When Josh Baxley’s family rushed him to the emergency room, a heart attack seemed out of the realm of possibility. The 35-year old farmer was in good health, with no underlying conditions and no history of heart disease. It turned out Baxley was experiencing cardiac vasospasm, a sudden constriction of blood vessels in the heart caused by varying factors which, in Baxley’s case, came down to stress. “I work on the farm every day, so I think I’m in wonderful physical shape,” he told The Times & Democrat. “I never thought about my mental health. But while I was in the hospital, a counselor came to talk to me about stress management.”
As a farmer in South Carolina, Baxley had experienced his fair share of stress that season. While attempting to save his cattle from Hurricane Matthew, he and his father were trapped out in the storm for hours, and that was just the latest in a slew of disasters including 2015’s record rainfall that cost SC farmers $388 million in rotted crops and flooded fields. Two hurricanes later, the South Carolina Farm Bureau intervened, establishing the Agricultural Aid Foundation to help farmers by issuing direct payments to offset heavy losses. At that same time, J.E.B. Wilson, fifth-generation farmer of Cotton Hills Farm, approached the SCFB with an idea. Farmers are struggling with more than just wild weather patterns and fluctuations in the market, Wilson explained, “A lot of farmers don’t have access to the mental support that they may need at some point. We’re rural, we’re isolated, some of us don’t see folks that often.” The Foundation’s mission to optimize the lives of those involved in agriculture would do well to include mental health care.
The Agricultural Aid Foundation brought on Dr. Adam Kantrovich of Clemson Extension’s Agribusiness Team to develop statewide mental health programming, seeding what would become the SC AgriWellness Program. Administered by First Sun EAP, SC AgriWellness offers counseling services to South Carolina farmers and their families at no cost. First Sun’s professional therapists undergo Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service’s Farm Stress Awareness Training to understand the unique pressures facing farmers, pressures that have only increased throughout the pandemic, as farmers struggle to sell their crops and keep their livestock alive, with their income slashed to half of what it was five years ago.
Indeed, in a recent American Farm Bureau survey, 91% of farmers list financial issues as a major stressor to mental health. Citing stress, unpredictable weather, and financial problems as significant contributors to mental health challenges, two in five rural adults say stress and mental health problems have been increasing in their community in the past five years. Half of the farmers surveyed say they are personally experiencing more mental health challenges this year than last year. Though the survey exhibits widespread recognition of mental health issues in the farming community, 46% of farmers report difficulty in accessing therapists or counselors in their own communities, and a majority of rural adults agree that cost (70%), embarrassment (65%), and stigma (63%) are obstacles to seeking support for mental health.
Considering that agriculture is South Carolina’s number one industry, that adds up to a whole lot of concern. “SC AgriWellness has great potential to be helpful, and I hope people will use it,” Dr. Kantrovich told The Times & Democrat. “Farmers can access these services on their own time and they can do it from a place where they feel comfortable.” Clemson Extension’s Agribusiness Team also offers in-person workshops on farm stress and mental health. “Every time I do this program for farmers, there are always individuals that approach me after the presentation and tell me that this has a huge amount of meaning and that it was beneficial,” said Kantrovich. “This helps me know that we’re on the right track and that we need to do more of it. But I know that first step is the hardest one to take.”
That step may be a big one, but it’s one Josh Baxley is grateful he was able to take at all. “Before any of this happened, I never talked about stress. I thought, ‘I’m a 35-year-old man, and I’m responsible enough to take care of my own problems.’ It never crossed my mind that I might need to talk to someone about what was going on.” Now Baxley has the tools to manage not only his farm and family but first and foremost, his health.
In addition to therapy and community support, SC Agriwellness offers farmers a full financial analysis, including help with succession planning. Baxley, who farms with his dad and his brother says, “In farming, your legacy is stronger than in any other occupation. We till the earth, we work the land that God gave us and it is a big deal to be able to work the land that your great-grandfather bought or settled.” That legacy can be a lot to carry, and the pressure is felt throughout the entire family. First Sun offers every SC farmer and farm family member three therapy sessions free of charge, along with crisis intervention services 24/7 without limit. To request support, call 1-800-968-8143 and reference “SC AgriWellness.”
Josh Baxley understands first hand when he says, “farmers are the root of the earth and that means an awful lot to my family, and to me. That’s a part of that subconscious stress that we deal with every day – carrying on traditions and heritages that are part of us. It’s one of the biggest aspects of our stress as farmers in America. It’s not easy to deal with, but people really need to seek help.”
J.E.B. Wilson agrees: “The nature of commodity prices right now are really bad in the US, which means our farm income is down substantially. It’s close to an all-time low. Obviously, that’s very discouraging so it’s really important that we fellowship with one another and we maintain relationships, whether it’s through our church family, or through our own family members.” Wilson says his involvement with the South Carolina Farm Bureau has allowed him to connect with fellow farmers. “You talk to other folks and see they’re going through a lot of struggles too. I think that misery loves company, but at the same time we encourage each other when we’re able to see that we’re all facing these struggles, and share our ideas about how to help each other.”