Columns

This op-ed ran in The Garden City Telegram on January 18, 2019.

Agriculture has always been a challenging profession. Producers work long hours performing back-breaking tasks, yet a farmer or rancher’s ultimate success or failure is largely outside of their individual control.

Not only are farmers at the mercy of Mother Nature each year to produce a crop, but they also contend with volatile global commodity prices, which have been low for over half a decade. In other words, a producer can do everything right and still fail to be able to earn a living and provide for his or her family.

Many producers feel the added pressure of keeping family farms and ranches intact that have been passed down for multiple generations. Walking away from land that has been worked by parents and grandparents because it doesn’t make sense financially to continue to farm can be devastating. Unfortunately, the tough farm economy continues to force many producers with strong ties to the land to make challenging decisions about the future of their operations. Added together, the stress involved in farming and ranching has pushed too many producers to a breaking point.

A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as reported by the Kansas City Star, cites a startling 45 percent increase in suicide rates in Kansas between 1999 and 2016. Sadly, this is one of the largest increases nationwide. States with rural populations have seen especially dramatic spikes in suicide rates, including those in ag communities. Especially during these tough times, it’s important that we’re doing all we can to help fellow Kansans and Americans in need.

In Congress, I’m working to address the mental health crisis by providing resources to expand mental health services in rural America and pursuing policies that support farmers and ranchers’ ability to earn a living.

Included in the Farm Bill – which the president signed into law late last year — is legislation I championed with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the FARMERS FIRST Act. This legislation provides resources to establish helplines and suicide prevention training for farm advocates, and reestablishes the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network through state departments of agriculture, state Extension services and non-profits.

In addition to these resources, the FARMERS FIRST Act will establish a Farm and Ranch Stress Assessment Committee to better understand how agricultural workers’ mental health impacts rural development.

I am committed to making certain the FARMERS FIRST Act is implemented in a way that will best serve our farmers and ranchers who need help during trying times, and I look forward to receiving the Assessment Committee’s recommendations for addressing mental healthcare needs within the agriculture community. This legislation was an important step forward, but we ought to continue to build on the progress of the FARMERS FIRST Act by identifying additional ways to proactively support the mental health needs of those who work so hard to put food on our tables and tables around the world.

While we continue our work to provide our nation’s farmers and ranchers with the mental health resources they need, we also must address the underlying stressors that can often create feelings of anxiety or depression.

For this reason, I supported provisions in the recent Farm Bill that include policies that support farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to earn a living, provide a safety net for times of disaster and reduce uncertainty in markets. The new Farm Bill will continue to help protect producers against low prices and weather disasters, while also expanding broadband coverage, investing in rural development and investing in other efforts aimed at improving the lives of people living in rural America.

Congress and the administration can also take meaningful steps to reduce the uncertainty in our trade and export markets critical to agriculture. I will work with my House and Senate colleagues to get the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the new agreement to modernize NAFTA, across the finish line in Congress. I believe the administration needs to work more urgently to negotiate new trade agreements, especially with Japan, to expand export markets. And I remain convinced there is a better way to address the trade challenges with China than tariffs and a trade war that have harmed farmers and ranchers.

By supporting thoughtful mental health policies, such as the FARMERS FIRST Act, coupled with ongoing honest discussions to destigmatize mental health, I am optimistic we can help alleviate the mental health crisis in rural America.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has been serving in the U.S. Senate since 2011, and prior to that, served 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.