Tester Presses Agriculture Secretary to Do More to Address Farmer Suicides

Senator: “Bottom line is, we’ve got a crisis in rural America right now”

Continuing his efforts to curb the growing number of farmer suicides across the country, U.S. Senator Jon Tester today pressed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on his agency’s efforts to address the crisis.

Tester-who recently introduced his bipartisan Seeding Rural Resilience Act to address the farmer suicide crisis-has been working tirelessly to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make strides towards tackling mental health problems in rural areas, particularly by decreasing financial stress on American producers who have taken a hit as a result of the Trump Administration’s trade war.

“It’s not good in farm country, it’s not good. Prices aren’t good, and folks are getting taken advantage of by packers,” said Tester. “…What is your view on the mental health situation amongst agriculture producers and do you think you play any role in finding a solution to the problem? And if you do, what would that role be?”

Secretary Perdue responded yes, noting that the challenges that USDA faces when it comes to addressing the crisis: “What our local offices do as far as serving people and helping them, we can only do so much…It’s really challenging of how we can change the curve other than profitability.”

Tester continued: “It’s not breaking news that I have some real frustrations with what the President has done on trade, I think it’s a manmade problem. Bottom line is we’ve got a crisis in rural America right now and we’re going to have to dig up some things that we’ve done in the past to help folks. Otherwise we’re going to lose production agriculture, and that is a national security issue.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, the suicide rate is 45 percent higher in rural America than in urban areas, and Montana already has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Americans in rural communities deal with substantial isolation, significant travel times for basic health services, lack of broadband access that would enable telehealth services and stigmas against receiving counseling.

In addition, financial burdens caused by the Trump Administration’s trade war have resulted in even more stress for American farmers and ranchers, making life tougher for those trying to make a living in rural communities.

The Seeding Rural Resilience Act creates three initiatives aimed at curbing the growing rate of suicides in rural America:

  • Implements a Farmer-Facing Employee Training Program that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide voluntary stress management training to Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and National Resources Conservation Service Employees.
  • Forms a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA to create a $3 million public service announcement campaign to increase public awareness of farm and ranch stress and destigmatize mental health care in rural communities.
  • Directs the Secretary of Agriculture to work with state, local and nongovernmental stakeholders to collaborate and determine best practices for responding to farm and ranch mental stress.

Tester has been a champion for increasing rural access to health care. The Trump Administration recently adopted his Restoring Rural Residencies Act into a rule change to bring more medical professionals into rural hospitals, and he introduced two bipartisan bills that would strengthen relationships between rural hospitals and medical schools. He also backed the Broadband DATA Act, which recently passed Congress and now awaits President Trump’s signature, to make broadband mapping more accurate so providers can fill gaps in coverage, expanding access and allowing more folks to receive telehealth services.