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Rural suicides among farmers (cnn.com)
57 points by wglb on Aug 21, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

I'm from rural Eastern Colorado (think Kansas but you can see a mountain far off) and I've know farmers/ranchers who've committed suicide but I don't think any was due to financial stress. It's anecdotal but all were doing quite well. I think the lack of meaning in their lives due to farm subsidies in the form of soil conservation may be the root cause.

Every farmer knows how the game is played. Do whatever it takes to get several years of high yields, then you'll be offered money from the gov to not farm, based on those yields.

But nobody tells them about the depression that sets in when a farmer is paid to not farm - to loose the teleo of one's existence. It's sad to see and since those "soil conservation" contacts can be up to 10 years long, it's a long time to get out of that funk.

Again, anecdotal, but I've never heard of a farmer who had land to work and the ability to work it commit suicide.

Your comment reminds me of the paradoxical fact that countries with high "life satisfaction" scores have higher rates of suicide: http://healthland.time.com/2011/04/25/why-the-happiest-state...

This trend is also seen throughout the socio-economic strata: http://business.time.com/2012/11/08/why-suicides-are-more-co... . To wit: Poor people kill each other, rich people kill themselves.

It's a very curious dynamic.

Could it be possible that financially well-off people feel less stigma about suicide because the people they leave behind would not be affected as negatively as if they were poor?

For example, a poor inner-city parent committing suicide would leave behind children in danger of falling into poverty. But a wealthy parent would know their children could be "all right" living off of the insurance and inherited wealth from the parent.

Yes and no. If you look at the difference in general, average of lives:

- poorer people have more friends whom, by poverty, aren't as able to move as much as first-world people, more physical labor (exercise), more children depending on them and fewer choices / expectations / freedoms... the net effects of these factors lead to less idleness, less depression and more happiness

- rich, first-world people have shallower friends whom move a lot, less physical work (more sedentary, less exercise), fewer children and infinite choices... more idleness, more depression and less satisfaction.

Also, if your entire Maslow hierarchy of needs is met, what do you do? What's your purpose? What meaningful problem can you solve or world condition can you change? These sort of existential crises, I think, lead to most suicides because people feel they have no purpose, no function, no power, no influence and therefore don't matter.

I've read that income was negatively correlated with suicides.

From your time article:

> the study’s authors do point to findings that higher income generally lowers suicide risk. For example, an individual with family income less than $10,000 (in 1990 dollars) is 50% more likely to commit suicide than an individual with income above $60,000.

The farm subsidies could be spent to buy them out permanently, which would probably be better for everyone. Right now the government treats this as an expense, instead of an investment. Low farm prices mean supply outruns demand, so something needs to be done to lower that supply. Instead of annual subsidies, the government could instead have a fund that buys farms and converts it to a park. That would be a win-win strategy: more parkland would be good for the environment (imagine I write all necessary qualifiers here) and the total supply of farm land would be reduced, permanently, thus bringing supply and demand closer to an equilibrium point.

I think you misunderstand the purpose of the subsidies. It isn't that the government wants these farms to completely stop producing. Soil conservation is about preventing dust storms by rotating different crops between fields and then letting overused fields be overtaken by nature again before coming back and reseeding them again years later. Edit: Also, there is never enough food to contribute to solving world hunger or supplying the ever growing demand of a rising human population, and their pets mind you who also consume part of the production. You do -not- want to "permanently reduce" farmland.

This is incorrect:

"there is never enough food to contribute to solving world hunger"

There is an abundance of food. There is no need for more food. The OECD countries work to suppress production, and they destroy surplus food, all in an effort to support agricultural prices.

There is plenty of food to feed everyone. Where there is hunger, it is because of political factors.

Food is perishable. The population rises exponentially. I don't personally believe anyone is purposely destroying food for political reasons that I'm aware of. A great deal is shipped to 3rd world countries in an attempt to help feed their populations where possible. And, even here at home many grocery stores attempt to redistribute food that is about to expire to homeless and poor communities. More can be and should be done. I don't mean to come off as confrontational. If you have some articles that point to this I'd like to read them. That is clearly wrong and shouldn't be happening if it is.

Edit: I'd like to point out though, it seems odd that you are arguing for limiting/destroying production by turning farmland into parks. But then go on to suggest that OECD countries are attempting to limit production unfairly? Very confusing.

Edit 2: My dad was also part of a charitable group that helped provide seeds and training to other countries in need in an attempt to help them to establish their own self-sustaining agricultural industry.

"Very confusing."

I agree that you are confused.

"But then go on to suggest that OECD countries are attempting to limit production unfairly?"

I never suggested that there was anything unfair about this. But that the advanced nations warehouse large amounts of food, and then dispose of it when it has gone bad, is well known and has been much discussed elsewhere.

"Food is perishable."

Annual production exceeds annual demand. Even when this year's food goes bad, next year there will be more, and it will be in excess of demand.

This is a big topic and I can not provide you with a full education on this topic. I'll recommend one book that I like, which is Diet For A Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe:


My apologies! I didn't mean the "Very confusing" comment as an ad hominem attack.

Seeing it from the production side I don't see that there is any attempt to suppress production. Everyone wants a good harvest and to produce as much product as they can. And, sometimes mother nature allows for it.

I feel there are honest attempts to feed people with that remaining food. And, there is the issue that sending food constantly to another country in need doesn't really address the problem. To paraphrase an old proverb, "Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they will eat for a lifetime." Ultimately, the food should be grown locally as much as possible to meet at least basic needs. Everything imported beyond that should be mere excess. That is how we will one day feed the world.

Thanks for the book btw.

Its more complicated.

Consider India, its arguably a 3rd world country but it often trumps US in the amount of wheat it dumps in the sea. One of the reasons why it does so is to support the price that a wheat farmer can earn. In addition to dumping, there is also spoilage. Grain storage infrastructure in India is quite poor.

"I don't personally believe..."

Fair enough, but do a search for "agricultural surplus destruction". As far as I can tell, this isn't a matter of belief.

"My dad was also part of a charitable group that helped provide seeds and training to other countries in need in an attempt to help them to establish their own self-sustaining agricultural industry."

So the idea is that these populations we're incapable of sustaining themselves before contact with the West/Global North? No trying to be confrontational, just hoping to highlight that this statement begs the question.

I was under the impression most farm subsidies (> 2/3) in the US go to extremely large corporations - they want the annual subsidies because it keeps them in business every year and can afford the lobbyists/PACs to pressure congresspeople to vote for the subsidies in Congress.

Nope, even small farms receive them. And, most of the farms in the U.S. are actually owned by rural families, not large corporations. Edit: When I think of evil megacorp PACs and their lobbyists, I don't think of agriculture at all. Farmers have it rough; droughts, infestations, blights, hedging bets, fabricated news / inaccurate prices to keep exports flowing that eat their bottom lines, high machinery and supplies costs and the already tough job of growing something from nothing while meeting stiff competition. Not to mention being a thankless job. Few care or understand how the food ends up on their table.

But isn't most of the land managed by companies? Does 'most of the farms' mean lots of small holdings?

Yes, a lot of small land holdings. There are large corps and also government owned/run farms, but a vast majority of agriculture in the u.s. is family run. Which is not a bad thing, because they love what they do and we need them as a society. My family owns a farm producing corn / wheat / soy / green beans / etc, mostly run by my Dad and the work rented out to another local farmer. Some of the corn is used for fuel production. The rest of us have moved into suburbia/cities in various roles; managers, business owners, software, bartenders, etc. I develop software for example, myself.

This article says something otherwise:


Its another top-2%-owns-everything situation. Most land is in megafarms. So 'family owned' in both number and land area seems to be a myth

Ever notice how working dogs usually aren't as neurotic as pet dogs? I've never met a well-mannered Pomeranian, but even if you get a dog of a stalwart herding breed and leave it idle, it's going to go nuts and run around nipping at little kids and tearing up your house.

That's the hell of the rural farming and working class in America today. Proponents of UBI and the like assume that, if they're freed from the burden of pulling their own weight economically, people will move on to "higher pursuits" like art and philosophy and the like. I think there's a clear upper-middle-class bias in these discussions where people genuinely don't understand that other types of work can still provide meaning and purpose and fulfillment to people.

>how working dogs usually aren't as neurotic as pet dogs

there is strong survival bias here.

>I've never met a well-mannered Pomeranian

similar bias. Being a well-mannered for Pomeranian is different than being that for a St.Bernard.

With all those biases taken into account and understanding the limits of so wide a generalization - yes, "the good behaving dog (and i'd say happy dog) is well tired dog" as any dog owner knows :)

Why wouldn't people spend their extra time and resources to reclaim/occupy/homestead/etc. open spaces for the benefit of themselves and their communities?

Interesting theory.

That people want to work (more than for just the money) is one of the reasons I am very skeptical of UBI. I think that people want to work, and we apparently don't structure communities very well for people to just pick up meaningful work (or even volunteering) as a hobby.

>That people want to work (more than for just the money) is one of the reasons I am very skeptical of UBI.

This is interesting, can you elaborate? I would expect most people would continue to work if given UBI and it would even encourage people to do work they like to do instead of what makes them the most money, but it sounds like you are predicting the opposite.

> it would even encourage people to do work they like to do instead of what makes them the most money

But clearly this doesn't play out with the farmers in question here! They are not freed from the shackles of work for a year or three, busily following their passion. They are committing suicide. That isn't to say that the majority go in that direction, but its enough to measure, and should be enough to give us pause I think.

The majority of men on UBI-like programs seem to watch TV and take drugs, and not follow passions. I've written a fair bit about UBI and contrasting it with basic jobs, here:


Related to this discussion see the section, "The Existential Problem", and if you have the time I suggest you read the two articles (NPR 'unfit for work' and Commentary Mag 'our miserable 21st century') that I link to in that section.

Not in the above article but broadly speaking, the work disincentive for UBI tests so far is about 10%. That is, 10% of the people given something like UBI will drop out of the labor force and not do any kind of (measurable) work. Some % of that 10% will go on to commit suicide, I imagine, like the farmers here. Citations for the ~10% figure can be found here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17666307

Something about being given money and having no work to do, plus no community or purpose, does not cause people to create community or purpose. My fear here is that instead of working towards making sure people can, somehow, create more community and purpose, we're taking the one thing many people find meaning in (work) and pulling the rug out from under them on it, like we are possibly doing to the farmers here.

Sorry, having a hard time being succinct. What I am suggesting is that we have got to solve this "no community or purpose" issue before we solve the "money" issue. It's bigger, and if we don't, we might not like the future very much.

The case of the farmers is not the same as UBI. The farmers are not being freed from the shackles of work, they're shackled to not working. UBI doesn't exclude the ability to do what you've trained and often lived for since, as in the case of many farmers, they were young.

Describing disability benefits as "UBI-like programs" seems way off the mark to me, starting with "welfare cliff" problems and going from there.

Way off topic, but I have noticed that Medium is now doing that "you have 4 free articles.." garbage now too, which is very disappointing.

The article you linked to has 2 parts, and while it was interesting, there went 2 of my 3 "free" articles.

I cannot afford $5/mo at 15 different websites that I visit infrequently.

maybe I'd spend my UBI on websites asking for money. Who knows.

Perhaps a difference with UBI would be the ubiquitousness of it. You'd know way before you even entered the job market what the score was.

Thanks for the links in your other post, I will take a look. I admit that I have Star Trek dreams of post-scarcity happiness, but I'm willing to change my mind if there is credible evidence to suggest my hopes are misplaced. I wasn't aware that there were any decent UBI experiments that had been done at scale, lately they all seem to be very limited and aborted early.

Maybe I'll just have to scale back and pin my hopes on Medicare For All. Would be nice to detach medical coverage from employment, IMO.

> I admit that I have Star Trek dreams of post-scarcity happiness

I think a lot of us, here on Hacker News, do. I kinda worry that's part of the problem. But you and me and Sam Altman, etc, are not representative of society at large. I was thinking of the HN crowd (myself included) when I wrote this part:

> Just as you can find Silicon Valley techies who think Soylent is the only sustenance a person will ever need, intellectuals tend to think everyone could be as content as they would be living life in their heads or inventing their own destiny. Most people need to be doing something to feel satisfied and a potential UBI system addresses this need just as inadequately as disability checks do now. Cue drug epidemics.

I think average people need more direction than that. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I think its a much more serious problem than the average person's relationship with money.

Put another way, the problems of today and the near future are not primarily ones of money. They are ones of community and meaning. By most available data, even the poorest in the USA are doing OK on the money front, though its obviously not ideal! Some cites on that claim can be found here: https://twitter.com/Noahpinion/status/937200378919055360

So I worry UBI is solving the wrong problem first, and might make the real problem a little or a lot worse, depending on how the job landscape changes.

Work has a lot of satisfying features above and beyond simply keeping people busy. Creating value for yourself and others is what’s fulfilling.

A lot of people take pride in the fact that they pull their own weight: that their ability to provide for themselves and their families comes from their own work. You can still do work with UBI, but if you don’t need to, you don’t necessarily derive the same sense of accomplishment.

This is a problem even for people on disability, many of whom could do at least some work, but can’t work as much or as reliably as they’d need to replace their disability benefits.

Upper-middle-class folks seem to think that work is rewarding to everyone for the same reasons that upper-middle-class work is rewarding to them: some combination of status and enjoying the work itself. And upper-middle-class people can easily imagine sources of those rewards that don’t entail employment. The problem is that you can’t fulfill everyone with status and enjoyment because status is a zero-sum game and not all work is enjoyable.

There's something deeply fulfilling and honorable and worthy of pride in doing work, like farming, that is completely diminished if the work turns out to be completely unnecessary. Unnecessary farming is basically just gardening. Someone whose sense of worth and meaning and purpose in life comes from feeding their communities won't be satisfied with a world where their communities are just as well fed with or without them and they're just gardening.

> I think that people want to work

UBI would make it easier for people to work, so if you think most people want to work then shouldn't you support UBI?

I agree, and I'd go further: A Job Guarantee type program would work better than UBI. Have the government provide a 'minimum standard job', available to any worker who wants one. Beyond economic benefits similar to UBI (but probably at lower cost), people who want to work can have the dignity of doing work.

That's what prison is. Well it's not supposed to be that, but it's sort of ended up that way, if you look at it from a certain perspective. see: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17812292. Doesn't seem to be working out very well.

I'd argue that a forced living situation, a forced job, and a below-minimum wage are very different from an optional job with a minimum wage and no constraints on living situation, and that the two systems work differently.

I am an optimist. UBI doesn't mean you can't work. I hope that UBI gives people the freedom to do work they really enjoy without as much anxiety about failing. I imagine how much more productive and happy our society could be if people were able to be more mobile and follow their dreams.

Please see my reply to the sibling comment. I think with the data we have so far, we have reason to be very concerned that this freedom from failure will be the defining characteristic of UBI.

People need to find meaning, and with the very badly designed communities we have now (atomized, far apart, unable to bump into even your friends walking around, if you can walk anywhere at all), trying to substitute "cash" for the one meaningful thing left (work) may make things worse. The optimistic take in that scenario is that it really brings to surface what society's real problems are (they are not 'not enough money', they are 'not enough community', etc)

The cynic in me is worried that maybe a lot of people don't really enjoy doing anything besides idle entertainment and don't have dreams to follow.

I think there are definitely some people like that. I would make the UBI level low enough that you'd have to have roommates if you wanted to sit on your butt. Enough money to keep you from living in a tent or under a bridge, and fed, but austere enough that you ought to feel motivated to earn something.

I would go insane without something meaningful to do, but I have to recognize that not everyone feels the same.

Do they have no desire for vacation travel, or consumer goods, or days at the spa? Those motivate work too.

I think that people want to be productively occupied without all the baggage that "work" entails.

Interesting. We have relatively high rural suicide rates in the UK too, and a similar "paid to not farm" situation via the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, but the causal waters are muddied here by farmers being among the very few people with access to firearms.

Farmers under the CAP aren’t just paid “to not farm” but also paid to perform conservation work, and fields that aren’t being used to grow crops can be used as pasture for livestock (to my understanding, please correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s also integrated into crop rotation (where you need a fallow-field for a couple of years anyway) - so I mean the concept of “being paid not to farm” is a misrepresentation.

I take your point, and I was mostly just pointing out the parallels with OP's description of the US (which also included "soil conservation").

For the CAP, my reading is that most of the payment really is just for "not farming" - the cross-compliance rules expect a bit more, yes, but the penalties for not doing so are pretty light - you only have a 1% chance of getting inspected per year, and even repeated and intentional noncompliance normally only knocks 20% off your payments.

I'm looking at page 12 of https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/... - I'm not involved with farming though, so take anything I say with a generous pinch of salt.

> Again, anecdotal, but I've never heard of a farmer who had land to work and the ability to work it commit suicide.

Farmer suicide has been in the news down here (New Zealand) lately. Just to pick one article - https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/farm-suicides-spur-despe... I'm not involved in agriculture, but the impression I get is that the main stressors have been weather and disease. Both of those have led to major animal culling operations, which must be terrible to have to follow through.

The relevant program is the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) [1], which is explicitly intended for environmentally sensitive areas. Given the requirements imposed on the land it is (in my own anecdotal experience, central US) unlikely that one would be able to put an entire farm into it and "get paid not to farm." It's also not linked to "high yields."

[1] https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-...

I would be curious to hear your perspective on the impact of loneliness and isolation that the article touches on.

I think the loneliness and isolation aspect of this report is projection by a possibly urban author.

Most rural farmers I know are at least third generation and grew up in the sticks. They get anxious when they go to the city, itching to get back to the of rural life of 'isolation'.

Folks in these small communities are physically far apart but closer than most communities I've experience in cities and even suburbs.

That said, if you get sideways with your rural community, you can be ostracized by the whole and it's nearly impossible to overcome that stigma - it can last a lifetime. That may have involvement in the mental illness issues for sure.

I'm not sure the person profiled supports the underlying thesis of the article. He was 82 and struggling with numerous health problems, suicide may have been a quasi-rational choice?

Growing up on a Montana wheat farm, while we didn't use the phrase "cowboy up", there was always "is there a bone sticking out" toughen-up message.

And we did have one of those 15 minute hailstorms, and a lot of nervous June months without rain.

I grew up in suburban MT, and was one generation removed from rural MT. I never heard “cowboy up,” but “is there a bone sticking out” definitely checks out.

The stresses of being in a rural state can be good and bad. Even in suburban MT, it would never have occured to my parents to be helicopter parents. Power tools, dangerous play, and “don’t you dare come inside unless you’re bleeding” were all par for the course.

But the same stresses that result in kids’ freedom can also overwhelm some people. My own grandfather committed suicide, and I have to wonder if (even in a small town where he was well-loved) less isolation and more mental health services might have given him more years.

The 'old men committing suicide' seems to be a thing. My own 85 year old father has been ratcheting up the idle talk about being a useless burden to his wife, etc, which makes me very nervous.

If anyone wants a sound track to this tragic story, Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” is—I’m convinced—influenced by bassist Jeff Ament having grown up in Big Sandy, which is the town discussed in this article.

Similar story from 8 months ago. I liked the top comment about farmers creating financial stress just to avoid tax. I have seen this effect myself https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15861888

In Syria, ISIS, war against Assad and mass exodus is due entirely to the regime not helping farmers get water during a time drought and famine. No doubt many farmers also killed themselves, but the gamut of hardships fell on deaf Western ears.

wouldn't urban suicides among farmers be rare?

It says, "two out of three suicides in Montana are by firearm". What do 1/3 of the other people use?

Assuming it follows the national trends, then the next most common are suffocation and poisoning.

One car accidents as one example.

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