Washignton: Farmer suicides are not happening just in India, tragically it is a world wide phenomenon. The reasons are same : indebtedness, not getting remunerative price for their produce, resulting poverty and depression.
Today, half of the world’s 800 million starving people are small farmers and workers connected to the agricultural sector.
For us in India, farmer suicide is now a known, and unfortunately, very common phenomenon.
You talk of farmer suicides and people will yawn and say ” so, what’s new about it?”
So I told my nephew that suicides among farmers was common among US farmers too.
“You must be kidding!” He replied. “They may be dying, or taking their lives, but not because of financial problems like our farmers do” he continued.
Well, here’s the shocker. They take their lives out of same reasons – indebtedness, banks taking away their lands, poverty and shame and depression.
Take the case of American Wheat farmers
American farmers grow a lot of wheat. It’s not just for human consumption, like in India, but used as animal feed too.
Imagine how much a farmer gets when he harvests and sells his wheat? They sell wheat by the ‘bushel’ which is 60 pounds by weight, which is approx equivalent to 27 Kgs.
According to an article in Guardian, in August 2017, Tom Giessel, farmer and president of the Pawnee County Kansas Farmers Union produced a short video called “Ten Things a Bushel of Wheat Won’t Buy”. At $3.27 per bushel (60lb), Giessel says, “The grain I produce and harvest is my ‘currency’ and it is less than one-fifth of what it should be priced.”
He listed things that would cost him more to buy than what he ‘earned’ selling this – six English muffins, four rolls of toilet paper, and a single loaf of bread – even though one bushel of wheat is enough to make 70 one-pound breadloaves!!!
The price of one bushel wheat is now – as of 7th December 2017 – $4.20.
“We were growing food, but couldn’t afford to buy it. We worked 80 hours a week, but we couldn’t afford to see a dentist, let alone a therapist. I remember panic when a late freeze threatened our crop, the constant fights about money, the way light swept across the walls on the days I could not force myself to get out of bed.
“Farming has always been a stressful occupation because many of the factors that affect agricultural production are largely beyond the control of the producers,” wrote an American farmer turned therapist Rosmann in the journal Behavioral Healthcare. “The emotional well being of family farmers and ranchers is intimately intertwined with these changes.”
It was in the 1980s that America’s farm crisis began. It was the worst agricultural economic crisis since the Great Depression. Market prices crashed. Loans were called in. Interest rates doubled overnight. Farmers were forced to liquidate their operations and evicted from their land. There were fights at grain elevators, shootings in local banks. The suicide rate soared.
“What we went through in the 1980s farm crisis was hell,” says Donn Teske, a farmer and president of the Kansas Farmers Union. “I mean, it was ungodly hell.”
In the spring of 1985, farmers descended on Washington DC by the thousands, including David Senter, president of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM). For weeks, the protesting farmers occupied a tent on the Mall, surrounded the White House, marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. Farmers marched hundreds of black crosses – each with the name of a foreclosure or suicide victim – to the USDA building and drove them into the ground. “It looked like a cemetery,” recalls Senter.
How did America react to that crisis?
Many Counselors like Rosmann worked on providing free counseling, referrals for services, and community events to break down stigmas of mental health issues among farmers. “People just did not deal with revealing their tender feelings. They felt like failures,” says Rosmann.
During the height of the farm crisis, telephone hotlines were started in most agricultural states.
“And what was the impact?”
“We stopped the suicides here,” he says of his community in Iowa. “And every state that had a telephone hotline reduced the number of farming related suicides.”
Governments react the same world over – make promises only to break them!
Since 2013, net farm income for US farmers has declined 50% according to USDA forecast. Median farm income for 2017 is projected to be negative $1.35. And without parity in place (essentially a minimum price floor for farm products), most commodity prices remain below the cost of production.
In an email, Rosmann wrote, “The rate of self-imposed [farmer] death rises and falls in accordance with their economic well-being … Suicide is currently rising because of our current farm recession.”
How ‘Sowing seeds of hope’ was sabotaged
In 1999, Rosmann joined an effort called Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSOH), which began in Wisconsin, and connected uninsured and underinsured farmers in seven midwestern states to affordable behavioral health services. For 14 years, the organization fielded approximately a half-million telephone calls from farmers, trained over 10,000 rural behavioral health professionals, and provided subsidized behavioral health resources to over 100,000 farm families.
Rosmann’s program proved so successful that it became the model for a nationwide program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). Rosmann and his colleagues were hopeful that farmers would get the federal support they so desperately needed – but though the program was approved as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill, it was not funded.
While Senator Tom Harkin and other sympathetic legislators tried to earmark money for the FRSAN, they were outvoted. By the Republicans – the party now in power.
Rosmann wrote, “They promised support to my face and to others who approached them to support the FRSAN, but when it came time to vote … they did not support appropriating money … Often they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure which would increase the national debt, while also saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.”
Doesn’t this sound so familiar? Our state governments and Central, paying lip sympathy to cause of farmers, making big promises during pre election times, but using excuses to back once in power.
Suicide rates higher in farmers than in any other vocation
Suicide rates in farmers are the highest of any occupation. That’s an alarming statistic.If you’ve idealized farming as an easy occupation, it’s not. Farming is characterized by high stress, financial pressures, livestock disease, poor harvest, climate change and government policies.
Sudden changes in rates of import or export duty can devastate farmers.
High stress combined with frustration can lead to depression.
Farmers suicide is a global phenomenon
According to a study done by ICN, outside India, studies in Sri Lanka, USA, Canada, England and Australia have identified farming as a high stress profession that is associated with a higher suicide rate than the general population.This is particularly true among small scale farmers and after periods of economic distress.
In China, farmers are killing themselves daily to protest the government taking over their prime agricultural lands for urbanization.
In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. Australia reports one farmer suicides every four days.Canadian farmers have to pay into unemployment insurance but usually don’t qualify for the benefit when they become unemployed.
Hundreds of French farmers take their own lives each year. The results are devastating, often leaving a family without its breadwinner, in debt and with a farm to maintain.
So why do farmers world over continue farming?
In a survey done in India by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based in Delh about 70% of farmers interviewed said they would like ‘ to do something else’ even if it meant moving to cities.
Many farmers continue farming because they don’t know what else to do.
But there is a deep underlying psychological reason too.
Farmers have a deep attachment to their lands and to the act of farming. It is not a profession or a vocation – it is a calling
During hot summers, a farmer and his family will impatiently wait for signs of monsoons. And just like monsoons have to follow summers, once the land is drenched and saturated with rain water, a farmer HAS TO begin that year’s Kharif’s season by sowing seeds of the crop he has planned for that season.
The choice is what to go in for – cotton, paddy, soyabean or chilly? The choice is NEVER – should I sow or not?
We may not feel any obligation to the farmer but he feels impelled to feed us, clothe us and nourish us, whether we deserve it or not!
As an American farmer explains “People engaged in farming, have a strong urge to supply essentials for human life, such as food and materials for clothing, shelter and fuel, and to hang on to their land and other resources needed to produce these goods at all costs.”
When farmers can’t fulfill this instinctual purpose, they feel despair. Thus, within the theory lies an important paradox: the drive that makes a farmer successful is the same that exacerbates failure, sometimes to the point of suicide. Thus the agrarian imperative theory “is a plausible explanation of the motivations of farmers to be agricultural producers and to sometimes end their lives”.
Almost a hundred time more farmers have lost their lives – taken their own lives – than soldiers killed on the battle field, or fighting insurgency.
How many get a state funeral or have their bodies covered with the colours of the national flag??