COLUMNISTS

Farmer mental health, marketing and product placement

John Shutske

I’ve spent the last week debating whether or not it was a good idea to write my thoughts into an article like this.

My dad and mom at the farm auction in 2008 — his little “hobby H” in the front, 4020 behind with the 6620 combine

In the 50+ years my Dad farmed, he was a loyal John Deere customer. We had a JD 630, a 4020, and an “H,” all manufactured by Deere from 1939 to the early 1960s. In the mid 1970s as our farm grew, Dad invested in our newest tractor, the 4240 (I remember it being the newest because it had an 8-track tape player and a wonderfully powerful air conditioner).

Years later, when I dove deeply into research on the “throttles of farm stress” in 2018, I used the analogy of our old 4020. Truth be told, it was a 4010 with some changes when overhauled and then fitted with 4020 decals.

Oh, I’m also a beer drinker. I try to not go to excess — in part because I like the variety of different hoppy IPAs, and their fatiguing effect on your taste buds make their consumption rather self-limiting.

Further, I was an avid consumer of Anheuser-Busch products in college including our favored Budweiser back in the early 1980s. To me, beer has interesting and accessible tie back to my connections to the farm. I love the tastes — the subtle characteristics of different grains and types of malts, as well as all the varieties, flavors, and aromas from hops grown around different parts of the country. So, I dig beer.

My thinking about this article caused me to struggle when I began to see the promotional partnerships on display here a few weeks ago between Anheuser-Busch, John Deere, and an organization called Farm Rescue. An explanation of the “program” and the partnerships can be found in a May 15, 2022 press release that’s titled Busch Light and John Deere Team Up to Support American Farmers.

Farm Rescue, it turns out, focuses on things I have focused on throughout my career over the last 36 years. From the press release, Farm Rescue’s organizational mission includes efforts to “help farmers and ranchers who have experienced a major illness, injury or natural disaster by providing the necessary equipment and volunteer labor to perform time-sensitive services.”

It’s quite wonderful that Busch Light has contributed three-quarters of a million dollars to the Farm Rescue Foundation since 2019. The current partnership brings in John Deere with the press release stating, “For each case sold during its limited run, Busch Light will donate $1 to Farm Rescue, up to a maximum of $100K, with John Deere matching Busch Light’s donation.”

The ad campaign is compelling, colorful, and is as American and iconic as…I don’t know...John Deere tractors and Busch beer.

The ad campaign is compelling, colorful, and is as American and iconic as…I don’t know...John Deere tractors and Busch beer.

So — here is my concern. I have been working on issues of farmer and farm worker safety, health, injury prevention and mental health promotion since 1985. I was and still consider myself to be a farm kid (even at age 61).

When I was in college in the early 1980s, I saw my Dad and Mom struggle through difficult times. The farm economy was in the tank. I had three younger college-bound sisters. My Dad had purchased land and was impacted by escalating interest rates that pushed toward 18% my junior year at Purdue.

I worried about them each day and every night. Thank God my parents had deep faith and an uncanny ability to pursue help from all angles working with lenders, accountants, attorneys, and doing everything possible to shave input costs to a bare minimum. This included his investments in machinery. With the exception of my Dad’s JD 4240, all of his equipment was purchased used, and at one point in the mid to late 80s, he was farming close to 1000 acres in three different counties (all with four-row equipment at the time).

They also stayed tightly connected to our local school, church, and friends and neighbors in the community. They role modeled ways of “handling tough times” and those lessons stick with me today.

In 1985, I decided to go on for my PhD at Purdue and become a farm safety and health specialist and teach at a land grant university like my mentor at Purdue. I was also sickened by the death rate in U.S. agriculture, and personally had my own close calls in the summer of 1981 when I worked full-time by a stressed and stretched-out farmer who provided zero training and tended to run things into the ground (literally). It gave me a much greater appreciation for my Dad and how he ran his operation.

At the time I went on to my farm safety studies in agricultural engineering (1985) the rate of fatal farm injuries was 49 per 100,000 workers, or 1600 actual people. People just like my Dad. And tragically, this high rate did not include young people under the age of 14 which I had learned accounted for several hundred more deaths and families whose lives were affected forever.

I also learned in my studies that we should not call these events “farm accidents.” Accidents are defined as events that happen as a result of chance, fate, an “act of God,” or are otherwise highly unpredictable. Turns out they are predictable. A few risk factors include overly long work hours, alcohol use, lack of training, poorly maintained equipment, missing safety features, or specific activities (known to most farmers) like failing to disengage moving equipment before repairs, or working near/with larger unpredictable animals like bulls or cows with newborn calves.

In the late 1980s, I worked for three years with the Illinois Farm Bureau’s insurance company, and there during the 1988 summer drought in the Midwest, got deeply immersed in formal training on issues of farm stress, mental health, and suicide prevention. That work continued after I moved to Minnesota (1990–2008) where we developed programs like “Farm Alarm: Coping with Stress,” a two-hour workshop that featured a theatrical presentation with professional actors portraying issues of stress, mental health, and suicide risk while also role modeling effective strategies to improve mental health.

Since 2016, I have been back doing work on farmer health, mental health, stress management, and suicide prevention after spending about eight years working in university administration.

Over those last six years, I have taught workshops and spoken at conferences for people from about 45 states who have included farmers, agricultural organization leaders, lenders, accountants, attorneys, clergy, mental health professionals, doctors, nurses, and others.

I have had 100s of one-on-one conversations with farmers and ranchers (or their concerned spouses). I have stayed for an hour or more after most programs coaching couples, finding resources, listening to their tearful stories, and even pursuing specific communication we are trained to do in suicide prevention.

I’ve learned through my interactions with farmers and the professionals who serve them that time is the enemy of empathy, and have done my best to encourage listening, thoughtful communication, and follow-through. I love this work and I love the people. I am certain that between these efforts and similar experiences with my classroom students that I’ve saved lives through efforts both in safety as well as mental health.

So why am I writing THIS article? I find the juxtaposition of a marketing campaign that features a large and powerful, multi-national farm machinery company; a brewing company that had over $15B in 2018 revenue; and the Farm Rescue organization to be jarring. When I first saw the spread in Successful Farming magazine last month, I was shocked and actually wondered if it was a joke of some type.

The May/June cover of successful Farming magazine

Why is it jarring? Do I really need to go through reasons? I will try. If you want to follow up with me after reading this article, I am happy to provide more data, research articles, stories, testimonials, and evidence. But here are a few things.

  1. Farmers have a high rate of suicide. Two of the most critical risk factors for suicide are untreated depression and ALCOHOL. If you’d like to learn more about this, I’d like to recommend that you pursue a course in suicide prevention like QPR or SafeTalk.
  2. The current rate of fatal farm injuries is half of what it was when I began in 1985 (now in the mid 20s per 100,000 farmers/workers), but that rate is seven times higher than all other industries combined. Alcohol and substance use (including prescription medicines) are known risk factors as is stress and other concerns connected to mental health.
  3. In my state (Wisconsin), when we’ve done in-depth looks at farm work-related fatalities, we find a shocking number occur on highways — often involving collisions between motor vehicles and large farm equipment. On highways, we know there to be a clear connection between alcohol and tragic “accidents.” By the way, a large percentage of our farm work-related deaths in Wisconsin involve the general public because of this prevalence of roadway collisions.
  4. Advertising and marketing works. Thankfully, there are very subtle but encouraging signs that we are beginning to breakdown the stigmas associated with talking about stress and mental health. When a person dies by suicide, we are better able to name it and talk about it. We see growing levels of comfort in having empathetic conversations about where people are at with their feelings (including even being able to talk about thoughts related to suicide). I give credit to our partners from the public and private sector through their help with marketing and use of social media. But, marketing is a double edged sword. I’ll be honest — the beautiful green Deere machines in the ad pictures I am seeing in combination with the crisp, snowcapped mountains on the Busch packaging is making my mouth water as I speak. But, I don’t have to go out and do chores tonight or pull in the first cutting of hay before the rain starts later tonight. Many farmers do.

So — I am concerned deeply about the wisdom and implications of this marketing/media campaign. Is this really a good thing?

We do see more and more companies joining in on issues of farmer stress, mental health, providing financial and other support to members of the farming community. I want to acknowledge that most of these organizations and companies WANT to do the right thing.

But, I also want to suggest it be done with care and with a full degree of sincerity and integrity. When I worked in administration, I told my colleagues who reported to me to never come in my office and simply complain. Come in having thought about the situation and try to suggest positive remedies. So — here are a few ideas or remedies I want to suggest.

  1. If you work for a company, organization, non-profit or other entity that wants to contribute efforts, resources or attention to farmers in crisis (including issues of mental health), consider having an expert in these matters be part of planning. I am not talking about reviewing after the fact, but try to engage the right people early on. I am not throwing this out there so I can be paid to consult. I will help you for free. If I am not available, I can give you a list of other colleagues around the country.
  2. Any organization who serves farmers or others in rural communities should really consider some level of formal training in issues of communication during times of duress, mental health, and suicide prevention. While I realize Farm Rescue is but one example that mentions issues of disasters, farm injuries, etc. there are hundreds out there. There is also much good content on skills like empathetic communication, suicide prevention, and other highly helpful and effective methods to assist.
  3. Take a bit of time to read a bit more about how stress, mental health, and suicide risk is connected to alcohol, distraction, unpredictable weather/markets, and any issue over which the individual feels they have little or no control. This content is helpful for farmers, but frankly is also useful for any of us.

Please do feel free to reach out to me if you have questions or want more resources.

I did not want this article to be perceived as a slap down and worked hard to try and incorporate the right tone. I really do respect the parties involved and I know that intentions are good.

But, similarly, if we really do want to see things like improvements in mental health, decreases in suicide numbers, or a reduction in farm fatalities and serious injuries, it will take serious, thoughtful and coordinated efforts. We all have a role as well as a stake in the issue.

What ideas do YOU have? Let’s figure out together how we can do better!

John Shutske is a professor of biological systems and engineering and is also an extension specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

John Shutske is a professor and extension specialist with the UW-Madison Department of Biological Systems Engineering and UW-Madison Division of Extension, and director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and can be reached at shutske@wisc.edu