At 43 and 45 years old, husband and wife farmers Angie and Wenceslaus Provost, Jr., hope they live to see age 70.
They donât fear terminal illness or a farm accident that could consign them to an early grave.
Instead, they fear stress could do them in. Years of trying to protect family land from encroaching banks and government agencies have worn on them, despite their love of farming.
After years of mounting debt with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and aÂ bank, the New Iberia, La. sugar cane farmers filed aÂ SeptemberÂ 2018Â lawsuit against aÂ USDA-approved lender. The suit alleges that Wenceslaus, known asÂ âJune,â was all but run out of the profession inÂ 2015Â after the bank reduced his crop loans over successive years, effectively underfunding his farm operation. June also claims that the lender regularly dispersed his funds well past planting season, which hampered his ability to compete against other, mostly white, cane farmers in the region. Angie has had aÂ separate and ongoing civil rights claim open against USDA sinceÂ 2017.
Both Angie and June have been hospitalized with symptoms of a nervous breakdown. They endure fatigue, racing hearts, insomnia brought on by nagging fear they could lose everything: their homes, their cane fields, their tractors, even their lives. They have sometimes feared the stress might literally kill them. In 2008, June, a fourth-generation sugar cane farmer, was in his second season of farming alone when his father died of a heart attack after helping him chop soil to plant fresh cane. Juneâs father had fallen behind because his crop loans were delayed by his banking institution; both June and Angie feel the situation had become bad enough to put his health at risk.
âWeâre very aware of the fact that the early death of our family members like Juneâs father and some of our other community members is due to that stress of being bankrupt and foreclosed on after going through such litigation like Pigford,â Angie said, referring to theÂ class action lawsuits filed by Black Farmers against USDAÂ forÂ discrimination and failure to investigate civil rights complaints.Â âThose are issues of trauma. Itâs aÂ difficult thing, an almost impossible thing to live through, unless you have aÂ support system.â
Owing the USDA more than $1Â million, June at one point questioned his desire to live.Â âAt my worst, IÂ contemplated suicide,â he said.Â âI felt there was no one IÂ could turn to.â The future seemed to be certain death by aÂ thousand bureaucratic hurdles, racism, stress, andÂ overwork.Â
In some ways, the Provostsâ story is familiar to anyone working in agriculture. All farmers and ranchers know the standard hardships of their professionâfrom the high costs of doing business to being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. The financial risks are high, and crop prices are always in flux. AÂ devastatingly adept predator might make off with some prized livestock. Pests may gorge their way through rows of promising crops. The physical work is hard on the body; theÂ pesticides are too. And while weather is always unpredictable, climate changeâs unseasonable droughts, flooding, storms, and freezes add to the strain. Those problems make farming one of theÂ most stressful occupations in the country.
But Black farmers have to contend with an additional menace: the systemic racism that has long marred U.S. agriculture. These producers face down all the typical hardships while also navigating other hazards, including legal battles with the government, discriminatory lenders, opportunistic land grabbers. These painful interactions tend to underscore the racistâand tragically long-standingâmyth that Black people donât belong in farming, and donât deserve the tools required to succeed.
âSo many Black farmersâJuneâs father, his uncles, my aunts and uncles, our community members, our kinâhave the same story: sitting there in aÂ USDA office waiting to be serviced, and never being serviced properly; being told by local agents that you will not succeed,â said Angie. ââYou will fail.âÂ âYou are not aÂ farmer.â Those types of things are told to youÂ directly.â
These grinding forms of discrimination take a deeply personal toll, contributing to a mental health crisis among Black farmers thatâs at once acute and yet hard to see. Help is not exactly on the way. While programs do exist to help farmers handle the stress of the profession, many existing lifelines are geared toward the approximately 95% of U.S. farmers who are white, downplaying or outright ignoring the specific forms of distress that stem from race-based prejudice. Though a small but vital body of research points to the need for a more inclusive approach, and at least one advocacy group is working to better understand the scope of the problem, few efforts are being made to address the problem on the ground. For now, too many farmers still have nowhere to turn, their suffering largely rendered invisible within the support systems that exist.
âItâs that psychological impact that Iâve seen happen to many Black farmers,â Angie said.Â âYou have to understand itâs aÂ repeated pattern. It tears you apart mentally andÂ physically.â
The research gap
InÂ 2021, the USDA announced $25Â million to stateÂ Farm and Ranch Stress AssistanceÂ NetworksÂ (FRSAN) to build crisis hotlines, establish anti-suicide trainings, and offer free or low-cost counseling, among other services. It was an important step toward recognizing the emotionally grueling, often isolating nature of farm work. But it did little to respond to the needs of Black farmers, who tend to operate smaller farms, face increased economic pressure, and are routinely exposed to racism in agriculture and beyond. Of theÂ 50Â FRSAN projects USDA funded inÂ 2021, only seven programsâinÂ Maine,Â Massachusetts,Â Minnesota,Â New Hampshire,Â New Mexico,Â North Carolina, andÂ Rhode Islandâpledge to make efforts to accommodate the specific needs of communities ofÂ color.Â
Itâs yet another indication that the bulk of U.S. research on farming and mental or behavioral health and stress focuses on white farmers. And while that may partly be aÂ function of demographicsâBlack farmers make upÂ 1% of growers nationwide, aÂ stat that itself testifies to the exclusionary force of systemic racism in agricultureâimportant research or diagnostic tools fail to be race-sensitive. Without these mechanisms, itâs difficult to provide informed treatment that responds to the specific needs of Black farmers and could improve their physical and mentalÂ well-being.Â
The Farm/Ranch Stress Inventory, created inÂ 2002Â by Charles K. Welke, then aÂ psychology doctoral student, isÂ aÂ tool that assesses stress, satisfaction and perceived social supportÂ among farmers and ranchers. It asks dozens of questions to assess aÂ farmerâs anxiety level and is sometimes adapted for studies of farmer well-being. But its questions focus mostly on financial and family matters; while it inquires about conflict with relatives or community, no question mentions race or racism specifically. In another example, aÂ 2021Â Farm Bureau-commissionedÂ studyÂ ofÂ 2,000Â rural Americans found that farmers and farm workers were significantly more likely to have said their stress increased in the last year than their non-farming neighbors. But the insurance and lobbying giant told The Counter that it did not analyze its data byÂ race.Â
Laketa Smith manages the Farmers of Color Network of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA). In collaboration with North Carolina State University, she and North Carolina-based RAFI are conducting a study of farmer mental health and financial stress. Unlike many other studies, that research is intentionally oversampling farmers of color. Though the study wonât conclude until later this year, it will interview 15 Black and Indigenous farmers, respectively, in addition to the same number of white growers (a future iteration will include Latinx subjects).
While final results arenât in, Smith said that thereâs no indication that suicide is higher among either group. Still, preliminary results suggest that chronic stress is a feature of life for many Black farmers, and that stress can manifest in a variety of ways, from family conflict or separation to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and ill physical health.
âPride is the flip side of shame, and [when money problems happen and land loss is possible], thereâs aÂ lot of shame over being in that position,â Smith said.Â âFarming is often not [simply] what they do. Itâs who they are. Theyâre fourth or fifth generation. And sometimes they thinkÂ âThis landâs been in the family for years, and IÂ got us inÂ trouble.ââÂ
Racism as risk factor
Itâs aÂ realm of lived experience thatâs also established science: Being subjected to racism is unhealthy. Even encountering the more subtle, daily varieties can be stressfulâand, over time, that stress can impact mental and physical health outcomes in concrete ways. AÂ 2013Â article inÂ The AtlanticÂ summarized the current state of the medical literature, which draws links between discrimination and increased rates ofÂ hypertension, theÂ common cold,Â cardiovascular disease,Â breast cancer, and even generalÂ mortality. OneÂ study ofÂ 30,000Â participantsÂ found that racism-induced stress is directly related to poorer physical and mental health. Itâs aÂ phenomenon that social psychologist Nancy Krieger callsÂ âembodied inequalityââand these damaging linkages have only become better established in recentÂ years.
âThe perception of racism, that feeling can have an impact on psychological well-being,â said Telisa Spikes, aÂ cardiovascular researcher at Emory University who has conducted studies on the impacts of financial and racial stressors on African American health.Â âYour body responds by going into fight or flight modeâblood pressure goes up, heart rate goes up. When youâre constantly in this hypervigilant state it can have aÂ negative impact onÂ health.â
Spikes describes hypervigilance as a heightened response to prior racial trauma that leads African Americans to anticipate negative or discriminatory experiences when they are in predominantly white spaces.
âYou have this stigmatized status as a Black person where you feel you always have to be constantly on watch,â she said.
Epidemiologist Camara Jones has long made the case that racism is a public health crisis. Notably, she has called on fellow researchers to prioritize data collection by race, urging them to focus their attention on the root causes of racial differences in health outcomes.
âWhen we collect data by race, our findings most often reveal significant race-associated differences in health outcomes,â Jones wrote in aÂ 2001Â articleÂ published in theÂ American Journal of Epidemiology.âThe differences are so ubiquitous across organ systems, over the life span, and over time that they do not surprise us or seem to require explanation. Indeed, only when there is aÂ white excess in disease burden, as with suicide, is our professional interestÂ piqued.â
More recently, researchers have continued to probe the role that racism plays in lowering Black Americansâ life expectancy. AÂ 2020Â Auburn University study concluded that stress caused by experiencing racismÂ accelerates agingÂ at the cellular level; while aÂ study published by Georgia State University inÂ 2019Â found that experienced over time, racism and long term anxiety couldÂ âwear and tear down body systems,â weighting the bodyâs allostatic loadâthe lifelong build up of stressâand putting African Americans at greater risk for chronicÂ illness.Â
âHealth cannot be separated from the social environment. Many of the disparities that we see are aÂ result of the social environment. And going back to clinical research, you cannot address problems without highlighting the racial demographic and the role that social determinants play in contributing to these disparities,â Spikes said.Â âRacism is now listed as aÂ fundamental cause of disparities. It may not be experienced in the form of interpersonal racismâIâm going to charge you aÂ higher price because of the color of your skinâbut itâs more of the institutional and systemic racism. The trickle-down policies that derive from that is what has negative implications for health: not being able to afford housing in aÂ good school district if you have children; not being able to get aÂ loan for aÂ mortgage,â saidÂ Spikes.Â
Those risk factors are only magnified and exacerbated within the context of farming, where discriminatory individuals, processes and systems can continually threaten oneâs livelihood and land. Combine U.S. agricultureâs institutionalized racism with the professionâs inherent volatility, and thereâs an argument that Black farmers are at heightened risk for all manner of stress-related ailments.
It happened to Lucious Abrams. The 68-year-old Georgia farmer was denied compensation as a claimant to 1997âs Pigford v. Glickman racial discrimination class action lawsuit against the U.S. government. He has filed numerous legal measures since then to delay foreclosure, and rents his farmland to neighbors to keep the taxes paid. After three decades wrangling with USDA, his body became a vessel of agony and apprehension.
âI had kidney failure. IÂ had aÂ blood vessel burst up in my colon. My wife had aÂ nervous breakdown. Thereâs no way to tell you the trauma that we have been through over the years. Through Godâs grace and his mercy âŚ thatâs the only way IÂ know how [weâve survived],â said Abrams.Â âItâs been an absoluteÂ nightmare.â
Kentucky State University economist and rural sociologist Marcus Bernard worked with farmers in Alabamaâs Black Belt region as the former director of a rural training and research center for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit association of about 20,000 mostly Black farmers and landowners. While completing his PhD at the University of Kentucky, Bernard examined how racism, institutional racism, and class conflict affected Black male farmers. His research identified high levels of acute stress in both African American men and women farmers, typically wives of the male subjects he interviewed.
The long and well-documented history of Black mistreatment at the hands of the USDA, its partners, and agricultural colleagues also produces well-founded anxieties that bias will put more roadblocks in Black farmersâ way.
âWhen you think about aÂ picture of whites farming [and] then think about aÂ picture of Blacks in agriculture, those are two very different experiences,â said Bernard.Â âThe picture with Blacks in agriculture is marred by stigma and labels: aÂ feeling likeÂ âSomeone is always out to get me.â LikeÂ âIâm not going to get aÂ fair shake.â EitherÂ âIâm going to get shorted on my price,âÂ âSomebody is after my land,â orÂ âI may not get the financing that IÂ need.ââ
For decades, USDA and associated lenders withheld critical loans from Black farmers on the basis of raceâonly one factor among many that gave white farmers an unfair advantage, and aÂ shorter path to profit. Today, countless hurdles remain, from fierce, hyperlocal cronyism that excludes these farmers, to price manipulation that drives down their profits and earnings, and excessive collateral required to secure loans that put them at risk of losing everything if they fall into debtâa shameful legacy that is literally written across Black farmersâÂ bodies.Â
ForÂ 26-year-old farmer Tamarya Sims, the anxiety lies not in the fear of dispossessionâbut in the fear that she may never own land at all. Sims is aÂ landless Black farmer in Asheville, North Carolina. By day, she works for aÂ land trust, managing chickens and bees on aÂ community farm. She runs her own business, Soulfull Simone Farm, on the side. The urban flower and herbal farm takes up less than half an acre of rentedÂ land.Â
Sims, who experiences anxiety related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hopes to one day ownÂ 60Â acres of forested land she envisions as aÂ âhealing spaceâ where she can grow herbs and plants, and visitors of color can attend workshops and feel welcome. She describes the distress she deals with asÂ threefold.Â
âThereâs the stress of being a farmer, then thereâs the stress of being a Black farmer, and then of being a landless farmer,â she said. Added to the anxiety she feels, these stressors can make it difficult for her to focus, sapping her energy and ability to solve problems that may arise on the farm.
As a Black female agriculturalist in an overwhelmingly white area, Sims has experienced strong feelings of alienation. When she spoke out in the wake of George Floydâs death, she became instantly and uncomfortably recognizable in her community.
But invisibility, rather than hypervisibility, has been the norm for her. When white visitors stop by the community farm, they often pass her wordlessly, seeking out the first white face they can find as an authority. When she was shopping for her own tractor, she brought a white male associate with her to the dealership, for fear she wouldnât be taken seriously or get a fair deal. The sales agent spoke exclusively to the white man and refused to look her in the eye, she said. Knowing she must enlist the same tactic in her search to acquire land is upsetting and tiresome.
âOne of the main recurring things Iâve went through is being on land and folks seeing me and thinking that IÂ donât belong just because Iâm Black. Even at my job, Iâve had people slowing down in their cars to see what Iâm doing.â If they come onto the land, they ignore her just as the tractor salesperson did.Â âThereâs nowhere IÂ can go where people see me and think IÂ belong, or where IÂ feel safe.â
This feeling has been a primary motivator in Simâs desire to carve out her own piece of land where she can enjoy the restorative benefits of nature that all farmers love: the joy and relief that comes from digging in the dirt, watching a tiny seed shoot out roots long before its verdant foliage begins to show.
âI work through a lot of my life issues in the garden, and I think that everyone should have the opportunity to do thatâŚ When you connect people with land, they see the mountains behind them, and they feel comfortable,â she said. Itâs a feeling of ease she continues to chase and an irony many Black farmers experience: that working the land can relieve stress, while also exacerbating it.
Community as coping
Former cattle farmer Michael Rosmann is a psychologist who has worked with farmers and institutions for more than 30 years to raise awareness about the importance of behavioral health in agricultural communities. His work with the nonprofit AgriWellness, Inc., a partnership initiative between seven Prairie states facilitated by the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health, informed the framework of USDAâs Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.
âThe traits that define successful farmers are a capacity to endure extreme hardship, the capacity to work alone, if necessary, self-reliance for making decisions, and keeping things to oneself. These traits cut across all races and cultures,â said Rosmann.
However, these characteristics can have a downside: a reticence to divulge thoughts and emotions to behavioral health professionals or scholars who could document farmersâ individual or collective mental health needs. To combat this, Rosmann emphasizes a need for counselors and therapists who have a shared understanding of not only agriculture, but the complex racial and cultural histories these farmers hold.
In practice, thatâs not always easy. Rural communities, where most farms are, often lack the medical resources and services offered in major cities. At the same time, only aboutÂ 3Â percent of U.S. psychologists are Black. For farmers, these factorsâthe disparity in health care services and the lack of representation among health care professionalsâmix with other forms of inequityÂ toÂ create barriers to relief from occupationalÂ stress.Â
In the absence of doctors they can trust and enough rural mental health providers, many Black farmers like Abrams lean on religion to lessen their mental anguish.
âThere is still within this community of older Black farmers, deeply spiritual, deeply rooted ties to their churches. Their spiritual life is what I believe is the No. 1 thing that keeps them sane and grounded,â Kentucky Stateâs Bernard said.
He speculated that faith may offset suicide risk among Black farmers. But because Black farmers are not often studied or written about outside the bounds of their racial experiences, thereâs little to no information about the prevalence of suicide and self-harm among them.
That most Black farmers turn to social networks for support bears out an aspect of Farm Bureau research: in general, farmers are far more likely to tap their friends and family for help than seek a doctorâs advice.
KalebÂ âKJâ Hill,Â 35, is aÂ fourth-generation farmer from New Orleans and the founder of Oko Vue Produce Co., an agricultural business that specializes in edible landscapes and stormwaterÂ management.Â
He looks inside and outside his community for assistance.
âA lot of [farmers] are not very vocal with what theyâre going through. Theyâll speak in aÂ lot of cliches, likeÂ âYou know, itâs just part of the job.â But the way IÂ live my life, IÂ share if Iâm seeking additional support,â HillÂ said.Â
Though he doesnât presume to recommend mental health services to his peers,Â âwe usually talk to each other,â heÂ said.Â
âThatâs important,â he went on.Â âI wonât say itâs like traditional group therapy or anything thatâs facilitated by aÂ professional. Itâs just us sitting around in aÂ circle or gathering at the end of the season, and having aÂ little dinner together with some of the things we have left over and just talking about how that was aÂ rough year. Itâs an ongoing conversation. Youâre venting likeÂ âMan, that was frustrating, this insect ate up everything. What did you do about it’ Thatâs aÂ therapeutic session inÂ itself.âÂ
Still, traditional talk therapy keeps himÂ âin touch with reality and itâs helped me grow as aÂ man. âŚ Sometimes you have these emotions that you donât necessarily have aÂ word for and that professional does,â heÂ added.Â
The Provosts also sought help to alleviate their feelings of despair. Both now speak with aÂ therapist regularly. They say itâs had aÂ marked effect on their ability to cope with the day-to-day stress incurred by attempts to preserve their livelihood. But the fight is long from over. What was once an almostÂ 5,000-acre family sugarcane operationâJuneâs family owned aboutÂ 300Â of those acres and rented the remainderâis now aÂ mereÂ 36Â acres, split between June and one of his brothers. Angieâs civil rights claim remains open, and Congressâs effort at debt cancellation, which would have offered them aÂ much-needed reprieve,Â remains stalled.
This post originally appeared at The Counter on March 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Safiya Charles is The Counterâs future of farming fellow, covering the movement around justice for Black farmers and the pioneering agriculture work being done in communities of color nationwide. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Alabama capitalâs daily newspaper. Her work has appeared in The Nation and The New Republic.