Methods: We utilized a community-engaged research framework in collaboration with a non-profit organization that supports sustainable farmers in the Midwest region. Together, we designed in-depth interviews to understand beginning farmers’ 1) systemic stressors, 2) stress coping strategies, and 3) barriers to stress management. Beginning farmers were recruited using purposive sampling through our community partner’s email distribution list. Sixty-to-ninety-minute interviews were administered and recorded. The interview included questions about respondents’ experiences with stress and barriers to accessing care. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and pre-coded through memos and journaling. Data were analyzed using first-and-second-cycle inductive coding methods and audited by a farmer key informant. Codes were used to generate overall themes; themes were member-checked with three beginning farmer key informants.
Results: Our sample (n=20) included 40% male, 45% female, 15% transgender/non-binary (T/NB) respondents; 75% were white, 15% Black, 5% Latino, and 5% Asian. Systemic stressors include 1) the “stress of capitalism,” reflecting participants’ struggle to endure in a competitive, individualistic economy structure, 2) experiences of racism and sexism – from customers, neighbors, and service providers – among farmers from marginalized identities, and 3) barriers to sustainability, such as acquiring land and capital. All respondents reported social support as a coping mechanism, (e.g., mutual aid with other farmers at farmers’ markets). Beliefs of stigma and “rugged individualism” prevented respondents from seeking mental health care. Many respondents could not afford mental health therapy or struggled with health insurance compatibility. Some respondents reported avoiding therapy because “therapists won’t understand the full picture of farming.”
Implications: Farmers are frontline workers in the face of climate change and other disasters (e.g., COVID-19), yet this group is overburdened by the weight of capitalism, stoicism, and experiences of discrimination. These challenges endanger community food security, negatively impacting marginalized communities that are already facing increased risk for poor health and environmental racism, which ought to concern social workers. Training opportunities are needed for social workers to understand the unique stressors of farmers, especially farmers from marginalized identities (e.g., gender and sexual minorities, BIPOC, and low-income) and in the context of our climate crisis. Social workers must advocate for enhanced social safety nets for agricultural workers, including health insurance coverage. Community conversations and informational campaigns are needed to decrease the social stigma surrounding mental health support. With our commitment to social justice, social workers are uniquely positioned to address issues of exploitation and discrimination in the agricultural sphere.