The pitfalls and hazards of farming are so many and varied that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls it one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S.
On top of threats to life and limb are the uncertainties of making a living in a business that depends on unpredictable weather and shifting commodity markets.
“High stress and anxiety from relying on weather, uncertain markets, and other unpredictable factors for one's livelihood can lead to feeling out of control and hopeless,” said Brittney Schrick, extension family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“Farmers and other agriculture workers are at high risk for substance use and abuse, depression, and other psychological issues because of the uncertain nature of their work,” Schrick said.
The 2016 farm season is a case in point. Division of Agriculture economist Scott Stiles said commodity prices fluctuate widely. Prices for Arkansas rice, for example, were down 17 percent from a year ago.
The low prices are piling on top of a year in which many Arkansas rice farmers have seen poor yields and damaged quality, thanks mostly to a season of extreme weather, Stiles said. Excessive rains in mid-August, especially in the northeast areas of the state, were coupled with extreme heat in July, resulting in low yields and reduced grain quality.
“Arkansas farmers in some key rice areas have been hit from two sides with poor yields and a significant drop in prices,” Stiles said.
And as commodity prices drop, some production costs continue to rise, Stiles said.
Stiles said one of those rising expenses was the price of seed. Over the past six years, seed costs for the major row crops have increased from 4 percent to 7 percent a year, he said, and seed purchases can amount to 25 percent or more of production costs.
Stiles said the chief agent of rising expenses was the price of seed. Commercial seed technologies were driving prices up 7 percent to 8 percent a year, he said, and seed purchases can amount to 25 percent of production costs.
Farmers are beginning to look at conventional rice and soybean varieties as a possible means of bringing those costs down, Stiles said, but they often come with added expenses for weed control.
Some farmers are facing their second or third year in a row in which they’ve made no money, Stiles said.
“Some of them are facing a decision about getting out,” Stiles said. “We saw a lot of farm auctions last year, and I expect to see an unusual amount of farm sales this winter.”
Farming can be dangerous work
The work required to make even this uncertain living often exposes farmers to dangerous situations, said Sammy Sadaka, Division of Agriculture extension engineer. Each year, more agriculture-related deaths occur than in any other industry, he said.
Agriculture accounts for 25.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, Sadaka said, twice the number of deaths in the next highest risk industries — mining, transportation and warehousing.
The agricultural death rates in almost every survey published are higher from April through September, the peak growing and harvesting season, Sadaka said. In crop production alone, 245 deaths were reported in the U.S. in 2011.
Among the potentially life-threatening farm hazards OSHA lists are farm machinery and equipment, agricultural chemicals, grain bins, livestock handling, sun and heat, toxic gases, silos, wells and tractors.
The list goes on, but the leading cause of death for farmers and farm workers is tractors overturning, Sadaka said.
Most tractor rollovers are the result of going too fast, turning too short or operating too close to embankments that may crumble under the weight. Injuries and death also occur from collisions with other vehicles when a tractor or other farm vehicle is operated on roads and highways.Farm-related injuries declined from 87,503 in 2001 to 47,332 in 2009, Sadaka said. In part this is because safety features have been added to farm equipment.
“Most tractors now have roll-over protective structures,” Sadaka said. “But the risk of serious injury in a rollover is only lower if the operator fastens the seatbelt.”
Farms also employ other equipment of various sizes — combines, trailers, sprayers, pumps, just to name a few — that can be dangerous to life and limb if not operated in a safe manner, Sadaka said. “They all have the capability to maim or kill if not operated in a safe manner and treated with respect,” he said.
Advice for farmers
Schrick offers advice for dealing with the stresses from agriculture’s financial and health risks, beginning with basic stress management practices.
“Reducing or cutting out caffeine can improve sleep and mood as well as reduce headaches,” Schrick said.
She added that social networks of family, friends, community organizations, or a faith community can offer support, outlets for talking about or venting concerns, or a different perspective on issues.
“It is important to eat well, get plenty of sleep, and take frequent breaks,” she said.
Schrick advises seeking help when feeling depressed, having suicidal thoughts or hallucinations, or when feeling compelled to engage in abusive behavior or rages. Help should also be sought for substance abuse, difficulty thinking or expressing positive thoughts, or uncontrollable feelings of panic or anxiety.