Climate Change Is Exacerbating Stress and Anxiety Among Farmers

For agricultural workers engaging daily with the natural world, warming temperatures are putting a strain on mental health.

NESTLED IN THE VAST, expansive landscape of Western Montana about an hour north of Missoula lies Deluge Farm, a modest 20-acre organic vegetable farm that is also home to pasture-raised sheep, chickens, and turkeys.

Elan Love has successfully run the operation for more than a decade, despite the fact that he had minimal experience in organic farming when he first took over. Love is overwhelmingly happy he chose to pursue a life in agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers have long battled near-constant stressors such as unpredictable weather, crop failures, fluctuating markets, and razor-thin profit margins. But now, given that those in the industry directly engage with the powerful, changing forces of the natural world, climate change is increasingly forcing itself into the fold of farming-related pressures. Photo of Clark Fork Farm courtesy of Clark Fork Farm.

“I have dedicated my life to something that I find meaningful,” he said. “Even though the life is very difficult and even though I’m not profitable every year in a row, for my personal wellbeing and for my quality of life, it is very good.”

Love hails from a family of scientists and naturalists. He himself has an academic background in paleoclimatology, so it’s not surprising that he’s attuned to how climate change is impacting almost every aspect of human life.

“I generally consider most things to be in the cross hairs of climate change in one way or another,” Love said. “There is very little that I see as being unthreatened in the human realm.”

Love puts agricultural workers’ ability to keep farming and living an agricultural lifestyle at the top of the list of things at threat. “Agricultural workers are aware of the problem [of climate change], but people mostly are just trying to keep their crops alive and to keep going another year,” he said. “Trying to imagine what things will be like in 10 or 20 years, I do that, but I don’t think it’s psychologically healthy for people to do.”

“Looking at the situation as a person with a background in environmental science subjects, the outlook is profoundly grim,” he added. “Simply keeping your head down and trying to get by day by day and year by year is, frankly, the most rational thing for most people.”

Love isn’t the only one worried about the future for farmers as the climate continues to warm. Due to the nature of the work, farmers and ranchers already battle near-constant stressors such as unpredictable weather, crop failures, fluctuating markets, and razor-thin profit margins. But now, given that those in the industry directly engage with the powerful, changing forces of the natural world, climate change is increasingly forcing itself into the fold of farming-related pressures. The issue is directly affecting finances, the stability of the sector profession, and the mental health of those involved.

In fact, across the world, agricultural workers have reported experiencing negative psychological effects and increasing stress related to the impacts of climate change.

A 2014 study, for example, found that agricultural workers in drought-affected regions of Australia reported significantly lower life satisfaction compared to non-agricultural workers in those regions.

A 2017 study found that increasing temperatures significantly influence suicide rates among farmers in India. The research highlighted that when temperatures are above 68° F, a 1.8° F increase in a single day’s temperature correlates with roughly 70 additional suicides across the country. The correlation was only observed during India’s growing season, during which higher temperatures drive crop failures.

And a 2020 survey of 125 Montana farmers and ranchers found that more than 70 percent 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 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 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.”

WHILE IT’S DIFFICULT to predict the exact ways in which global warming will impact the diverse and varied agricultural sector, as temperatures increase, it’s clear that the repercussions will be significant in the western United States. Already, the effects are being felt.

Montana, for example, has already seen a decrease in the number of extremely cold days and, conversely, an increase in the number of extremely hot days. The summer of 2021 brought record heat to the state. Missoula set a new record, reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above as a daytime high 22 days in a row. The state is also experiencing prolonged droughts, drier and hotter summer months, and increased frequency, and intensity of natural disasters.

“The hot and dry seasons I’ve experienced here starting in maybe 2013 or 2014 have really seemed to be exceptional to me,” Love from Deluge Farm said. “I irrigate from a small artesian well with a very limited flow, so I don’t have infinite water. And when things are dry and very hot with a lot of sun, it makes it just very difficult to keep things alive.”

Elan Love puts agricultural workers’ ability to keep farming and living an agricultural lifestyle at the top of the list of things at threat from the climate crisis. Photo courtesy of Elan Love.

“My main job is trying to get enough water on things that they live,” Love added. “Crop failures can happen, but also very hot and dry conditions can produce blooms in the populations of specific insect pests that can be very destructive.”

Kim Murchison and Josh Slotnick, who have been growing food at their family farm, Clark Fork Organics, on the west side of Missoula Valley since 1992, have similarly observed a shift in conditions

“When we started out almost 30 years ago, a 90-degree day was really hot, and we’d have maybe one week where it got into the 90s. But, for the most part, we were outside, and it was in the 80s, and it was pretty nice,” Murchison said. “And now it’s not unusual to have a couple of weeks where it is in the 100s, and that has gotten really hard. It’s gotten hard for the humans, and it’s gotten hard for the crops.”

Conditions are only expected to get worse. A 2017 statewide report by The Montana Climate Assessment predicted that, depending on the emission scenario, temperatures in Montana could increase between 4.5°F and 6.0°F above those recorded between 1971 and 2000 by mid-century, and by 5.6°F to 9.8°F by end-of-century.

“In terms of extreme heat, the days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit are projected to consistently be 30 to 40 more days a year then we had in the year 2000,” said Dr. Bruce Maxwell, professor of applied plant ecology at Montana State University. “That will be very hard for plants to survive or to be productive in that period.”

Given the forecast, some farmers, including Murchison, are already starting to take steps back from their work in agriculture

“The weather is really hard and pretty unpleasant,” she said. “I just don’t want to work in 100-degree weather anymore and try to fight this anymore, so I’m cutting back a bunch.”

And it’s not just the heat. In the coming decades, precipitation is likely to continue to decline in Montana — and across the West — as well.

“We’re going to be seeing snowpack disappearing, and that snowpack in the mountains is absolutely critical for farmers and ranchers. That’s the bank, that’s the savings account that lets the water kind of seep out slowly,” said Dr. Paul Lachapelle, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Montana State University. “And so, all those farmlands and ranchers that are dependent on irrigation and water rights are really going to be facing unprecedented water challenges in the future as a result of that changing snowpack.”

Ian Barry and his partner, Caitlin Thompson, lease and run Lowdown Farm, a 40-acre farm located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana that is part of the Flathead Indian irrigation network. As such, the farm’s water is 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 fairly well guarantee of having irrigation water from around April 15 to October 15, is not necessarily a guarantee anymore,” Barry said.

In 2021, Barry and Thompson reported feeling unprecedented levels of climate-related stress. The heat. The drought. The lack of water. The feeling that each spring is more of a gamble trying to predict which crops to start and when.

“We are very seriously concerned about what the future might hold as far as drought and heat. The biggest thing is water. My partner and I are passively looking for farmland of our own, and we always want to be around western Montana. For the first time this year, we started saying to each other that maybe this isn’t the place to be,” Barry said. “We’re very concerned about the long-term climate predictions, and it’s changing what we think we might want to be doing in the future.”

The increasingly commonplace heat waves, higher overall temperatures, and lower quantity of precipitation are also leading to an increase in the prevalence and severity of wildfires. Molly and Michael Davidson, who run Crescent Ridge Farm in Montana’s Clark Fork River Valley, know well the harm that fire can have on both mental and physical health after experiencing Montana’s 2021 summer wildfire season.

“We were covered in smoke for over two months,” Michael Davidson said. “It definitely affected my sleeping habits, my respiratory system. I knew somedays that I would have to go back out to work at seven 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.”

Crescent Ridge Farm in Montana’s Clark Fork River Valley was covered in smoke for two months during the state’s 2021 summer wildfire season. Photo courtesy of Crescent Ridge Farm.

Michael Davidson doubts that his dream of passing his farm onto his daughter will become a reality due to the challenges posed by climate change. Photo courtesy of Crescent Ridge Farm.

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

Montana is far from the only US state experiencing the impacts of climate change. Last year, the Pacific Northwest suffered through a summer of deadly, triple digit heat.

For Oregonians Maud and Tom Powell — who have owned and operated Wolf Gulch Farm, a small vegetable and seed farm in Southern Oregon, for over two decades — the 2021 “heat dome” followed years of lower-than-average rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures.

“It’s been devastating. The emotional component is just heart-wrenching. Our kids are now 22 and 18, so I gave birth to my son on the property, our daughter was six months old when we moved there. We planned to live there our whole lives,” Maud Powell said. “For 25 days straight the temperature did not drop below 95° F. So, at some point in July, [my husband and I] just turned to each other and said if we want to keep farming, we are going to have to move.”

In the past, Powell viewed owning a farm and pursuing a life in agriculture as an overall net positive in terms of her mental health. This, however, is no longer true. “Now, it’s just constant anxiety and dread,” she said.

This anxiety is also hitting Mike Nolan and Mindy Perkovich, owners and operators of Mountain Roots Produce farm out in southwest Colorado’s Mancos Valley.

The Mancos Valley has long enjoyed relatively secure water. Now, however, drought conditions are the worst they have been in nearly two decades. In fact, between January 2020 and August 2021, the Southwest saw the lowest total precipitation and the third-highest daily average temperatures on record for the region.

“In the past four years, it just seems like things are just getting stacked between the heat waves and the lack of water and the grasshoppers and disease issues,” Nolan said, referring to how increases in temperatures and decreasing precipitation in the West are contributing to spikes in the prevalence of certain diseases and pests, which can decimate crops. “The last 18 months have felt really crazy, and the last four years have been really challenging for sure when it comes to climate change related issues.”

Nolan and Perkovich only had irrigation water for about five weeks this past growing season in 2021. They had to use domestic water in order to help their crops survive. “We can’t run sprinklers with that. We have to run it, you know, a couple of beds at a time pushing it around almost 24 hours a day to keep things kind of going,” Nolan said

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.

“The bottom line is the question of whether they 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,” said Dr. Mark Schure, associate professor in the Health and Human Development department at Montana State University.

FOR SOME AGRICULTURAL WORKERS, the relentless and compounding set pressures is simply too much.

The suicide rate among agricultural producers is distinctly high according to reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that look at suicidality by occupation. And, a January 2020 CDC study found that suicide rates overall had increased by 40 percent in less than two decades. “Consistently, ag production has been among the top in terms of the suicide rate,” said Alison Brennan, assistant professor in the Health and Human Development Department at Montana State University.

Agricultural workers often deal with geographic and social isolation, and the rural communities in which they live also traditionally suffer from a lack of mental-health resources.

“Sometimes mental health services just don’t exist. There are not mental health providers in some counties,” Brennan said. “In some really rural counties, if there is a primary care provider, there might only be one in the whole county.”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, an estimated 60 percent of residents in rural America live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. But that’s not the only barrier to care.

“Some farmers probably feel they could go talk to somebody, but [think] they would not get it. It’s probably some nice girl who just graduated from college, and they are not going to understand what it’s like on a farm and what I’m facing,” said Meg Moynihan, senior advisor on strategy and innovation for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “Plus, [they may think] I can’t afford it. It’s too far away, and I really don’t have time to do it. Probably nobody can even help what’s wrong. It’s just so easy to swallow that inside yourself.”

Stigma also prevents some from seeking mental health services.

“Even if services exist in a community, if it’s a small community, everybody knows everybody. They’ll see you going in. They’ll recognize your truck,” Brennan said. “So, there’s that sort of concern about privacy and confidentiality, and stigma certainly creates a barrier.”

WITH THE STRESSES of farming now being dramatically compounded by climate change, many farmers and ranchers on the frontline are feeling demoralized about the future.

Michael Davidson, for example, doubts that his dream of passing Crescent Ridge Farm on to his daughter Grace is likely to become a reality.

“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,” Davidson said. “And that is directly related to the way I perceive our weather patterns and where climate change is taking Western Montana.”

“I am pretty pessimistic,” said Mike Nolan in Colorado, echoing Davidson’s sentiments. “I don’t see a way out of this, and I don’t feel much hope.”

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