The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which is the title of the new farm bill, includes $10 million for each of the next five years for behavioral health support for distressed farmers. Matt Perdue of the National Farmers Union reported that “the recently passed appropriations bill includes $2 million for a pilot Farmer Stress Assistance Network.”

Congress originally approved a Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, but funds were not appropriated. The recent government shutdown and subsequent delay in congressional approval of 2019 budget funds likely hampered implementation of the current FRSAN.

Delayed implementation of the FRSAN worsens conditions for many distressed farmers, ranchers and workers who need assistance currently while agriculture is going through some of the worst strains since the 1980s.

Farmers have the highest rate of suicide of any occupation. Economically marginalized farmers are in greatest need of behavioral health services but usually can’t afford care.

The NFU’s Perdue said the $2 million effort will serve as an on-ramp to full implementation of the

FRSAN. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture is required to get that money out the door by Sept. 30, 2019.

Perdue added that the USDA is moving forward on implementation of the bill’s many provisions. USDA is currently in the midst of listening sessions on changes to the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service programs. The FRSAN is a “mid-tier” priority for implementation.

It has been unclear which USDA agency will house the FRSAN, but probably it will be administered by NIFA. The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy recently hosted stakeholder groups and federal agencies including NIFA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to discuss the issue of mental health in agriculture. Perdue said the meeting was a positive step forward in their collective efforts and recommends similar discussions throughout the country.

The ORHP funded much of the research and services that became the model for the proposed FRSAN services. Funds were made available in 1998 by the ORHP to the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health and the Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association to help a seven-state agricultural region (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) deal with ongoing farm stress problems in a project called Sowing the Seeds of Hope.

When it became clear the Wisconsin entities could not administer the regional project beyond their state, representatives of the seven states met to discuss how to continue the project. Many of the representatives had experienced the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. They indicated what worked to support farmers during that difficult era, and what didn’t work in their states. They chose AgriWellness, Inc., a non-profit corporation with which I was affiliated, to administer the continuing seven-state program.

The project leaders selected the key services for agricultural people: farm crisis hotlines and helplines, the provision of counseling to anyone in the agricultural population who needed assistance, the training of licensed counselors and other persons such as clergy and volunteers to work with farmers. The key services also included weekend educational retreats for farm families and community workshops.

The state project partners also opted to evaluate the effectiveness of support group meetings for distressed farmers and families, outreach efforts, coalition-building, social marketing of services, information clearinghouses and advocacy efforts.

The project services underwent multiple independent evaluations and scrutiny by national organizations. As data accumulated and the evaluation studies were published, the AgriWellness-administered project was declared a “best practice” in the federal publication, “Rural Healthy People 2010.”

Thus far, it looks like mostly federal agencies are implementing the FRSAN. NIFA and ORHP would do well to connect with key organizations involved in farming and outside federal government that undertook foundational research about farmers’ behavioral health.


Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farm resident near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at mike@agbehavioralhealth.com.