As farmers lined up for a lunch of pork chops, string beans and hush puppies, Tom Vinson sat down to have his blood pressure checked.
“I’ve been farming all my life,” Vinson said, pushing back the bill of his ball cap. “This is the roughest I’ve ever seen.”
He was talking about the unprecedented run of hardships that have plagued North Carolina farmers this year: hurricanes, flooding, tariffs, trade wars, low commodity prices, lawsuits. And while the financial toll of livestock and crops and damaged equipment from the storms has been widely reported — more than $1 billion in agricultural losses from Hurricane Florence — the human toll is often overlooked.
Vinson, who lives near Clayton, was among about 60 farmers gathered at the Johnston County Cooperative Extension auditorium last month to hear about health, financial advice, bankruptcy protection and — most unpleasant of all — how to talk about stress before it kills them.
“Farmers are very private people,” said Robin Tutor-Marcom with the N.C. Agromedicine Institute at East Carolina University, which is trying to help the state’s farmers through trying times. “They are not openly speaking to anyone about the concerns they have, so they’re keeping in all in. In a sense, they’re suffocating in their stress.”
Tutor-Marcom who comes from a farming family, has been with the institute for more than 11 years and says the stress level has never been so pronounced. In a phone interview, she said she gets daily calls from relatives, cooperative extension agents, the N.C. Farm Bureau and others who work with farmers asking where to get help for them.
The institute, which is a partnership with ECU, NCSU and N.C. A&T is trying to line up mental health professionals who have backgrounds in the agricultural community. It is looking at training people like loan officers who are on the front lines with them. From a mental health provider’s point of view, she said, farmers bring unique problems.
Farming provides a sense of identity and it also takes up most of their time, she said. They feel the weight of preserving a tradition that has been in their family for generations.
“For them if they fail at farming and risk losing the farm then they have failed as a person,” Tutor-Marcom said. “Many farmers are men of faith. They think this is their god-given responsibility.”
She and colleagues recently published in the N.C. Medical Journal a study of the psychological pressures on the state’s agricultural community. Among the findings were a reluctance to share financial concerns with their spouses, frustration over the inability to control prices, and the feeling that they have been made out to be the bad guys.
There is no such thing as paid vacation, sick leave or retirement. Affordable health insurance is another challenge. Some deal with the stress by over-eating or drinking too much.
Even during good times, stress in the agricultural community is well-known, and some studies have suggested farmers have high rates of mental health issues. Several years ago in North Carolina, the Farm Bureau sent a van out to offer health screenings on farms. The answers to subtle questions about mental health could trigger referrals to professional help.
“With farmers, it has to be subtle because they just don’t like to ask for help,” said Farm Bureau spokeswoman Lynda Loveland.
An accurate measure of the rate of suicides among farmers is elusive. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention retracted a widely cited 2016 study that claimed a high rate of farmers take their own lives.
That study is being revised, but Tutor-Marcom said what is really needed is a statewide or national surveillance system so that farmer injuries, illness and fatalities, including suicide, can be tracked.
Money is on the way
Financial help for farmers hit by Hurricane Florence is on the way from federal, state and private sources. The General Assembly established a disaster relief fund for farmers who lost crops or livestock from Hurricane Florence or Hurricane Michael in a declared disaster county. The deadline to apply is Thursday.
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has been pushing the legislature to chip in as much relief as it can, noting that half of the state’s counties have been designated as disaster areas. The General Assembly responded last month by budgeting $240 million to help farmers suffering from the hurricane, and it was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper.
Many farmers are also turning to disaster unemployment relief to carry them through to the next growing season. There is a little irony, Troxler says, that those whose livelihood is feeding the state must now turn to the public for subsistence.
Troxler said many farmers are wondering whether they will stay in the business much longer. No one has tracked the number of farmers who have quit farming over the past couple of years.
“This help from the legislature will put gas back in the engine, but it’s going to take a lot more than that,” Troxler said in an interview. “There’s going to be a percentage who just have had all they can stand. There’s a tremendous mental toll.
“I’ve seen tears in more farmers’ eyes this year than in all of my lifetime put together,” said Troxler, who farms in Guilford County.
The Smithfield event and three previous workshops were meant to give farmers a safe place to talk. At times there were hints of emotion.
Joey Carter and his son Matthew were part of the program, talking to fellow farmers about resilience amid hardship.
Carter, who has been farming for 33 years, saw his Duplin County hog farm swept up in a widespread legal attack on Smithfield Foods and its subsidiary Murphy-Brown. Two dozen lawsuits, focused on the corporate hog producers rather than the farmers, claim waste lagoons create a nuisance for neighbors.
In June, a federal court jury awarded more than $25 million to a couple who complained about the flies, odor and noisy trucks from the Carter farm. A state cap on punitive damages lowered the amount to $630,000. The contract farmers don’t have to pay monetary damages, but Smithfield removes its hogs to avoid potential further liability.
Smithfield and Murphy-Brown have lost the first four trials. The Carters lost their 4,700 hogs.
As he recounted his misfortune at the gathering in Smithfield last month, Joey Carter struggled for composure. He said he always hoped one closed door would lead to an open one, as the farming community pulls together to help those in need.
“You’ve got to hold on to the positive,” Joey Carter told the group. “It’s OK to break down and cry.”
“There’s help coming and it’s OK to ask for it,” Matthew Carter added.
Joey Carter is featured in a video that the N.C. Farm Bureau put together to help other farmers get through their own struggles by seeing how others are coping with adversity. “It’s kind of been tough, it’s kind of been stressful,” Joey Carter says in the video. “But you can’t dwell on it, because if you do it will eat you alive.”
For now, Carter is focused on increasing the herd of cattle he also raises.
‘You have to have an outlet’
Tutor-Marcom asked the gathering how many talked about their worries with their wives. Only a few raised their hands. Others said they didn’t want to worry her.
“You have to have an outlet,” she said. “You are not the farm.”
Vinson worries about the future of farming. In a phone interview a few days after the Smithfield workshop, he talked about what worries him.
He has lived his entire life on a 1,200-acre farm outside of Clayton, where he grows tobacco, soy bean, corn, wheat, hay and raises beef cattle. His father farmed there before him.
His son works on the farm, but Vinson says the expense of going into the business these days discourages younger men and women. He said the average age of a farmer is about 59, and as they retire they are not being replaced.
Farmers are used to having bad years due to the weather or other factors, but they used to be followed by good years, Vinson said. The hurdles farmers have had to face this year are unsettling. He wants to be optimistic.
“It will come back,” he said of the industry. “It’s a rough time. I’m hopeful everything gets squared about this trade wars, tariffs; the storm couldn’t have come at a worse time. But you can’t control what happens”
To get help
The N.C. Agromedicine Institute can refer those concerned about mental health issues to counseling. It can be reached at 252-744-1008.
The institute researches ways to make farming, forestry and commercial fishing safer and healthier. It is a partnership with East Carolina University, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University. For more information online, go to www.ncagromedicine.org.
To sign up for aid
In October, the state legislature created a $240 million hurricane disaster program for one-time direct financial aid for farmers who had losses due to Hurricane Florence or Hurricane Matthew.
▪ To qualify, agricultural producers must have had crop or livestock losses due to one of those hurricanes and be located in a county that has received a disaster declaration.
▪ Commodities must have been planted on or before Sept. 13, but not harvested, and aquaculture must have been raised on or before that date.
▪ Livestock and poultry producers who have received payment from the USDA Livestock Indemnity Program can apply for the state aid.
The deadline to apply is Thursday. For details on how to apply go to www.ncagr.gov/agriculturaldisasterprogram/.