The Seeding Rural Resilience Act

Jon Tester
Friday, October 18, 2019

I know firsthand that farming and ranching has never been easy. My wife Sharla and I still run our family farm outside of Big Sandy on the same land my grandparents homesteaded more than 100 years ago.

For our family and producers across Montana, working the land that’s been passed down for generations has never been about just making a buck-it’s a way of life in rural America.

But the reality is that this business comes with real, sometimes overwhelming, uncertainty. This Administration’s trade war hasn’t made it any easier; in fact, it’s been devastating for family farm agriculture in Montana and across this country.

Now, farmers and ranchers are not the types to sit around talking about their feelings. We don’t let anything keep us from finishing the job. It’s not unheard of for a farmer to finish a day’s work with a broken limb because they know that if they don’t do it, it won’t get done.

But the stress is real, and when you’re spending hours alone on a piece of equipment, it doesn’t go away.

Reports of farmer suicide are increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate is 45 percent greater in rural America than in urban areas, and in Montana, our suicide rate is the highest in the nation.

Folks who live in Miles City or Big Sandy have to overcome higher barriers to get mental health services than folks in New York or Los Angeles-we face isolation, we are less likely to be insured, and we don’t always know where to find mental health resources if we want them. These issues are made worse by shortages of mental health professionals and a lack of broadband infrastructure, which limits telehealth opportunities.

We’ve got to tackle the challenges facing farmers and ranchers head on, and my legislation, the Seeding Rural Resilience Act, aims to do exactly that.

First, this bill will require the Department of Agriculture to expand a pilot program that provides voluntary training to all farm-facing USDA employees. This training will focus on stress detection and suicide prevention, and it will help the folks who work with farmers every day de-escalate tensions, especially when bad news is delivered, and connect producers with the resources that are out there.

Secondly, one of the biggest challenges we face is the stigma around mental health care in rural America. My bill will create a PSA campaign to promote mental health awareness and resources, and it’ll be tailored to reach the folks that need to see it-whether it’s TV and farm radio ads or a billboard on the interstate.

Finally, my parents always said you have two ears and one mouth, so act accordingly. We need to get information from folks in rural America about what we can do to support them more effectively. That’s why my legislation directs the Secretary of Agriculture to work with state and local stakeholders to create a mental health task force that will determine the best practices to respond to farm and ranch mental stress.

These aren’t partisan proposals, and I’m glad my colleague and fellow farmer, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, has joined my push to get this bill passed.

We know there is no silver bullet, but the Seeding Rural Resilience Act will provide better resources for folks in rural America to reduce the stress that comes from working in production agriculture.

And hopefully, our kids and grandkids will not only inherit our way of life, but also the tools to help manage the ups and downs that come with it.

( Jon Tester is a senator representing Montana.)