December 16th, 2017

Farm Suicide

Who is more vulnerable to suicide: a veteran back from combat in the middle east? Or an American farmer?

The farmer.

I address some of these issues in the Lupaster mystery I am working on now. I call it Blind!, at least for now. Reggie Haskell, the transplanted urban sophisticate, confronts some of the issues of the farmer.

My dairy farmer father had himself committed to a state mental hospital when he found himself planning suicide one spring in the early 1960s. My thirteenth year, I spent a dismal summer visiting my father Sunday afternoons on the grounds of what he sometimes called the insane asylum. A farmer neighbor stepped in to milk the cows, so my father could keep the herd. Ten years later, the neighbor hung himself in his barn.

Another farmer neighbor, who happened to be a relative, burned himself to death in his car by dousing himself with gasoline and lighting a match.

I read an article in the Guardian yesterday that cited a CDC Report : nearly 85 farmers per 100,000 commit suicide, five times the national rate for all occupations and double the rate for military veterans. The next lowest rate, construction, is a dramatic thirty points lower.

I am not surprised. I was raised on a farm and I knew the two farmer neighbors who committed suicide. My father came close to self destruction, but he was lucky to seek help at the right time. I can’t think of any acquaintances in other businesses who were suicides. I worked in software development for thirty years and I heard of one or two suicide deaths, but no one in the industry whom I knew or talked to ever killed themselves.

I have noticed young people interested in growing high quality local food. I hope these idealists know what they are signing up for. Farming, raising food, has a type of stress that other vocations do not. A farmer has little control of his fate. Software engineers can study harder, acquire better tools, work smarter and work long hours with a reasonable assurance that they will succeed.

A successful farmer must do all these things, but some years the rain won’t fall, or too much will fall at the wrong time, spring turns cold and wire worms devour the roots of sprouting corn seed, impeccably managed milk cows will get mastitis for no apparent reason, the price of wheat will plummet, or the price of diesel will soar. An early freeze will rot the pumpkins before Halloween, a late freeze will wipe out an entire crop of seedlings. A farmer defies nature and the market to earn a living, and some years are failures through no fault of the farmer.

And make no mistake—farm work is hard, debilitating, and dangerous. Look at the hard calluses and cracks on a farmer’s hands with embedded grime that will never appear clean. Look at the heating pads, and bottles of liniment and arthritis medicine in their bathrooms. Farm work is physically hard, repetitious, solitary, and mind numbing. Some make a good living. Many don’t. Even more only farm part-time, working excruciating hours at another job to subsidize their farm.

What then possesses farmers to make them farm? The answer cuts close to the reason they hang, burn, shoot, and use their tractors to mangle themselves. The driving passion of my father and many farmers I have known, is to raise food. To feed others. This could be an instinct hard-wired into the brains of our species.

When farmers are threatened with the loss of their farms, their tools, their means of production, they strike out at the only enemy they can blame: themselves. Their desire to punish themselves for failure runs as strong as their hard muscles and stubborn brains. After a withering and sacrificing fight, they only see a future like the past; painful death beckons as sweet justice and respite.

I admit to having had these feelings on occasion, although I’m not a real farmer. I own the family farm. If I were a gentleman, you might call me a gentleman farmer. In reality, I am a lumpen farmer with a few vestiges of a true farmer’s feelings.

I understand the idealistic attraction of farming today. The desire to provide is strong in this age when our manufactured food supply seems to decline in quality and become a toxic threat to well-being. The farmer may be a hero, but the heroism of the farmer comes hard, maybe as hard as heroism on the battlefield. There are no medals for hand weeding for sixteen hours straight or returning to the house, slimy and bloody with afterbirth and cord blood from carrying a newborn calf to the barn at two in the morning, but feats like these are all in the farmer’s year.

Harvest festivals are a few days in the fall, and some years celebrate a step toward bankruptcy, not a profit, much less a windfall or a jubilee.

Farm suicides are a hard harvest.

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