Between 2016 and 2019, three people in the agricultural industry took their own lives in Skagit County.
Don McMoran, director of Washington State University’s Skagit County Extension office, says the last death hit him especially hard because he had worked with the farmer in the Skagit Conservation District.
“He was the epitome of the old crotchety farmer, but he was such a good guy,” McMoran says. “I told my staff, ‘I think we need to step in and do something about this,’ and they were willing to fight the fight with me.”
In September, McMoran and his team were able to secure a $7 million Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, expanding their suicide prevention work from just Washington and Oregon to 13 Western states and four U.S. territories.
McMoran’s website, farmstress.us, provides resources and a hotline, 1-800-FARM-AID, for farmers or their loved ones. His team also hosts local programs on farmer suicide prevention.
“Be aware of the warning signs,” McMoran says. “Maybe the farmer in your life isn’t taking good care of the homestead, or the animals aren’t being cared for like they used to. Notice signs of addiction, or if the person is wanting to give away their possessions.”
Farmers face additional stress due to the nature of their profession, McMoran says. With many farmers having to borrow money to stay up-to-date and competitive, the financial stress can become overwhelming.
“When things start turning south and you can’t make your payments, that puts pressure on you and sometimes it’s perceived as easier to take your own life than it is to deal with the problems at hand,” McMoran says. “It may come down to them just not being a farmer anymore. They may not want to hear that, but they have to understand that it’s okay to not be a farmer.”
McMoran says over the last 100 years, the prices of farming inputs—fertilizer, chemicals, tractors, equipment—have increased, but the price farmers receive for their products has stayed relatively flat.
“We pay the lowest price in the world for our food, which is a good thing, but at the same time we shouldn’t have farmers wanting to take their own lives for being in financial difficulties,” McMoran says. “We need to think differently about where our food comes from. Know your farmer, know where your food comes from, and pay a little bit more for it.”
Jennifer Sherman, an associate professor of sociology at WSU who studies addiction and poverty in rural communities, notes that access to health care is one of the biggest barriers preventing people from seeking help, though it is also coupled with the stigma of showing vulnerability.
“Most rural areas tend to be underserved,” Sherman says. “Even people who do have health care and the money to pursue it struggle to access mental health care because there aren’t enough providers in rural areas.”
However, McMoran, a fourth-generation farmer, says a lack of providers isn’t the main barrier keeping farmers from seeking help. It’s the stigma.
“You can have a thousand doctors in their town, but they won’t go because everyone in town knows what their pickup truck looks like,” McMoran says. “Farmers are taught to have a stiff upper lip, be tough, and suck it up.”
“You can’t necessarily trust that things will stay quiet in a small town,” Sherman adds.
Telehealth and call centers are a way to get around this stigma, McMoran says. His group is partnered with the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, which is working on providing telehealth programs to rural, underserved areas.
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life:
“Bert? Do you know me?”