Farmer suicides in America and Europe

Published: Monday, Oct 22,2012, 00:24 IST
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In what is one of the Free World’s best kept secrets, farmer suicides – a phenomenon popularly associated with India – are rearing their heads in America and Europe, and are becoming difficult to push under the carpet. Though Big Media has largely dodged the story, local newspapers have carried occasional reports. The suicides have been happening for some years now; some states have set up hotlines to counsel farmers at the end of their tether as prices of farm produce fall and money problems rise.

In Colorado, USA, the Denver Post reported in June 2009 that in large parts of rural America, a growing number of farmers consider suicide and call the helpline with loaded guns in hand, complaining of cash problems. A dedicated network of hotlines for farm workers reported an increase of 20 per cent calls over the previous year.

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Proper statistics are hard to come by because media reporting is scanty and does no justice to the unfolding tragedy. Nor do all states report occupational suicide numbers; insights have to be gleaned from patchy sources. The Iowa-based Sowing the Seeds of Hope crisis-line program which covers farmers in seven Midwestern states, received 11,000 calls for help in 2009, as compared with 9,000 in 2008.

Its chief, clinical psychologist Mike Rosmann, said cries for help rose in 2008 when dairy prices fell and mounting distress spread nationwide. Another badly hit sector is the pig farmers.

Still, Colorado state health officials recorded 4,012 suicides in the past five years; 53 were farmers, mostly men, who shot themselves. Bankrupt farmers have sought government help as bankers press for payments, often triggering the suicides.

The LA Times reported the suicides as California is America’s premier dairy state and two dairy farmers took their own lives in mid-2009. The crisis was triggered by the average milk price - around $17 per 100 pounds - suddenly fell to $10, while farmers needed a minimum price of $16 or more to cover debt, feed, and other costs. [ Milk is priced in pounds but sold to consumers by the gallon ].

In Illinois, in August 2012, drought dried up the ponds where cattle drank and pastured, forcing farmers to buy thousands of gallons of water daily. Australian scientists have previously noted a link between prolonged drought and the risk of farmer suicide. This year, large parts of America have been hit by drought, raising the financial burden on farmers due to crop failure, failure of orchards or vineyards, and starving livestock.

Texas has suffered a second consecutive drought (2011 and 2012), badly affecting crops and pastures. Ranchers have sold off livestock they could not feed. American farmers are now experimenting with breeds that withstand heat and drought better, cross-breeding herds with the Indian Brahman cattle and European breeds like Herefords and Shorthorns.

Currently, America’s Corn Belt from Ohio west to California and Texas north to the Dakotas is reeling under drought, afflicting the corn and soybean crops. An increase in food prices is inevitable; there will be a glut in meat and poultry as farmers have sold livestock, which will push up meat costs next year.

Britain’s statistics are closely guarded, but farmers rank as a high risk occupational group for suicides. The Department of Health commissioned the Centre for Suicide Research to conduct research into farmer suicides. Studies in Australia and Britain suggest male farmers have higher suicide rates than the national average and other rural males.

In rural France, farmers are killing themselves in record numbers on account of financial woes; the government concedes this has become a ‘genuine public health problem’. Statistics are not readily available as many rural suicides are reported as accidents or deaths from illness, though estimates suggest 400 to 800 annually commit suicide. Alcoholism has become rampant as farmers opt to drink rather than discuss their problems with others. In some rural areas, the suicide rate is three times higher than the national average.

Analysts agree that the volatility in agricultural markets poses a
serious danger to the psychological health of farmers.

Meanwhile, in Spain, The New York Times reports, unemployment figures have crossed 50 per cent among young people; it is common to see well dressed youth rummaging through garbage bins of fruit and vegetable stores for edible scraps to eat. Many families have been rendered homeless by the inability to pay rent.

Little wonder violence and anger are spilling on to the streets of Madrid and Lisbon as austerity measures increase along with unemployment rates and tax hikes. With no relief on the horizon, for Europe the abyss is getting deeper.

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