The Island Minister of Agriculture, Bloyce Thompson said this past week that more Island Farmers are reaching out for mental health support through the PEI Farmers Assistance Program. He noted that the number of calls in 2019 was 140, increasing to 293 in 2020. Minister Thompson said navigating a hot dry summer during the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for farmers.
Not for one moment does the National Farmers Union underestimate the impact of this past dry summer, but we argue that the reality of the downward spiral of the mental health of Island and Canadian farmers is more deeply rooted than in a summer of drought. The underpinning stresses have been building for decades. They are now erupting as the stark reality that the economic and farming models that farmers were sold and bought into as a pathway to advancement are failing the majority of family farms.
Farmers have paid the price of Federal politicians and bureaucrats dealing away domestic markets in trade deals. And it is not over yet. The Americans, unwilling to fix their own problems in their dairy industry, are making another attempt to gain more of the Canadian domestic dairy market. And it is difficult, while producing milk below cost, to continue to believe the government’s claim that they support supply management. Farmers have experienced the Federal government’s destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board and the list goes on thanks to the preaching of neo-liberal ideology that promotes free market capitalism and deregulation for the benefit of a small minority.
And then there is the economies of scale theory that has put many farmers out of business, and others in deep debt while working even harder to produce more for less. The result has been increased wealth for processors, as well as the control to basically dictate how a farmer will grow his crop and what he will be paid for it. The PEI example is so widespread it doesn’t even have to be named.
Under the model of economies of scale, processors have greatly benefited through getting more for less, and land ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer industrialized operations. Yet costs for farmers continue to climb while the margins grow tighter and tighter.
Climate change is real and while it is human nature to fight change, we either do so or join the extinct. More of the same will not save us.
So yes, farmers’ mental health is fragile, and it is good that many are reaching out for help. In doing so they have moved beyond the belief that much of what is leading to their stress is their personal failure. Farmers are resilient, but a time comes when the heart can no longer rule and emotion must be replaced with the logic that the system under which food is produced in this country is growing more broken and unjust with each passing day. Farmers must come together to brighten their own futures.
The farmers of PEI and Canada need far more from our governments and our farm organizations than to be told it is good we are asking for help. We need real leadership and forward thinking that understands the value of a country being able to feed itself, and that the production of good nutritional affordable food belongs in the hands of family farms, not investment funds, control hungry corporate processors, or the one percent who grow rich through government policies that allow them to avoid their obligations in the sharing of resources and the building of a society inclusive for everyone.