Virginia Cooperative Extension helps farmers by providing mental health resources

By Max Esterhuizen

virginia cooperative extensionIn 2019, Jeremy Daubert, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Rockingham County, was giving a workshop to producers on how to deal with the stressors of farm life.

The challenges were many – from dropping prices and decreased sales to lost income and longer hours – and Daubert wanted to help farmers know they weren’t alone facing these issues.

There were resources to help, agencies to lean on, and others who were dealing with the exact same obstacles.

One of the farmers came up to Daubert after the session and thanked him for the insight and mental health resources that Extension has been providing to help them manage their stressors.

“We have farmers who have gone through our trainings who are walking away with feeling a little more recognized and valued because farm stress programming is more accessible to them,” said Kim Niewolny, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and director of the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation and the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition. “Farmers have shared with our team that they are receiving the critical resources they need. It is important they have a technical assistance community to turn to for help, which is a huge step forward.”

Such sessions — and training others on how to provide them — have gone on in scores of localities across the commonwealth over the past couple of years.

Stress and uncertainty existed before COVID-19, which amplified existing concerns for some farmers. About two years ago, the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition, with Extension as its foundation, launched programming on farm safety and mental health for new and existing farmers in partnership with AgrAbility, Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Pogrom, Farm Bureau, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and others.

Listening sessions conducted with Extension professionals statewide helped generate a Southern Extension Risk Management Education grant to fund outcomes of improving the health and wellness of farmers with a focus on addressing the needs of historically underserved farmers in the commonwealth. The project has grown into the Farm Safety, Health, and Wellness Initiative through Extension.

The team has published several mental health resources, implemented two Farm Dinner Theaters on farm stress and safety, and partnered with the Farm Stress Task Force led by Jewel Bronaugh, commissioner of agriculture.

Identification of potential anxiety and stress is a major component of helping farmers, and to that end, Extension sent agents to a training session at Michigan State University last year to offer farm stress programs in the commonwealth, not only for farmers but also for the people who interact with farmers frequently, a significant component to the Farm Safety, Health, and Wellness Initiative.

Extension agents and professional agency partners who have gone through trainings or webinars over the past year have shared that they are now more aware, comfortable, and skilled in identifying critical mental health needs of farmers and farm family members in their communities. This includes agents having much-needed tools for talking to and providing referrals for farmers and family members who may need professional support and health care interventions.

Cynthia Martel, Extension agent in Franklin County, and Daubert were sent to the two-day training session on how to help farmers and how to teach those who interact with them to see signs of stress, anxiety, or depression. Two other Extension agents are currently being trained to further bolster Extension’s efforts.

“This is important because there are a lot of farmers and people who interact with them, and this is a challenging subject – it’s not one people want to talk about,” Daubert said. “We’re trying to get the tools out to people to help them because the agriculture economy has been challenging for the last five years. Farming is stressful to start with; now we have COVID-19 on top of that. It’s just a lot of things stacking on top of each other, and we want to be able to help.”

Before COVID-19, that help was in the form of day-long training sessions, which have since gone online. Daubert and Martel created since training videos, one for the farmers and one for those who interact with them.

Identifying stress early in farmers is critical; the training session for people that works with farmers covers causes of stress, identifiers, market prices and trends, and more. Farmers are also taught how to recognize signs of stress in themselves and understanding how they react to stress.

Once they have an understanding of how they react to stress they are taught methods to mitigate it, whether it’s physical, such as exercising, stopping and taking deep breaths, or being more aware of their thoughts. Because it’s important for spouses and children to understand and identify any mental health issues, it’s encouraged that they attend the sessions as well.

“The last thing we talk about is suicide. We’re trying to encourage people to break the stigmatism about mental health. It’s a good thing to let people know that you need the help,” Martel said. “If you think somebody is in a stressful situation that has now gone to depression and you think that they could be somebody that is suicidal, be open with them and ask them the question.”

The goal is not to act as a health professional, but rather acting as a referrer to professional services, similar to providing first-aid to an injury before seeking medical care.

“We have to remember that agents are not health care professionals,” Niewolny said. “However, our Extension community is able to provide culturally responsive education and first-hand support with referral services when those needs are apparent. At the end of the day, being able to listen, read the signs, and to have referral system in place is crucial.”

Extension agents are still meeting one-on-one with farmers, following social distancing guidelines, keeping vital interaction going with farmers during COVID-19. It’s also a way for agents to check on the wellbeing of farmers, their farms, and their families.

“If you can save one life, then it’s worth it. It may be somebody I gave the presentation to you or it may be someone they know – and that’s great. We just want to provide resources to help farmers through difficult times,” Daubert said.


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