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From wildfires to workloads, Western farmers face more stress and mental health issues

A young farmer in overalls stands near rows of crops on a cloudy day.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Farmer Zach Cannady stands near rows of crops on his farm located north of Reno along the Nevada-California border on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.

Farmers and ranchers in the West are being pressured by rising production costs, increased workloads and extreme weather. No wonder they face higher levels of stress and mental health issues than other Americans.

This story is part of KUNR's mental health series.

On a cloudy day on a crop farm north of Reno, Nev., Zach Cannady tilts his head toward the sky and smiles. That’s because it’s starting to rain, which wasn’t in the forecast.

“This time of year, it’s everything, you know,” Cannady says. “Your body heat gets so hot out here anyway, so that, you know when the rain comes down, it cools everything down. I'm sure the plants love it. We love it.”

Cannady owns Prema Farms, a stone’s throw into California, tucked in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. It grows a colorful mix of crops – carrots, kale, peppers, onions, melons and more. And harvests have been strong recently thanks to wet winters and more frequent rain.

But Cannady, who has a wife and two kids, knows that can change fast in farming.

“Our lives are at the whim of nature,” he says. “It leans on you and asks you, ‘Do you want to keep doing this? Or are you prepared for another season of loss? Or can you even handle that financially?’”

Cannady asked himself those questions in 2019 after a wildfire chewed onto his property and his family had to evacuate. And again in 2021 when a wildfire cloaked their farm in heavy smoke for more than a month.

After both events, some crops didn’t produce, including an entire field of onions, “which, for us, is $30,000 – 10% of our gross annual income,” he says.

The Beckwourth Complex Fire burning with tall flames and smoke in the air.
Truckee Meadows Fire & Rescue via Twitter
The 2021 Beckwourth Complex Fire in northern California cloaked Prema Farm in heavy smoke for more than a month.

Anxiety over wildfire and extreme weather is just one of the many issues that can affect a farmer’s mental health. Other major stressors are finances due to rising production costs, work-life balance from heavy workloads, and family issues. That’s according to a recent study led by the University of Nevada, Reno.

Researchers surveyed agricultural producers across several Western states, including Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

“We're in a situation where the farmer-rancher suicide rate is six times higher than the general population,” says Brenda Freeman, a professor of counseling who co-authored the study. “And the Western states, including Nevada, have the highest suicide mortality rates in the nation.”

Twenty-seven percent of the farmers surveyed for the study suffer from moderate to severe depression. The national average is 8%.

“Farmers and ranchers, they normalize stress, like, ‘Of course, you're going to have drought and pests and problems. We're farmers – that's what we do,’” Freeman says.

The study aims to help farmers and ranchers shed that mindset and address their stress. It found they want more access to online and printed resources and programs.

“They wanted mental health education more than mental health counseling,” Freeman says. “Grief and loss information, alcohol and drug cessation, they wanted information on financial planning.”

Freeman says the study is part of a larger push by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support Western farmers and ranchers.

The effort comes as the nation’s farm debt is increasing – as it has nearly every year for the past 25-plus years, said Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

“For a producer that functions as a ticking time bomb,” says Ducheneaux, whose family operates a fourth-generation ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. “You're one natural disaster, one trade war, one poor production season away from being on the edge of losing the farm.”

He says that’s why it’s important for producers to seek help if their mental health is suffering.

“There's no shame in it,” he says. “And there's a lot of folks that have vast expertise in providing that shoulder to lean on or that ear.”

Rows of green crops grow inside a greenhouse.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Rows of crops grow inside a greenhouse at Prema Farm located north of Reno along the Nevada-California border.

Back on the farm north of Reno, Cannady pushes a battery-powered hand tiller over soil that will be planted with gooseberries.

He says the day’s rain was a nice surprise. But he gets anxious when he sees lightning, which sparks most wildfires in the West. His mind goes back to seeing nearby blazes creep closer.

“There's an element of PTSD that's lingering there that kind of gives you the flashback of what the experience was like the last time that happened, and you packed up everything, got your kids and your family into the car,” he says.

Cannady hopes they’ll get through this wildfire season without being affected. And he’ll continue to welcome the occasional rainy day.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Go to NAMI.org for a list of resources and other information. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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