Almost 1 in every 2 farmers in Hawaii under the age of 46 has suffered from depression and nearly 14% have experienced suicidal thoughts, according to bleak new statistics with major implications for the state’s ambitious food security goals. 

The figures, gleaned from the first study of its kind on the unique mental health challenges of food growers statewide, are almost double the rate of depression and suicide among Hawaii’s general population.

“It’s disturbing because if we don’t have farmers who are well, then what are we going to have, robots feeding us?” said Thao Le, who led the study as director of the Seeds of Wellbeing project at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. 

Rows of Pineapple crowns that were recently hand planted located between Wahiawa and Haleiwa with Waianae Mountains in the background.
General uncertainty is the root work-related cause of stress for Hawaii farmers and ranchers, according to survey results. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

UH researchers conducted the survey of Hawaii farm workers this year as part of a federal mandate with support from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hawaii garnered the greatest participation nationwide with 408 respondents. In addition to younger farmers, agricultural workers of East Asian or Southeast Asian ancestry and those working in the livestock or seed industries were more likely to say they faced mental health struggles, according to survey results.

The research team, part of a one-year, grant-funded initiative that expires in March, has several publications under peer review that are expected to be published in the next few months.

The average farmer in Hawaii is 60, an age that has been rising in recent decades. Yet to achieve former Gov. David Ige’s pledge to double local food production by 2030, some local food advocates say young farmers are exactly what Hawaii needs

“If Hawaii is really going to move toward doubling its food production and not be so dependent on imports, then we’re going to need to have a new crop of younger farmers doing that work,” Le said. “But the data shows that these younger farmers are really struggling and what we’re hearing anecdotally is that they’re dropping out of this field in part because they’re struggling with their mental health.”

General uncertainty and impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic ranked highest on the list of Hawaii farmers’ top work-related stresses, above production concerns, such as the ability to sell crops, and financial difficulties, according to survey results.

The research underscores what many already know: It’s not easy to make ends meet in agriculture in Hawaii.

Affordable land is hard to come by. Agricultural pests, a dire workforce shortage and price competition from cheaper mainland food imports also rank high on the long list of challenges faced by Hawaii’s food producers.

Erin Gustin, a psychologist at Pau Hana Counseling in Hilo, said some food producers struggle with the disconnect between a desire to grow food or raise animals as a personal calling and the difficult economics associated with making a living farming in Hawaii.

“I have one client in particular who would really like to do farming full time but cannot feasibly with their income make that work,” she said.

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

Most of the state’s farms are small farms and nearly 80% of them have annual sales under $25,000.

Although U.S. Census data shows the total number of farms in Hawaii increased by about 5% to more than 7,300 from 2012 to 2017, the agricultural sector’s total market value dropped from $661 million to $564 million during the same period.

Kim Pierce, founder of Root 2 Rise Counseling Center in Hilo, said her clientele includes food producers grappling with financial hurdles, government bureaucracy and loss of a sense of purpose.

“What I hear clients say is there’s a diminishing of the value of their industry,” Pierce said. “Three generations ago, we identified purposeful work with being able to grow food and feed people. But it has become only harder for a 35-year-old farmer today to create that feeling of purposeful work compared to what perhaps their parents or grandparents experienced.” 

Another issue is that some farm workers labor in solitude. This can threaten their sense of social connection, a protective factor that promotes wellbeing and fends off the risk of depression. 

Yet farmworkers, so often praised for their self-reliance, may be reluctant to seek help from a mental health professional. And in rural areas, where a statewide doctor shortage is laid bare, access to mental health care can be difficult, a consequence of Hawaii’s high cost of living and limited medical training opportunities.

A recent survey found that more than three-quarters of the health care providers who responded said the greatest demand for patient referrals was for mental health counseling and psychiatry, with most resources concentrated on the most populous island of Oahu.

The report released in late July warned that overall health care access issues on the smaller neighbor islands were “particularly troubling” due to their remote geography and could lead to greater disparities. The report surveyed 3,287 Hawaii residents and 324 providers online from April 1 to May 9.

As the Seeds of Wellbeing program draws awareness to the problem of depression and suicidal thoughts in Hawaii agriculture workers, it’s also developing new ways to help.

The program offers a three-hour training course for mental health professionals to help them better understand the unique pressures food producers face, from extreme weather and pests to trade wars and low commodity prices. There’s an interactive resource hub. A farmer-to-farmer mentorship program. And a 26-episode podcast that highlights common struggles experienced by farmers.

Farmers and their family members can also use the program to access vouchers for three prepaid therapy sessions.

John Souza, a marriage and family therapist in Hilo, is one of a small but growing number of providers in Hawaii who accepts the vouchers, although he hasn’t yet had a farmer try to utilize them yet.

“A lot of mental health is geared toward western standards of normalcy, but that doesn’t work for every demographic, particularly Southeast Asian farming communities,” Souza said.

Souza said he’s interested in partnering with the Seeds of Wellbeing program to initiate more diverse engagement strategies, such as a pau hana potluck series that would bring mental health professionals together with farmers and their families.

“I don’t know that insurance companies would be very hip to some of the things we could do with farmers,” Souza said. “I am excited about the possibility of going to people’s farms and hanging out with them and their family. Being able to see a farmer in their context as they’re doing their thing will provide so much more insight.”

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

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