Markets, financing and weather — all three have a major impact on the operation of farms in Manitoba. But they are also three of the biggest stressors for agricultural producers.

“You do your best to control as many factors as you can,” said Theresa Zuk, who operates Bar Z Beef, a family-run cattle ranch and direct beef seller near Arborg, Man., about 115 kilometres north of Winnipeg. 

“Mother Nature might show up one day and — boom — things change really quickly.” 

Zuk and her family are co-hosting a webinar this month that aims to educate farmers, ranchers and others in the province’s agriculture industry on how to identify signs of stress and mental health issues before they snowball into something bigger.

“It’s a stigma. You don’t talk about whether you’re stressed or you’re worried,” she said. “You work a little bit harder and it will go away — [but] that’s not the case. You work a little harder and the problem is still there. 

“You can easily get stuck in a rut.”

Theresa Zuk and her family operate Bar Z Beef near Arborg, Man. (Submitted by Theresa Zuk)

Zuk always had an interest in mental health, especially within the agriculture industry, and jumped on the chance to host the webinar when the opportunity came up. 

“We’re people with a lot of pride and you don’t talk about your feelings and what’s bugging you,” she said. “That’s just how it goes.”

Survey finds high stress, anxiety

A 2016 survey conducted by the University of Guelph in Ontario found farmers experience high rates of mental health challenges. 

The survey, which polled more than 1,100 farmers from across Canada, found almost two-thirds experienced anxiety at various levels, 35 per cent suffered from depression and almost half experienced high stress levels — all rates higher than those reported by the general population. 

Janet Smith is manager of community outreach for farm, rural and northern communities with Klinic Community Health. The Winnipeg-based agency runs 11 crisis lines — including Manitoba’s Farm and Rural Stress Line, which provides mental health and crisis counselling services.

Smith said Klinic fielded more than 45,000 calls last year. Virtually all, she said, had COVID-19 and the pandemic as an underlying theme.

“In the beginning, one of the huge stressors for farmers was that what was going to happen to … the food supply chains … none of us knew,” she said. That was when people, uncertain how the pandemic would unfold, were hoarding food.

“But thankfully, we’ve kind of weathered that.” 

During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many store shelves were empty. The uncertainty around food supply chains was one of many stressors for farmers, says Klinic’s Janet Smith. (CBC)

Smith said one of the reasons those in agriculture typically don’t reach out for help is that the industry is male-dominated. 

“So along with those high stress levels farmers have … [they] have seen themselves as very independent, very stoic — you know, kind of fixers and managing things on their own,” she said.  “I would say overlaying that is sort of a more male-dominated industry.”

That’s changing, she said, but “the fact is … men do not reach out for help as easily as do women.”

Pandemic effects

Zuk said even if farmers are typically more isolated than those that live in urban settings, the pandemic has had an effect on the industry as well — everything from the markets to casual visits. 

“We are also part of the community and society.… We cannot not be affected. We’re missing those conversations with our friends, those get-togethers,” she said. “Those are often some of the stress relief.”

She said Foster Ag Services, which operates an agricultural services business in her community, is co-hosting the virtual event, which is slated for Feb. 18.

The event, which will be held via Zoom, is run through the Do More Ag Foundation, which creates awareness about mental health on the farm. Registration for the event is free.

“We all choose what we do. When we choose to farm or ranch we have a lot of issues we can’t control,” Zuk said. “We can’t control the weather. We can’t control world markets … there’s family relations.

“It’s a big circle of a little bit of everything … [that] can play on each other very quickly if things kind of go the wrong way.” 

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

Or contact Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. CT only) | 

Klinic’s Farm and Rural Stress Line can be reached toll-free at 1-866-367-3276.

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