Even without the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural producers experience high levels of anxiety, depression, substance use and death by suicide. Researchers at the University of Illinois and Illinois Extension are working to ensure producers and their families have the resources and access to services to manage their stress and mental health.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), through the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) grant program, awarded nearly $7.2 million in investment funding for the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center (NCFRSAC). The 12-state collaborative will create and expand stress management and mental health resources and services to agricultural producers and stakeholders in the North Central region.

The project is led by Josie Rudolphi, assistant professor in agricultural and biological engineering, and Courtney Cuthbertson, assistant professor in human development and family studies, both in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and both specialists with Illinois Extension.

The NCFRSAC network will expand programs that provide professional agricultural behavioral health interventions, support farm telephone hotlines and websites, and provide needed training and resources for producers and those in agriculture-related occupations.

Key target audiences for the project include individuals engaged in production agriculture with specific emphasis on producers (male and female operators, farmworkers); farm youth and farm families; and allies and supporters of agricultural producers, specifically agribusiness professionals and health care providers.

The researchers and Illinois Extension have already completed several activities related to supporting producer well-being. In spring 2020, Illinois Extension worked with Michigan State University Extension to gain access to the Farm Stress train-the-trainer program, enabling nine Illinois Extension educators to become facilitators in two programs — Weathering the Storm, a workshop for farmers and farm families, and Communicating with Farmers under Stress, for professionals who support farmers. Both courses include information about agricultural economic trends, unique stressors to farmers, how to communicate with a distressed producer, and warning signs of suicide.

In March, Illinois Extension and Illinois AgrAbility co-hosted the Ag Mental Health Summit with Illinois Farm Bureau. More than 55 Extension, agribusiness, public health and health care professionals participated in the one-day summit to identify the resources and services available to agricultural producers, explore collaborations and identify programming, resource and service gaps.

USDA-NIFA introduced the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, a competitive grants program reauthorized by the 2018 farm bill, to support projects that provide stress assistance for people in farming, ranching and other agriculture-related occupations.