Till and Toil

How Climate Change is Impacting Farmers’ Mental Health

 
Credit: Chiara Lo Zito

In the high desert climate of Southwest Colorado, Mike Nolan and Mindy Perkovich own and operate Mountain Roots Produce, a seven-acre farm with about three to five acres dedicated to producing vegetables, and the rest for cover crops. However, in the last few years, the quantity of produce the couple has been capable of growing has been slashed significantly. In 2021, for example, Nolan and Perkovich reported doing about half to three-quarters of an acre of production while most everything else sat bare.


The couple attribute their dwindling farm produce to heat waves, inadequate water supplies, and severe drought conditions that have been slamming farmers and ranchers in recent years in this area of the Western United States. This coalescing mix of conditions, all intensified by global warming, is not only cutting into financial bottom lines, but, according to Nolan, contributing to feelings of despair.


‘I’ve done personal counselling. Mindy’s done personal counselling. We’ve done couples’ therapy just for other tools and outlets. COVID made it even harder because I feel like when farmers get together there’s a lot of cathartic conversation and you can process things and let them go,’ Nolan said.


‘In general, I am pretty pessimistic,’ he continued. ‘I don’t see a way out of this at this point, and I don’t feel much hope. I don’t think I can even laterally move anywhere in the west because this is happening everywhere. And now that I’m 40, I don’t really want to uproot and start over.’


Nolan and Perkovich are not alone in expressing this sullen sentiment.

In 2020, the Journal of Rural Mental Health published a study on farmer and rancher perceptions of climate change and their relationships with mental health, looking at the correlation between climate risk perception and climate-related anxiety. The study, which surveyed 125 Montana farmers and ranchers, found that more than 70% of respondents agree that climate change is having an impact on their agricultural business. Moreover, nearly three quarters noted they were experiencing moderate to high levels of anxiety when thinking about climate change and its effects on agricultural business.


The nature of farmers’ work is intrinsically a battle against near-constant stressors.

‘The majority of respondents reported directly feeling the effects of climate change on their operation. That’s huge,’ said Meredith Edwards, the study’s lead author. ‘Farmers’ and ranchers’ lives literally depend on the climate to make food for its people. Not everybody can say that. A lot of us can say our lives are directly affected by climate but not necessarily the money we make and our livelihoods.’


Heightened stress


The nature of farmers’ work is intrinsically a battle against near-constant stressors such as unpredictable weather, animal illnesses, crop failures, fluctuating markets, unforeseen disasters, financial constraints, and thin profit margins. But now, more so than ever, climate change is increasingly forcing itself into the fold of pressures they face, as the industry sits in the precarious position of being directly engaged with and impacted by the powerful – and fluctuating – forces of the natural world.


On the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, roughly 50 miles north of Missoula, lies the Moiese Valley – an agricultural-intensive region close to the Flathead River and with breathtaking views of the Missions Mountains to the east.


It is here that Ian Barry and his partner, Caitlin Thompson, lease and run Lowdown Farm, a small, 40-acre certified organic farm specializing in a variety of mixed vegetables and herbs in addition to running a small Black Angus cattle herd.


Due to its geographic location, Lowdown Farm depends on the Flathead Indian irrigation network with the farm’s water supplied through a series of canals and a reservoir from the Mission Mountains.


‘I’ve only been at this for five years, but what I hear from people who’ve been in this area longer than I have is that what used to be a guarantee, or fairly well guaranteed, supply of irrigation water from around April 15th to October 15th, is not necessarily a guarantee anymore,’ Barry said. ‘You don’t necessarily have that guarantee of water, which in our climate is everything.’


Retrospectively looking at the last five years that they have spent running the farm, Barry and Thompson feel their situation has progressively become more and more stressful due to factors revolving around climate change.


The heat. The drought. The feeling that each spring is more of a gamble trying to predict which crops to start and when. Being forced to change the scale of certain crops.


‘We were covered in smoke for over two months.’

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 2021 was the fourth driest year in Montana in the past 127 years. Under these conditions, crops’ ability to grow has been severely impacted leading to decreased production and economic loss.


‘We are very seriously concerned about what the future might hold as far as drought and heat. The biggest thing is water,’ Barry said. ‘The long-term climate predictions that we’ve kind of always heard and knew were there seem to be becoming more real. That has sunken in as more of a reality. We’re very concerned about it, and it’s changing what we think we might want to be doing in the future.’


Concerns for the future


Also in Montana, in the heart of the Clark Fork River Valley, the owners of 23-acre Crescent Ridge Farm Molly and Michael Davidson recollect being negatively impacted by the high temperatures, drought conditions and wildfires that plagued Montana during the 2021 summer.


‘We were covered in smoke for over two months,’ said Davidson. ‘It definitely affected my sleeping habits, my respiratory system. I knew some days that I would have to go back out to work at seven o’clock in the evening because of the smoke and heat and when I’d rather be with my wife and daughter, I’m not going to be mentally into the tasks that I’m supposed to be doing on the farm.’


‘That adds stressors to my family. So, you got the whole relationship with mind, body, health, family – they’re all interconnected when it comes to a farm,’ he said.


Davidson hopes to pass along the family’s farming operation to his six-year-old daughter Grace one day – a reality he is not sure will come true.


‘I would like to say that in ten years’ time, I would be handing this over to my daughter as a successful business, but I cannot guarantee that,’ he said. ‘And that is directly related to the way I perceive our weather patterns and where climate change is taking western Montana.’


Taken together, climate change is impacting any sense of predictability for farm owners, the guarantee of necessary resources as well as everyday life, mood, and activity. As they continue to experience struggles in the context of climate change, public health efforts and interventions are needed to provide therapeutic outreach and climate adaption education specific to farmers.


According to Dr. Mark Schure, associate professor of health and human development at Montana State University and co-author of the 2020 study on farmers, climate change and mental health, there is currently not enough attention on the issue.


‘I don’t think it’s on the awareness scale that it should be. It probably falls off most people’s radars because most people are not living in rural agricultural communities,’ Schure said. ‘They don’t know those people. They don’t understand the reality of a lot of these folks.’


Overall, climate change is translating into a direct threat to the economic viability of farms across the Western United States and the very identity of farmers and ranchers. For Schure, the shifting climate and its associated ripple effects have the potential to be an existential threat for farmers and ranchers’ livelihoods. ‘The bottom line is the question of whether they [farmers and ranchers] are going to be able to continue ranching or farming with the new trends that have been observed over the last several years and maybe even decades in terms of climate change.’

 

Jordan Unger is a freelance journalist and graduate student in the journalism department at the University of Montana.


Artwork by Chiara Lo Zito. You can learn more about Chiara and her work on her website.