Seeds of Wellbeing is a recently launched initiative from the University of Hawaii Manoa, supported by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The S.O.W. team has surveyed the state of mental health in Hawaii’s farming and ranching community and will soon publish the first paper of its findings, from hours of interviews and hundreds of survey responses.

The results indicate Hawaii’s farmers and ranchers are feeling the pressure of the job, with one-third of farmers suffering depression. Professor Thao Le, project director, shared some of the team’s experiences and impressions of farmers’ mental health. Her interview with Civil Beat has been edited for length and clarity.

Life has been hard for everyone over the pandemic – being cut off from family, losses of jobs and livelihoods and just an upheaval of life in general. What exactly has the farmers’ experience been?

This pandemic has been really challenging for so many on so many levels. But for farmers and producers specifically, their whole livelihoods are filled with uncertainty. And whose livelihood is filled with that level of uncertainty? It’s very resource intensive and capital intensive, being a farmer, and you need to grow things and invest your time. Your time is a resource.

So let’s say for crops: It takes six to nine months from when you put in something. And then for coffee it takes maybe three to five years before you get your crop. Who knows what’s going to happen during those years and during those months? The weather could change, you have a new invasive species, you have inflation – which everybody is impacted by. For farmers, everything is uncertain. So there’s no guarantee that what you’ve invested in will get a return.

That’s why it’s so much harder, because of the uncertainty. Uncertainty came up as a top stressor; Covid-19 and uncertainty were the top two in our survey report. And it is completely true.

Center, Thao Le with team members, left Mayuho Kunogi and right, Emma Brown at UH Manoa.
Thao Le, center, with team members Mayuho Kunogi, left, and Emma Brown at UH Manoa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The level of uncertainty for a farmer is just beyond normal sort of everyday life. Let’s say you have a paycheck — the farmer doesn’t have a paycheck. They hope that their produce or their crop or their animals are not going to get sick and are going to produce. But you never know.

So that level of uncertainty brings the stress up much higher. And perhaps that’s why we see the level of stress and symptoms of depression. It’s surprising, but shouldn’t be. Because certainty, even the illusion of certainty, gives us that grounding and that comfort.

But farmers are very pragmatic. They’re not under an illusion that there’s certainty because they’re facing uncertainty every single day. So where does that strength come from to navigate through these challenges? They know life is uncertain and yet, at the same time, knowing about it and dealing with it every single day: How much can a person handle?

Were you able to gauge from your interviews and surveying how much of a desire or appetite for resources they have?

They do know what they want. They want more infrastructure support, they want more access to land, they want more access to skilled, cheaper labor. They want support from the public and from the legislative side to be able to do what they do. Whether we can deliver that brings in a whole new complexity of issues, with multiple competing demands and perceptions.

Hawaii’s farmers have high rates of depression, anxiety and mental health concerns, according to University of Hawaii researcher Thao Le. Courtesy: Thao Le

The struggle that they have to navigate through from all the different structural barriers is large. And mental health, in terms of the pragmatic, is low because “I need this to deal with my cattle, my tractor isn’t working, I’m going to get kicked off my land, I’ve invested all this time.”

So when I come along, or my team comes along, they are like: “What about mental health? Are you kidding? I need something that’s concrete.”

I think that perception alone is why on the mainland, they’re very challenged. The suicide rate continues on the mainland because there’s a sense of “I can do this, I can problem solve. I can fix this on my own,” because they’re so used to fixing – what they call the agrarian imperative — with their strong will, this tenacity and persistence.

What are the main difficulties in delivering mental health services to the farming and ranching community and how are you trying to address them?

It is a huge challenge. One, it is very stigmatized still. You go to a doctor when your liver is not working or your heart – not a problem. There’s not a stigma, right? Just go and you get it fixed. But our mind is an organ, and we have this perception that we shouldn’t share that with somebody else.

“I can’t sleep at night because I’ve been thinking about everything and it just won’t stop running,” or “I’ve got these terrible thoughts about my life,” or “I’ve got thoughts I might kill myself” — am I going to really share that with somebody, particularly my loved ones?

It is extremely challenging. Part of what we try to do is bring awareness and normalize that paying attention and caring for your mind should be equal to, if not more, taking care of your heart and your lungs. And farmers sometimes don’t even take care of their bodies because of the constant work, work, work, work. So self-care tends to be lower in priority than it should be.

So we’re trying different things. We’re doing podcasts. We’ve got the resource hub. We’re doing Instagram, with quotes from the field, to sort of give the sense that there are words of wisdom in your peers. We do the “seeds of the week” and we’re going to be doing more training around mental health literacy. We can make this a much more open discussion, where they have not only the understanding but the language and security to know how to ask questions. We’re trying to find different ways to reach them because I see the resources being developed on the mainland and they’re wonderful resources, but how many people are accessing them?

That raises a seemingly difficult question: How does one reach a farmer, who is working out in the field all day?

We have to reach out to the family members or to the neighbors and provide them with the skills to help. But we also did a survey with the family members on the same things. Unfortunately, we only had 29 completed surveys, but let me tell you: the rates were even higher for family members. At first I thought the family members would know how we can approach the farmers to provide support, but then, from the survey, we’re saying we might even need to have to support family members as well.

I was reading a survey done by the American Farm Bureau. It essentially surveyed 2,000 rural adults, finding that within the community there they were more forthcoming in discussion of mental health issues, anxiety and suicide. What actually was your experience in your interviews with farmers and ranchers in Hawaii?

You get a range because we’ve done 75 interviews at this point. And so, as you can imagine, there’s wide variability in how much some say. Some interviews last an hour and a half, and I could continue on and on. Some interviewees cry as they’re sharing their stories. Others say, “No, I don’t have any problem. I’m perfectly fine.”

So again, it depends on the context. If they have the resources, they are less likely to say they’re not stressed. And family in Hawaii is such a big resource. So a lot of them talk about my resources or my family.

Finding Help

It depends on the generation as well. I think the younger farmers are much more willing and be open to say, “I’m burnt out. I’ve got anxiety.” They’re much more forthright. I even had one person who wrote, “doing this survey makes me anxious.”

And then I’ve got other farmers saying, “Why are you even bothering, asking us about this?”

It’s very contextual. And that’s the challenge: how to provide resources. Because what we tend to do in academia is “we develop this and then help everybody.”

But when you go to a restaurant, you’ve got all of these dishes on the menu. Some people like this, some people like that. Because we’re such a consumer oriented society, we want options. And I think that sort of mindset goes to the same thing when it comes to mental health resources. They want options.

So by developing as many of these resources as possible, or being as flexible as possible, you’re hoping to deliver the easiest solution for them?

Yes. At the same time, we’re trying to network with mental health professionals. On the mainland, what they’ve done is create these vouchers, a massage voucher or a self-care voucher or three free sessions from a mental health professional. So they’re trying that option. So, yes, giving them a menu of different things to see what works because we really don’t know what works. The fallacy of academics is we think “this is what they want.”

It’s an ongoing issue and, right now, we only have a year of funding. So I’m trying to stretch this funding to the greatest extent possible while at the same time, strategizing. We can’t just identify this as an issue and not continue developing the resources to see what’s going to be the most effective.

UH Waimanalo farming.
Though farming is sometimes considered a lonely pursuit, farmers of Hawaii tend to have closer connections with family, researcher Thao Le says. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

From what you’re saying it sounds like this is an issue that will take far longer than a year to deal with.

How can it be, right? It’s not a flesh wound. And so we can’t just provide a Band-Aid or deny that is an issue. At this point, we have the data and you can’t deny it, it’s an issue.

Mental health is an issue for everyone. Why should we be worrying about farmers and ranchers in particular?

Because where did the food come from? Our whole reason why you’re here depends on air, water and food, right? So if you don’t have food, you wouldn’t be here. And who grows the food? Farmers.

That’s one other leg of our project, we have three legs. We have the needs assessment, developing resources and the other one is a marketing campaign to develop public appreciation.

One of the reasons why a lot of the farmers leave is they’re not appreciated for all that work they put in. People come and grovel and complain that your prices at the farmers market are so high. Your tomatoes that you spent time on and invested in and planned, and somebody said, “are you kidding? I’m not paying this for tomatoes” because they don’t understand the level of investment it takes. So the level of respect and appreciation we have to our growers, it’s probably the same level as we have for teachers – and we don’t really respect teachers. We appreciate our chefs more than we appreciate the growers.

If you think about our civilization, all our ancestors were farmers or hunter-gatherers and then became farmers. So if you look deep, deep down, your great-great-grandparents were farmers. Everybody’s great-great-grandparents were farmers. And we’ve forgotten that because we are in our urban jungle now.

So the fact that, why do we care? Because you care about your great-grandfathers, you see that there’s a connection with your ancestors. So now what’s going to happen in future farming?

I’ve had many conversations with ranchers and farmers. It often comes down to, especially with ranchers or legacy farmers, the idea of succession. How much of a factor was that for farmers and ranchers here in Hawaii?

You do have the farmers who have been here a long time that have had second, third, fourth generations, even kalo farmers, Native Hawaiian farmers. It is an issue.

It is a big concern for us from many of these farmers because they’re saying that the younger generations see the hard work and they don’t want to do it. They say they see the resources that it takes. As you can imagine, with that sense of identity and pride for a family, this is something that they have to grapple with.

On the other hand, you do have those who are like, “Oh my God. Who’s going to continue after me? My kids, they want to go to Las Vegas, they’re not going to want to stay here.”

There were significant differences between the demographic groups within the farming community. Courtesy: Thao Le

So what can be done to ease the stressors?

A lot of it has to do with the structural determinants of stress. There are some laws, policies and regulations that make it easier for people to access the land, to keep the land, to have water, to build dwellings so that farm workers can work on the farm, on the property.

Then it would ease some of the stressors and make the barrier to entry diminish a bit because there’s just so much bureaucracy. Farming itself is usually challenging. Then on top of that, you’ve got to know how to read all this legislation, laws and pesticide regulations. And by the way, you’ve got to know how to manage your finances and keep receipts. There’s a lot that you have to know and keep up with in the latest changes in policies and regulations. And commodity prices.

I’m wondering in your experience, how would you differentiate the experience of the farmer in Hawaii compared to the farmer in the lower 48, in terms of stressors?

Well on the mainland, you got so many of the farmers and ranchers that you’re talking about hectares. You’ve got big space. Here 50 acres is quite large, right? So we don’t have that many big farms and we don’t have many farms generating a lot of revenue. So that’s a big difference.

My colleagues on the mainland, they talk about access to weapons and lethality in terms of the mental health challenges. So suicide.

I haven’t experienced that here although, of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t have individual farmers who feel isolated, lonely. But Hawaii is very good with its sense of family and community. So as long as you’re part of an ohana of some sort, that is a huge buffer and protection. Even if there’s all these challenges and stressors.

So what are the stressors that Hawaii’s farmers and ranchers face that the other 49 states’ farmers don’t?

Just in the land issues like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and you’ve got Big Ag wanting more water. And you’ve got the kalo farmers. You’ve got the different ethnic groups, maybe right next to other immigrant groups and they’re in competition.

Now that you have identified the issue, how long do you think it might take to address the stigma surrounding mental health, then the issue of its associated problems within the community?

If I had a crystal ball to tell you, I would give you a timeline and timeframe. You know, suicide rates are still pretty high in Hawaii. People think this is paradise but we have one of the highest suicide rates among our young population. And there’s a huge suicide task force. And 8% reported suicidal ideation in our sample — that’s about 20 something farmers — and that’s comparable to what the CDC reports. It could be a hidden epidemic. We don’t know.

But the good thing is that at least two-thirds, if not more, identified farming as meaningful. So despite the challenges and the stress and the depression, the majority find this to be a very meaningful endeavor.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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