Ground Zero

Remember the “farm crisis”? It never really ended, and now it’s more dangerous than ever

| November-December 1996

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    Image by Flickr user: Photocapy / Creative Commons

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It’s 2 o’clock in the morning when the telephone wakes Glen Wallace, an Oklahoma City psychologist. The farmer on the other end of the line has been drinking and is holding a loaded gun to his head. He tells Wallace that his farm is to be sold at auction within a few days and that he can’t bear the shame he has brought to his family. The only way out, he says, is to kill himself.

Within hours Wallace is at the farm. This time the farmer agrees to go into counseling; this time no one dies. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Wallace has handled hundred of these calls through AG-LINK, a farm crisis hotline, and many times the suicide attempts are successful.

According to Mona Lee Brock, a former AG-LINK counselor, therapists in Oklahoma alone make more than 150 onsite suicide interventions with farmers each year. And Oklahoma has only the third-highest number of farm suicides in the nation, trailing both Montana and Wisconsin.

A study conducted in 1989 at Oklahoma State University determined that suicide is a leading cause of death on America’s family farms and that the suicides are the direct result of economic stress. The study showed that farmers took their own lives five times more often than they were killed by equipment accidents, which, until the study, were considered to be the leading cause of farm deaths. 

“These figures are probably very conservative,” says Pat Lewis, who directed the research. “We’ve been provided with information from counselors and mental health workers that suggests that many of the accidental deaths are, in reality, suicides.” Wallace, who is one of those mental health workers, agrees:  “The known suicides are just a drop in the bucket. We have farmers crawling into their equipment and being killed so their families can collect insurance money and pay off the farm debt.  They’re dying in order to stop a foreclosure.”

Most Americans think that the farm crisis is a thing of the past—old news from the 1980s, when rural despair garnered newspaper headlines and cover stories in major magazines. But it isn’t over. According to Brock, things are as bad now for the family farmer as they were in the ‘80s. She notes that recent USDA figures that show the economic health of farms are improving are, in fact, skewed by the inclusion of large farming cooperatives and corporate farms. Brock also says that “state hotlines are busier than ever as the small family is being pushed off the land.”

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