Ontario farmers are fighting for mental-health support

Climate change. Unpredictable harvests. Barn fires. Farmers face constant threats to their livelihood — and that can take a psychological toll
By Jon Thompson - Published on Jan 16, 2020
Cows on a farm in Emo, an Ontario farming town north of the Minnesota border. (Jon Thompson)

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EMO — Tom Morrish can remember the first time he encountered mental illness. He was 11, playing on a dirt road near his home in Emo, a farming town along the Rainy River north of the Minnesota border. “The lady — and we knew who it was — she came just screaming and yelling and running down the road,” he says. “We got out of the way and said, ‘Poor so-and-so. She flipped out.’”

The 80-year-old cattle farmer says that, while the woman’s family wasn’t ostracized, there was a stigma. In Emo in the 1940s, he notes, mental health was not openly discussed.

“You’d never let it be known that you had a problem. People occasionally had a mental breakdown, but at that time, it was, ‘The poor guy went nuts,’” Morrish says. “Now it’s, ‘The poor fellow needs help.’”

That shift in public understanding is becoming critical today. A difficult fall for local farmers left many struggling to stay afloat — and the increased stress has brought mental-health issues in the community to the forefront.

“This was a nasty year,” says Kim Jo Bliss, who has been the research technician at the University of Guelph Crop Research Station in Emo since 1988. “We were in pretty much drought, and then it rained on the 17th of August, and it didn’t stop raining until the end of October. There were three decent days in there, but, after that amount of rain, there’s nothing you can do.”

The 409 millimetres of rainfall over that period was well above average, according to the Rainy River district chapter of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, an organization that represents farmers across the province. Bliss and her students were forced to leave experiments rotting in the fields.

“I was feeling stressed here at the research station and at home,” she says. “I’m fairly tight with the majority of producers here, and they were stressed, so I was starting to take on their stress — and I was hurting for them. Not to sound cocky here, but I still get a cheque every two weeks whether my plots come in or not, but, as a producer, when your canola’s lying in the field, that is your cheque.”

According to John Sawatzky, president of the Rainy River Soil and Crop Association, the season seemed to get worse by the day. Farmers had to ration and share hay; equipment broke or got stuck in the mud; the district cattle producers’ sales barn burned down in September, just before it was time to go to market; the Canadian National Railway strike in November meant that there wasn’t enough propane to fuel the community’s crop dryer.

And climate change will mean more unpredictability. Merrin Macrae, associate professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo, says the Great Lakes region of Ontario is experiencing more severe weather.

“We’ll see more rainfall but also more extreme rainfall — those super-soakers that can flood fields and those spring storms that waterlog for days,” she says. “On the other hand, now we’re in a humid landscape where we frequently see rain and we don’t have a lot of drought, but you’re going to have fluctuation between a lot of rain and very dry conditions. There’s also going to be uncertainty around planting and harvesting.”

Adelle Stewart, founding executive director of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a mental-health training organization for agriculture workers, says that such uncertainty can take a toll on mental health: “Agricultural stress isn’t going to go away. We know environmental factors and the unpredictability of them contribute to the extreme stress and potential mental illness of our producers of all walks.”

Morrish says that farming has become generally more stressful. His father, he notes, milked 12 cows to make a living. When Morrish established his own farm in 1965, he needed 60. He estimates that farmers today need a minimum of 250 cows to turn a profit.

Lisa Teeple, the Rainy River District president of the OFA, knew her community needed help. “We’re seeing people hitting the wall,” she says. “We’re seeing people not being able to cope. People are expressing anger in public meetings and one-on-one speaking, where normally they’d be able to coast through it.”

At the OFA annual general meeting in Hamilton in November, Teeple asked for assistance for her region, including funding for mental-health programming — the first such request in the history of the federation. The organization passed a resolution to offer support and it will meet with the local board next month to work out how. “Farmers are very typical: ‘Just suck it up. It will get better,’” she says. “But then, oh my God, it’s not getting better. ‘What do I do?’ No one ever thinks of the next step: ‘Is there help out there?’ This is our way of saying it’s all right to ask for help.”

At the same meeting, there was a call for the federation to develop its own mental-health programming for Ontario farmers more generally. “Farmers are starting to open up. There’s less of that farmer stoicism, and they’re able to talk about issues,” says federation researcher Peter Sykanda. “From the OFA side of things, we’ve had crises in the past, but what I want to see is a long-term approach, not just crisis funding.”

In late January, the Do More Agriculture Foundation will offer a free, two-day mental-health first-aid course in Emo. In 2018, its first year offering the course, the group trained 212 people. This year, with increased donations from Rainy River area businesses, the organization hopes to double that number.

According to a University of Guelph survey conducted in 2015-16, 58 per cent of producers met the criteria for anxiety classification, 45 per cent reported high stress, and 35 per cent would be classified as depressed. Forty per cent of farmers said they would “feel uneasy” about seeking help. Stewart says that anecdotal evidence suggests farmer suicide is a growing concern (the government does not currently track such statistics).

The right way for Emo to pull through, Sawatzky says, is for farmers look out for one another. “We’re farmers because we love it,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense why we do it, but we love it — and working together is the best option for a community. If I jump on your toes today, I might need your help tomorrow, but you can’t help me, because you’re hobbling. Think of the future and the next generation.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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