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Hard economic times bring depression, shame for struggling farmers

May 25, 2000
Web posted at: 5:53 p.m. EDT (2153 GMT)

In this story:

Tough times on the farm

'Agricultural mental health'


(CNN) -- We've heard the words since we were children. "Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. ..." The idea: that farms are a basic element of the American dream. And nowhere is that more true than in the American heartland.


"You grow up out in the country and you grow up doing this all your life," said Nebraska farmer Brian Zimmerman. "Dad taught you everything he knew as far as farming, and you learn to respect it."

"It's not just the farm and not just the business," added Tammy Zimmerman, Brian's wife. "It is also home ... and it's really tough to separate those out."

But that home and many more cherished family farms are threatened by a crisis much of the nation though had ended in the 1980s, with the Farm Aid concerts.

Tough times on the farm

Farmer income is expected to be more than 16 percent lower than just three years ago, and crop prices are at a 12 year low. Moreover, the number of farms continues to shrink. Now, there are only about 2 million left.

"The way the economy is now, what has been known as the family farm -- if things don't change, they will not exist," predicted farmer Larry Barber.

This new harvest of despair demands new answers, and Michael Rosmann is one of them. On his farm in western Iowa, Rosmann tends to 320 acres and 40 head of cattle. But for part of every day he goes to the nearby town of Harlan where he works as a clinical psychologist.

"The most common problem that I have observed," Rosmann says, "is a profound sense of disillusionment among farmers and their families. They feel misunderstood by the general public. There is a sense among some farmers that all is well in the economy and that it should be well in the farming economy, too."

On Thursday nights, Rosmann conducts group counseling sessions where patients can talk, let off steam or simply cry.

"I came because my husband committed suicide," said participant Jane Hagge. "His dream had always been to farm the family farm, and I guess if he couldn't do that, he didn't want to do anything else."

Suicide, shame, and severe depression are among the issues Rosmann deals with regularly.

'Agricultural mental health'

Larry Barber and his wife Linda Have been going to Rosmann for months, to help cope with the frustration and disappointment of losing their farm. They had what's known in the region as a "century farm" -- it had been in Larry's family for 115 years. But late last year, the Barbers had to sell their cattle and were told by their bank to stop farming.

"I felt I had a responsibility to keep the farm going, make it profitable to my ancestors, to my children, to my mother, to my wife and I wasn't able to do it," Barber confessed. Dealing with the loss of the farm, he said, was even harder than dealing with the deaths of his father and mother-in-law.

The Barbers now rent some of their land to other farmers, and watch someone else's corn grow in their fields. They said discussing their troubles with Rosmann is easier because the doctor is also a farmer. "So that gives us a lot in common to start with," Barber explained.

Rosmann agreed. "I grew up on a farm. I always had a strong appreciation for the land, but I also had a strong sense of wanting to serve my fellow man. So I am trying to pursue what we call 'agricultural mental health.' I think that working on a farm has allowed me to be a better therapist, and I think that working as a therapist has allowed me to be a better farmer."

As the pressures of farming have become more commonly known, the number of health professionals who focus on them has grown.

Author Osha Gray Davidson has written "Broken Heartland," considered the definitive look at the decline of the family farm.

"Farmers are more apt to blame themselves, to see themselves as a part of this myth of rugged self-reliance, and so when things go wrong, you blame yourself," Davidson explains.

Rosmann said he tries to help farmers cope by identifying which factors they can control and which ones they can't. If they didn't cause the circumstances that are troubling them, Rosmann said he tries to help them let go of the associated stress.

Raising public awareness of the plight of America's family farmers is important, experts said.

"I think we need to tell the general public that they have a stake in how food is produced and how food producers are rewarded," Rosmann said. "Do we want to lose family farmers?"

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National Association for Rural Mental Health
National Institute of Mental Health
National Mental Health Association

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