Higher incomes not alleviating farm stress

Despite a rising trend in farm income over the last 10 years, farmers are experiencing significant uncertainty and stress, says a University of Regina researcher.

Dr. Amber Fletcher, speaking to the House of Commons agriculture committee during its study of mental health, said her analysis of farm income between 1981 and 2017 “shows that since 2006, farm incomes have demonstrated dramatic variability that is unprecedented in the same period.”

“While overall trends may have crept upward slightly, variability and the associated uncertainty is at an all-time high.”

Fletcher studies farmers’ social vulnerability to climate disasters such as droughts and floods and identifies issues most top-of-mind.

Uncertainty, both economic and environmental, is the most commonly mentioned stressor.

“Farmers live and work with the constant threat of lost livelihood,” she said.

Rising input costs, driven by the corporate need for profit, is reducing the ability for farmers to profit, Fletcher told the committee.

Farmers have reacted by looking for economies of scale, but increasing farm size has come with higher levels of farm debt. Fletcher said when she interviews farmers for her research, they talk about how debt levels increase vulnerability, especially when a crop is lost due to flood or drought.

Fletcher also said that as the climate changes further, farmers can’t rely only on technology or insurance.

“There’s a pressing need for socioeconomic interventions to enhance climate resilience,” she said.

“It is my opinion as a researcher that farmer mental health challenges can be best addressed at the root cause, by taking steps to increase market certainty, (stabilize) farm incomes and control input costs.”

Farming is not an industry like any other, she added, and market intervention is necessary.

The committee also heard from one of its own.

T.J. Harvey, the Liberal MP for Tobique-Mactaquac, told his story of growing up on a seed potato farm and adding table and processing potatoes, as well as eggs, when he took over.

He sold the potato operation in 2011 after developing health problems due to dust, and the egg farm in 2017.

“As a farmer the conditions that I dealt with pre-exiting from agriculture were financial uncertainty, weather, market variability and guilt about my work-life balance,” he said.

He sold out through an auction sale and said the day after led to much soul-searching about the decision. He struggled with depression and said it took two years of hard work and counselling to work through it.

“It’s not based on size — I see farmers who have small, family-owned farms that milk 25 cows who deal with the mental challenges around agriculture,” Harvey said. “I see large operators that farm 10,000 to 15,000 acres that suffer with the exact same challenges.

“I would say more than anything (it’s) the desire on behalf of the farmer to feel like his contributions to society in this country are, one, acknowledged, and two, found to be important and substantive to every day Canadians.”

Witnesses from the Manitoba Farm and Rural Stress Line told the committee the line is the only one in Canada to be staffed solely by counsellors who have farming backgrounds. Its services are available only in Manitoba.

Program manager Janet Smith recommended funding for 24/7 farm stress services in every province, staffed by counsellors with farm backgrounds.

“Farmers want, need and deserve a range of mental health services that meets their unique mental health concerns,” she said. “Among other programs, we desperately need fully funded national farm stress services for Canadian farmers in crisis.”

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