Farming's Toll on Producers' Mental Health

Food producers face specific challenges that can lead to anxiety, farmer says

Published online: Feb 18, 2019 Articles
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Source: CBC News  

Pig farmer Stewart Skinner says he's come a long way since the day he sat in his barn in Listowel, Ont., and contemplated suicide.

The swine industry was slumping, he worried too much about "keeping up with the Joneses," and when the rooster crowed, the last thing he wanted to do was get up.

The lowest point of his anxiety and depression, he said, came that day in the barn in December 2012.

"I'll never understand everything that happened but I had a little voice, bit of a voice, in my head saying, 'You don't want to do this,'" he said in an interview on CBC's Mainstreet P.E.I.

Skinner sought help that day. He hopes his story will inspire others to do the same.

Speaking at conference

He will be at the Prince Edward Island Potato Conference this week to talk about mental health struggles that can affect people who work in agriculture.   

He said farmers and other food producers face specific challenges that can lead to anxiety.

"I think the biggest one is ultimately we are trying to manage a biological system of which we don't control all the variables. And when things are out of your control, that can get kind of difficult to manage."

It was a difficult year for many potato farmers on P.E.I. (Submitted by Bryan Maynard)

Last year was a particularly difficult season P.E.I. potato farmers. A late spring, dry summer and cold, wet fall left some crops damaged or unharvested. 

Mother Nature does not worry so much about our mental health.—Stewart Skinner

"Mother Nature does not worry so much about our mental health. And that can be a big part of it," Skinner said.

Skinner said farmers are also feeling increased pressure to justify their practice to consumers.

"Farmers, at times, I think sometimes are feeling under attack from general society and that can definitely wear on you as well."

Skinner said building a business to his own strengths and weaknesses, instead of trying to farm "the way everyone thinks a farmer ought to farm,"  helped him manage his anxiety.

"I'm not going to be the farmer that gets up with the crowing rooster at 4 a.m. That's not who I am. And for a long time I was embarrassed of that and tried to say, you know, 'I've got to be like everyone else,'" he said.

"Instead of saying you've got to farm like grandpa did, it's let's try to figure out how to build a business that still make food for people but takes into account the way we're wired."

Put things in perspective

He said he sometimes became envious of people around him, but a trip to Kenya a few years ago also helped put things in perspective.

He realizes how fortunate he is to live in Canada, and now tries not to let his professional successes and failures influence his personal happiness.

Skinner, who writes a blog at the Modern Farmer Project, said he's not trying to tell people "how to go about their business," but rather sharing his own experiences in the hopes of starting a broader conversation that can help others address their own issues.

"There's a lot of people saying there is no stigma in seeking help and sometimes people just need to hear that for the 18th time before they think, 'You know what, I can seek help.'"

The P.E.I. Potato Conference will be held Tuesday and Wednesday at Red Shores in Charlottetown. It's open to all producers on P.E.I. and other people in the industry. They will also be sharing information on sustainability, technology and research.