When I first started this job almost two decades ago, topics like suicide and mental health issues facing the farming community were subjects that simply weren't discussed.
Not even during coffee break and certainly not on the agenda of a meeting. Thankfully that is changing, part of a recognition throughout society that the stresses of 21st century life can leave many people feeling alone and helpless-- often feeling there is no way out of a situation.
Agriculture has some factors that make it unique in terms of risk. Many of the variables that determine success are out of the control of the individual producer. Trade deals, exchange rates, national and international politics just to name a few. Leading that list, of course, is weather and the growing impact of climate change that is making the definition of a "normal" growing season largely meaningless.
Add to that the traditional image of the farmer -- tough, resilient and independent. That reputation is well deserved but even the toughest people sometimes need help. Since 2004, the Farmer Assistance Program has been offering counselling sessions -- last year over 140 farmers used the anonymous service to help them deal with a host of personal and family challenges-- many of them directly related to the stress of farming.
The FarmerTalk program announced recently by the Department of Agriculture and Land is a good way to bring more attention to a situation that thrives in the shadows. The website offers resources including a talk bubble that people can download and create encouraging messages.
During the launch, Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson recounted his own experience of helping to transport animals to market for a fellow producer who had committed suicide. In a video on the website, long time hog producer Donald MacDonald tells about a conversation he had with a fellow farmer as they were transferring hogs from one trailer to another. The man told MacDonald he would be in the industry until he died. The next day, MacDonald found out his friend had taken his own life.
Those are powerful stories that left an impact on me and everybody else in the room that heard them. I can't even begin to imagine the impact they had on family and friends left behind. The minister's talk bubble message of "you are not alone" and that it is ok to seek help is a message that can't be stressed enough.
Everybody involved with the industry should also remember the advice of Frank Bulger (one of the counsellors in the Farmers Assistance Program) that "if you see your neighbour struggling, it is ok to ask them if they need help."
On a more upbeat note, congratulation to the winners of some key agricultural awards handed out recently. Eric Donald Francis is the 2019 Agriculture Employee of the year, Linkletter Farms was named the top employer, Nick Pettipas won the minister's award for dedication to the industry and Vanco Farms won the Agricultural Awareness Award. All of these winners are well deserved and shining examples of the strength of Island agriculture.