The stress level in rural communities is off the charts. Farm and ranch closures, land forfeitures, labor issues and more contribute, and according to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a full five years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — rates of suicide in rural communities measured twice that of urban areas.
To address this desperate problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding four regional farm and ranch stress assistance networks, and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is among the more than 50 partners participating in the effort for the southern region.
The three-year, $7.2 million southern region project will span 13 states and two U.S. territories, and is being coordinated by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Partner organizations in addition to UF/IFAS represent land-grant institutions, government agencies, commodity and lending groups and nonprofit organizations. Heather Sedges, an associate professor in the UF Extension department of family and consumer sciences, will serve as the overall project leader. In Florida, Kendra Zamojski, family and consumer sciences regional specialized Extension agent, will lead the effort.
“With farmers and ranchers in the Panhandle and throughout Florida recently affected by major hurricanes like Michael, Sally, and Irma and added impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, this funding and partnership will bring much needed support,” Zamojski said.
Other local UF partners include: Christa Court, assistant professor of regional economics; Stephen Greer, director of UF/IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County; Judy Corbus, family and consumer sciences multi-county Extension agent; Carl Jagger, assistant professor of agricultural education; Michael Gutter, associate dean for Extension and state program leader for 4-H youth development, families and communities; and April Martin of UF/IFAS Communications.
“Farmers and ranchers are the backbone of Florida agriculture and significant contributors to the state’s economy,” said Nick Place, dean of UF/IFAS Extension. “They are hard-working and resilient, but the compounded effects of natural disasters, a global pandemic and other ongoing issues can lead to fewer business opportunities, contributing to stress and anxiety. This project will address these challenges and provide solutions for overcoming the mental health toll.”
The network will coordinate six specific strategies designed to help rural citizens and communities. These include establishing hotlines for immediate accessibility, developing a comprehensive website with information and resources to address individual situations, and curating and creating resources for the website. The effort will also establish training for representatives working within rural communities to support individuals through direct services or support groups. Research into how to alleviate farmer and rancher stress as well as the issues endemic to rural communities is also part of the effort.
The regional networks are expected to capitalize on the natural synergy between extension agriculture and family and consumer sciences programs. Individual farmer success is a direct complement to economically and physically healthy rural communities.
“Our research shows that natural disasters and other economic shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic have hit Florida farmers hard over the last few years. By telling us where people are hurting, economic impact information like this can point us toward communities, industries and stakeholders in need,” said Christa Court, who is also the director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program in the food and resource economics department.
“We look forward to partnering with mental health, medical, banking, commodity groups and, of course, our fellow Extension professionals, to bring much needed resources to our farming and ranching communities in Florida,” Greer said. “This kind of support can not only improve but save lives.”
Sedges said partners will begin almost immediately working to establish the overall network infrastructure, as well as links to partnering agencies. Training and outreach will begin in 2021.