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Suicide Is Rising Among American Farmers As They Struggle To Keep Afloat

May 16, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 9:06 pm
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a breakdown of suicide rates by profession, and farmers have the highest rates of suicide by more than 30 percent. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports that politics around tariffs, trade and the farm bill have some experts and even Trump supporters worried that Washington politics are adding to the crisis.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Every four years, Congress is supposed to pass a farm bill. It's a legislation that provides a safety net for millions of farmers. It includes crop insurance, which guarantees a minimum price for what they plant. It and other programs that are supposed to protect a farmer's livelihood are in turmoil. That's tough for farmers like Bob Worth who lately have weathered more than a few bad years.

BOB WORTH: You know, I've had a couple good friends that have taken their life. And it's all financial.

SNELL: That isn't a unique experience. Worth, who we reached while he was sowing soybeans in his farm in southwestern Minnesota, says crop prices have fallen in recent years, and waves of drought and floods have ravaged fields. And now the farm bill which expires at the end of September is caught in a political fight in Washington. It's the latest in a string of political decisions to shake farm country since President Trump took office. And advocates like Matt Perdue at the National Farmers Union say the instability comes at a time when farmers are already in crisis.

MATT PERDUE: Farmers and ranchers have the highest rate of suicide by any occupational group, OK? The rate of suicide is higher than veterans returning from war.

SNELL: Republican Senator Mike Rounds says stress and financial pressure in his home state of South Dakota may be causing the worst farm crisis since the 1980s.

MIKE ROUNDS: A lot of these folks are really concerned. And it's gotten to the point where in some areas, there's been suicide hotlines that have now been established for more than a year.

SNELL: Making things worse are the politics in Washington. Fears of a trade war with China and the Trump administration's withdrawal from trade agreements are adding up. And it all comes at a time when the USDA is projecting net farm income could fall to a 12-year low. Now, the farm bill is caught in a messy political struggle over government spending and food stamps in particular. President Trump and House conservatives want strict work requirements for some people who receive those benefits, but that plan can't pass the closely divided Senate. Some Senate Republicans, like Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, say the Washington focus on one corner of the bill threatens farmers.

PAT ROBERTS: This farm bill means everything - more, especially, crop insurance. And they know that.

SNELL: Roberts, who's from Kansas, says it's reasonable for farmers to be stressed when they can't be sure they'll be in business next year.

ROBERTS: There are too many questions unanswered right now, and that's why we need to bring certainty and predictability so farmers say, well, at least I know I have that.

SNELL: Roberts is working with the committee Democrats on a bipartisan bill that he hopes to release in the coming weeks, and he's told Trump how critical farm bill programs are in his home state. Republican Senator John Thune says he hopes Trump and the rest of Washington realize the stakes.

JOHN THUNE: People are getting a little panicky out there. And I think it's an issue that the administration needs to pay careful attention to because if they get it wrong, it could complicate an already very, you know, serious economic crisis in agriculture.

SNELL: Farmers were among some of Trump's most reliable voters in 2016 in part because he promised to deliver a stronger economy for them. Worth says he talks about politics with his friends now, and they worry a lot about what's going on in Washington.

WORTH: You know, rural America really did elect President Trump. And as of today, you know, we're not mad at him. He's done a lot of great things for us. He's also - you know, he created some hardship for us, too.

SNELL: Farmers are just hoping the politics will clear up in time for the next planting season. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.