Baldwin, Ernst over bill to provide mental health support to agricultural communities

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-IA, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy, have introduced the bipartisan Facilitating Accessible Resources for Mental Health and Encouraging Rural Solutions For Immediate Response to Stressful Times (FARMERS FIRST) Act to provide the nation’s agricultural community with critical mental health support and resources.

A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found agricultural workers have a higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

To assist these farmers in crisis, Ernst and Baldwin’s bipartisan legislation would provide seed funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to state departments of agriculture, state extension services and non-profits to establish helplines, provide suicide prevention training for farm advocates, create support groups and re-establish the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.

In addition to these resources, the bill would establish a Farm and Ranch Stress Assessment Committee to better understand how agricultural workers’ mental health impacts rural development and provide recommendations for addressing mental health care needs within the agriculture community.

“Farmers are the backbone of our rural economy and leaders in our rural communities. Washington has been slow to recognize the challenges that farmers are facing and the daily stressors that they experience during difficult years,” Baldwin said. “The FARMERS FIRST Act will make sure that when there is a crisis on the farm, farmers know they are not alone and there are resources available to help them find a path through tough times. This bipartisan reform will provide funding for local resources and expand access to stress reduction strategies and suicide prevention programs that will help tackle this problem and save lives.”

Ernst said, “The incredibly high rate of suicide within the agricultural community underscores the urgent need to act to address this crisis. We must do more to ensure those who work tirelessly from sunrise to sundown to feed and fuel our world have access to the mental health resources and supports they need. With more than 88,000 farms and over 150,000 farmers in Iowa, our agricultural community is the backbone of our state, I am glad to partner with Sen. Baldwin to improve the quality and timeliness of mental health care for the hardworking folks in our agricultural communities.”

Additional co-sponsors include Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND; Jerry Moran, R-KS; Michael Bennet, D- CO; and Cory Gardner, R-CO. The bipartisan FARMERS FIRST Act also has growing support from more than a dozen agriculture-focused organizations.

“Farmers are facing uncertain times and need adequate services to deal with this mounting stress in the industry. The resources provided by Sens. Baldwin, Ernst, Moran and Heitkamp’s FARMERS FIRST Act provide tools farmers need to manage these difficulties, allowing them to connect with all the resources at their disposal. I thank the Senators for introducing this vital legislation,” said National Corn Growers Association Executive Vice President Jon Doggett.

“The National Farm Medicine Center shares the goals of FARMERS FIRST Act co-sponsors in wanting to increase access to mental health care for the farm and ranch populations, who are subject to such unpredictable and unfavorable economic and environmental stressors,” said Josie Rudolphi, Ph.D., National Farm Medicine Center.

“The continued slump in milk prices is creating both economic and emotional stress for dairy farmers, which is why we support the continuation of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network and the FARMERS FIRST Act, sponsored by Sens. Baldwin and Ernst. We hope to see it move forward as part of the 2018 farm bill,” said Jim Mulhern of the National Milk Producers Federation.

“As rural communities and economies struggle to come back from the Great Recession, many in the agriculture industry who have experienced little recovery are at higher risk of substance abuse and suicide. We applaud the bipartisan work of our rural health advocates in introducing legislation to provide a key resource for those at risk,” said Jessica Seigel of the National Rural Health Association.

“With the current situation of farmers working below their cost of production, we are seeing a resurgence of financial and emotional stress and an increasing rate of farmer suicide, similar to the farm crisis of the 1980s. There is a desperate need for the Federal Government to develop pricing formulas that insure farmers and farm workers have a living wage, since financial stress is the driving force in farmer depression and suicide. Re-establishing the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network can provide help for farmers who are suffering and contemplating suicide as their only way out,” said Jim Goodman, NFFC board president and organic dairy and beef farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

“With net farm income cut in half over the last five years, rural stress levels are dangerously high. We cannot afford to lose one more farmer. This bill is a crucial first step to create a strong safety net for America’s family farmers,” said Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar. “We urge Congress to come together and act immediately in a positive and preventative way to get help to the countryside. Farmers and the future of our food depend on it.”

“Farmers and ranchers are among the hardest-working class of citizens. With net farm income plummeting more than 50 percent in the last six years, the job has become even tougher. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is intended to help ranching families in tough times overcome their challenges. The United States Cattlemen’s Association thanks Senator Joni Ernst and Senator Tammy Baldwin for supporting U.S. producers. We look forward to working with Congress in the drafting of the upcoming farm bill to address the underlying causes contributing to declining farm income and to advance policies that strengthen the bottom lines of U.S. cattle producers,” said Kenny Graner, president, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

“The Rural and Agriculture Council of America appreciates Sens. Joni Ernst and Tammy Baldwin making resources available for ranching and farming families who may need it during this period of declining farm income. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is intended to help rural America overcome tough times. This bill is not a means to an end, but rather, it provides for much needed resources and tools. RACA will continue working with Congress and the administration to promote policies that bolster the incomes of rural American families,” said Chris Skorupa, vice president of the Rural and Agriculture Council of America.

“Last fall, we traveled across Kansas and Iowa to report on the suicide crisis on America’s farms. This bi-partisan effort will re-authorize and fund the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which will provide life-saving assistance to America’s farmers and farmworkers. We extend our gratitude to the farmers, family members and advocates who—from fields, pickup trucks and around kitchen tables—bravely shared their stories with us,” said Debbie Weingarten and Audra Mulkern of the Female Farmer Project.

“NASDA applauds the bipartisan introduction of this bill to help individuals deal with the extreme stresses facing agriculture by providing resources for tools like stress hotlines and web services,” said National Association of State Departments of Agriculture CEO Barbara Glenn.

The FARMERS FIRST Act has been endorsed by American Agri-Women; American Soybean Association; Female Farmer Project; National Association of State Departments of Agriculture; National Corn Growers Association; National Cotton Council; National Family Farm Coalition; National Farm Medicine Center; National Farmers Union; National Milk Producers Federation; National Rural Health Association; National Young Farmers Coalition; Rural and Agricultural Council of America; and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

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Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].