By Jeanne Janson, NFU Journalism Intern
From mid-August through the end of September, Megan Brown spent countless hours fireproofing the livestock enclosures at her family’s ranch in Northern California and preparing to evacuate should the LNU Lightning Complex Fire—the third most destructive in the state’s history—get too close. Unfortunately, this has become a sort of yearly ritual for her.
Natural disasters are becoming increasingly frequent and severe due to climate change—and it’s taking a toll on farmers and ranchers. Changing precipitation patterns, shifts in temperatures, and new pest pressures are making once-fertile areas difficult to farm—and raising question about whether some areas are even worth cultivating anymore. Some farmers and ranchers have lost everything, while others – under immense pressure to find some way to keep their families’ legacy alive – are in a constant state of rebuilding.
“I have a lot of emotions, a lot of anxiety and some depression because I don’t see myself doing it like we have always done it,” said Megan, who is the sixth generation to run the ranch. “For me it was like, ‘I can’t mess this up. They’ve set my path for me. If I just follow what they’ve been doing I’ll be fine.’ It’s not like that anymore. I have to change if I want to stay in this business. And I’m realizing that and it’s terrifying.”
This surge of climate change-induced stress comes at what is already a difficult time for many family farmers and ranchers. Overproduction, consolidation, trade wars, and now the COVID-19 pandemic have cut into farm income in recent years, causing farm debt and bankruptcies to soar. A growing number of natural disasters has just exacerbated these financial difficulties by eroding yields, worsening livestock health, and damaging buildings and machinery.
Megan is by far not the only farmer feeling anxious and depressed about the situation – there are strong indicators that the uncertainty and trauma of dealing with climate change has negative implications for many people’s mental health. According to Patricia Watson, a psychologist at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 10 to 30 percent of wildfire survivors develop diagnosable mental-health conditions, including PTSD and depression.
For farmers and rural residents, managing climate-related anxiety, depression and hopelessness on top of the everyday stresses of farming and hardships is compounding an already dire situation. Farmers experience higher levels of psychological distress and depression than the general population, but they are less likely to seek help for mental health issues. Even for those who do seek help, resources may not be readily available, as 60 percent of rural Americans live in areas with mental health professional shortages.
Some lawmakers have recognized this growing farmer mental health crisis in pandemic relief efforts. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – the stimulus package that passed in late March – included funding to expand the availability of telehealth services, including mental health care. Meanwhile, the Heroes Act that passed the House in September would have allocated an additional $20 million to the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). FRSAN gives grants to extension services, state departments of agriculture, nonprofit organizations and other entities that provide stress assistance programs to farmers, ranchers, farmworkers, and other agriculture-related occupations. Eligible programs include farm helplines and websites, training programs and workshops, outreach services, and home delivery of assistance. The Heros Act funding would have supplemented the $10 million the program received in fiscal year 2020. However, the Senate has so far failed to act on the bill.
As Megan’s experience demonstrates, the stress from climate events can linger long after the fires are put out and the fences are rebuilt—and why swift action is needed to expand rural mental healthcare.
The Gold Rush brought Megan’s family to the Sacramento Valley nearly two centuries ago, but the promise of prosperity and abundance is quickly fading for this generation of California farmers. Megan manages her family’s cow-calf operation and raises heritage hogs on the side.
“I grew up here, my dad grew up here—it’s been generations.” Megan said. Though environmental disasters aren’t new, where they used to be once-a-decade events, they’re now annual. “Every generation had a story – the flood of ’76 or the drought of ’54. But I have the flood of 2016, the fire of 2017, the fire of 2018, the locusts of 2019.”
In 2017, the Cascade Fire nearly burned the Browns’ ranch to the ground, ultimately inflicting four million dollars worth of damage. In 2018, the Camp Fire swept through the valley so quickly that all they could do to prepare was “open gates and hope,” she said. Fortunately, the farm’s infrastructure and livestock were spared this year, but the constant threat of uncontrollable disasters is beginning to take a toll on Megan’s wellbeing.
“Every year it’s something. It’s just compounded and compounded and compounded and compounded. It’s not sustainable,” Megan said.
“When you live through a wildfire, and especially the Camp Fire, where people saw other people die in cars and when you’re breathing in the smoke, you knew that that could’ve been a person you knew,” she added. “We were literally breathing in our neighbor’s ashes. Then the destruction of everything that brought you comfort that you knew growing up is gone. It’s burned. It’s never going to be the same.”
After the Camp Fire, Megan decided to start seeing a therapist. Although she had to pay out of pocket, she felt this was a necessary step. She describes the lasting emotional impacts of the wildfires as being in a “state of survival” with a decreased ability to handle stress.
“I’m holding it together,” she said. “I’m doing all the self-care things they tell you. I’ve got a therapist. I’m eating well. I’m drinking enough water, but one thing can set me off and I will lose my shit.”
If you are experiencing high levels of stress, help is available – visit NFU’s Farm Crisis Center to find information about disaster assistance, mental health resources, mediation and more.
Concerned about climate change? Contact your lawmaker to tell them how climate change is affecting you and your community and advocate policies that can help farmers mitigate and adapt to this crisis. Click here for background information, sample emails and phone scripts.