Joint Michigan House and Senate Agriculture Committee Testimony - Aug. 13, 2019

MSU Extension director Jeff Dwyer's testimony during the joint Michigan House of Representatives and Senate Committees on Agriculture Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019.

At MSU Extension, our goal is to meet people where they are with education they can use. With offices in every county, we strive to equip Michigan residents with the information they need to do their jobs better, raise healthy and safe families, build their communities and empower our children to dream of a successful future. We offer programs in several different areas, and our foundation is in agriculture. 

Our programming in agriculture and agribusiness suffered during the extreme budget cuts a decade ago. However, over the last three years, we’ve added close to 30 educators, many in newly created positions that help serve the industry and farmers better. 

The university’s contribution to agriculture has evolved greatly since we hired our first livestock agent in 1907. We still offer solid, science-based recommendations on production agriculture. We continue to help farmers make the most of their investments. But we’ve expanded our work to include helping farmers cope with the psychological challenges they continuously face generation after generation. 

  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined 130 occupations and found farm laborers and owners had the highest rate of deaths due to stress-related conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, ulcers and nervous disorders.
  • Many more are injured. And those injuries, especially to the back and joints, encourage the use of pain killers, including opioids.
  • In addition, farmers and farm workers attempt or complete suicide more often than those who chose others lines of work.

Three years ago, my MSU Extension colleagues dove head first into helping farmers and those that love and care for them learn to identify the warning signs of stress, learn how to approach people suffering, listen empathetically and find resources that will help.

In 2016, we developed Communicating with Farmers Under Stress for agribusiness professionals who work with farmers and farm families. Since then, more than 1,400 lenders, farm inspectors and other industry and commodity professionals have learned how to identify stressors and direct people to those who can help. 

But we knew that wasn’t enough. 

In 2018, we created an additional curriculum called Weathering the Storm in Agriculture: How to Cultivate a Productive Mindset. Nearly 500 farmers and their families have attended these workshops. 91% of participants learned how to recognize signs of depression, suicide and mental health illness, and 94% reported improved understanding of current agricultural financial situations because of the program.

Due to emergent needs for community behavioral health education, we have invested in six new MSU Extension educator positions specifically to address mental health concerns of Michigan residents, including a position dedicated to responding to farm stress issues. 

Still, it’s not enough. 

We have become nationally known for our work in this area. In January, we held a train-the-trainer summit where 99 professionals from 22 states learned how to teach these two curricula. In the eight months since, 16 universities have offered these classes to nearly 700 participants in 17 states. Seven more universities who were unable to attend the summit have asked us for training, and we’ve developed an online “train-the-trainer” course to be released soon. 

Late last month we submitted a grant proposal to USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture asking for a half-million-dollar investment in a new endeavor—The North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. By joining forces with:

  • University of Illinois Extension
  • South Dakota State University Extension
  • Purdue University Extension, and
  • Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD)
  • With support from Gov. Whitmer who committed assistance from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and MDARD 

We hope to do three things:

  1. Create an advisory board that will strengthen partnerships between Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and South Dakota (known in the Cooperative Extension System as “the North Central Region”) and provide trainings.
  2. Curate and combine existing online resources by leveraging the network of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD) to create and promote a clearinghouse of educational materials and design new content as identified by the Advisory Board and associated needs assessment; and
  3. Provide additional training, including a 2020 Farm Stress Management Summit for Extension professionals, state Department of Agriculture leaders and workforce, and training to mental health providers to earn a farm stress certificate enabling mental health professionals to be competent in rural farm stress issues. We would use this to build an online list of professionals adept at providing mental health assistance for farmers. 

If this initiative is funded, it will greatly add to the help we can offer Michigan agriculture. But it still will not be enough.

To amass the resources that we need to tackle these challenges, we need the continued support of the Michigan legislature. Our unique combination of mental health assistance, financial management and production education is in direct response to a crisis. But this work is long overdue, and it will not end when the current crisis ends. We must continue to invest in helping farm families, agribusiness professionals and rural communities prepare for challenges well into the future.

That includes amping up our focus on the stressors that lead to mental health issues. We know we can’t control the weather. But we can help farmers take control of how they deal with the weather by continuing to offer research-based education in production and financial management.

We are prepared to do that with your help.

Thank you for your support.

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