While our current ag reality certainly demands this much needed tool, the existence of the USDA’s Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) as a matter of federal policy has always troubled me because it sends a message that there isn’t anything else we can do. I’ve had the good fortune to visit countless farms and ranches across the country in my career advocating for producers and talking about whatever is on their mind. In all those visits, one thing rings true - my job while I’m your Administrator must be to help put the Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Networks out of business.
Now this isn’t because FRSAN isn’t filling a very critical and necessary role across the country. Quite the opposite. Our producers are constantly expected to do more with less, innovate and improve, raise a family, preserve a legacy—and let’s not forget feeding and clothing the world while we’re at it. They are being asked to do all of this amid wars, trade policy, price gouging, and many other things that are beyond their control. Producers do this knowing there is no guarantee their sales will cover their expenses, even though the consumers pay evermore for the end products.
That last point is the largest to address if we’re going to be successful in removing stress for farmers. No more than 16 cents of every food dollar makes its way back to the farm gate according to the USDA Economic Research Service study of this matter. Somehow our society has taken something rewarding and enjoyable, and commoditized it to such a level that the external pressures of this reality often outweigh the fulfillment that drove folks to agriculture in the first place. It really all comes down to finance and investment in my estimation, but that’s another blog post altogether.
It’s an uphill battle, managing stress on the farm. I know from my own experience that there is a significant measure of stoicism in all our farmers. Growing up during the Farm Financial Crisis of the 1980s, I didn’t know that we were in trouble, and certainly didn’t feel the weight that must have been on my Mom’s and Dad’s shoulders as we loaded our cows on the truck as we “went broke”. Not only were services like the USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network not available back then, the ongoing stigma surrounding the use of mental health services was even more pervasive. Showing any signs of weakness, trauma, or feeling as your life’s work loads up and leaves the place just wasn’t accepted. My folks had their coping mechanisms—ironically, one of Dad’s was to go up on Scatter Butte and soak up the therapy offered by the country he grew up in.
I have a lot of respect for the team that manages USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) Program, which was launched by our colleagues at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to help “be Scatter Butte” for other producers. FSA is committed to doing everything we can to help them in their mission. Each region is establishing tools that farmers and agricultural service providers can access, including telephone helplines and websites, training, support groups, and outreach. I encourage you to visit their websites or to go to your state department of agriculture to learn more about the services they offer. At the same time, I firmly believe that FRSAN alone cannot solve the rural mental health crisis. We at the FSA need to continue working to improve our programs to provide farmers with a real financial safety net, while giving them opportunities to participate in more and better markets.
When I travel the countryside or meet with stakeholders here in Washington, D.C., I give my email and phone number out to every producer who I talk to, because I want them to know they’ve got a willing ear, and that not too long ago, I was struggling through many of the same challenges they face. Whatever the size, location, or unique challenges faced by our producers, you all deserve our support as you do the essential work of feeding our communities and taking care of our land for generations to come.
It’s ok to need someone to talk to, it’s ok to need to vent, it’s ok to seek advice; and FRSAN is only one of the resources available. I sincerely respect, appreciate, and admire the good folks working with FRSAN and look forward to continuing to work with them. And as your FSA Administrator, I’m going to do my best to ensure they have less to do.
Zach Ducheneaux is the Administrator for the USDA Farm Service Agency and can be reached by phone at 202-941-4675