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Farm Bill Pilot Program To Address Farmer Mental Health

Research shows that farmers experience rates of especially high anxiety compared to other jobs. What’s more, farmers in rural areas like Montana often have limited access to mental health resources.

In late April, Montana farmer Michelle Erickson-Jones posted a video to Twitter.

In the video, on a windy day against a green field and overcast sky, Erickson-Jones talks about uncertainty around trade, dropping wheat prices, and her issues finding a therapist.

Around 100 people replied. Some said they too had experienced anxiety. Others offered a sympathetic ear and words of encouragement.

The outreach wasn’t really unexpected, according to Erickson-Jones. Mental health in the agriculture industry is an ongoing conversation, and Erickson-Jones is active in the Twitter agricultural network, or #AgTwitter.

“But I was surprised certainly by the volume of responses,” she said.

Michelle Erickson-Jones and her husband, both part of multi-generational farming families, live in Broadview, a small farming community about 30 miles north of Billings. They grow wheat, malt barley and other grains, in addition to managing a small cow-calf operation.

Erickson-Jones said she posted the video after her search for a therapist to help with her anxiety. Despite living so close to a city, she said she ran into a number of unexpected obstacles.

“By then, I was frustrated. I always thought that once you decided find a counselor or get help, it was fairly easy to do, not that it took hours of phone calls and people not calling you back or people that weren’t taking new clients,” she said.

She wanted to draw attention to that.

“We share a lot of information about the suicide helpline and what to do then, but we don’t share as much information about how to get help for anxiety, what are the resources out there, who can you go to," said Erickson-Jones. "It’s a gap I’ve noticed in our outreach.”

A federal program 10 years in the works may fill those gaps.

Matt Perdue, Government Relations Director with the National Farmers Union, is an advocate for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, or FRSAN.

“Essentially what this program would do is it would wrap a community of support around the farmers and give them better access to resources," he said.

FRSAN failed to win funding when it was first created in 2008. It was re-established last year under the Farm Bill, and Congress recently earmarked $2 million for a grant-based pilot program.

Perdue said local nonprofits who apply for the grants will determine what the program looks like in their area.

“What it does is it provides stress assistance activities in rural areas,” said Perdue. “So, it partners with cooperative extension, department of agriculture, nonprofits, to provide workshops and trainings on helping farmers in stressful times. It would help establish hotlines and websites that folks could go to for resources or to talk to somebody.”

Perdue said the grant application period should open sometime this summer.

The National Farmers Union, along with other advocacy groups, sent a letter in March asking Congress to fund the entire program next year with the full amount of $10 million annually.

Copyright 2019 Yellowstone Public Radio

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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