partners in the path to climate adaptation and rural development.
Guest Contributor: Brook Hayes
· Government of Canada Standing Select Committee Report: Released in 2019, “Mental Health: A Priority for our Farmers” report outlines 10 recommendations for attention.
· National Farmers’ Union Consolidated List of Mental Health Resources specifically for farmers, organized by region.
· National Survey of Farmer Mental Health: Conducted by Dr. Andria Jones-Britton in 2018 involving over 1,000 producers across Canada. Follow-up Assessment in 2022.
· Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms: Includes a media kit, a report on mental health, and farm business management.
· Rooted in Strength: Provides an overview and assessment tool to support famers to identity and manage sources of stress and access mental health resources.
· Pan-Canadian Scan of Policies for Rural Places: Released in 2022