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Stress is top health issue for farmers; author urges mental health advocacy, self care

Intelligencer Journal - 3/3/2021

Farmers are resilient people, but even they have not been immune to the stresses of the past year.

“The storms of life are inevitable. Are you prepared to weather them?” said Michele Payn, an author and speaker who helps farmers present a positive narrative to consumers.

Payn spoke Feb. 12 during the 20th annual Mid-Atlantic Women in Agriculture Conference, held virtually.

Even before the pandemic, Payn said, stress was surpassing weight as the top health issue for farm women.

While it’s taboo to talk about mental wellness issues, it’s normal for people to discuss the weather, regulations, prices and public perceptions of farming — the factors that contribute to stress in the first place.

“It’s hard to walk up to your husband or kids and say, ‘Let’s talk about mental health,’” Payn said.

Still, talking about the pressure one is feeling can help. So can taking a break (even for five minutes), making time for self-care, exercising and eating well.

For farmers stressed by public skepticism about their practices, Payn suggested putting themselves in consumers’ shoes.

Nonfarmers aren’t stupid. They’re just unfamiliar with agriculture, Payn said.

She showed a photo of corn and soybean fields with the signs noting the variety of seed grown. She said studies have shown many people see those signs on farm fields and believe it means the fields are owned by those seed companies.

“It makes sense,” she said. “We are in a society which maybe doesn’t know where its food comes from.”

She suggested trying to connect with nonfarmers by asking if they’ve ever had a tomato plant or rose bushes. Most people have grown a plant and they start talking about “nasty white bugs” or other pesky critters.

She asks how they get rid of the pests and then says something like “Imagine a whole field covered with those nasty white bugs. That’s why farmers use pesticides.”

While scientists were once the default trusted source of information, many people now rely on Facebook comments, she said. Those unfiltered commenters might not be well informed about agriculture.

“The story is being told without you,” Payn said. “Look in the mirror. You are the best person to celebrate agriculture.”

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Crédito: Michael Short, Delmarva Correspondent