Last summer, the local and tight-knit farming community lost one of their own to suicide.
It was a shocking loss of a young and spirited farmer, but according to a study by the Center for Disease Control, that sad story is by no means an outlier in the United States.
A new Washington state law is looking to reverse that dark reality.
That study found that farmers and other agricultural workers are the most likely occupational group to commit suicide. In a state where agriculture is integral to the fabric of life, that painful fact has resonated with Evergreen State lawmakers. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that seeks to prevent similar tragedies by establishing a mental health network for farmers in the agricultural community.
House Bill 2671, which is focused on improving and preserving the mental health of members of the agricultural community, passed unanimously in House and Senate votes earlier this month and has now received full funding in the legislative budget. The recently passed bill is being championed by the Washington Young Farmers Coalition as a much needed step toward creating a healthier community from the ground up.
In 2017, a farmer, and founding member of the Washington Young Farmers Coalition, committed suicide. That young farmer, Justin McClane, had been working to make an honest go of it in the Independence Valley just south of the Lewis County line, and his death was devastating to those who knew him, including members of the Washington Young Farmers Coalition. When members of the coalition found out about HB 2671, they headed for the Capitol in order to provide public testimony on the importance of the bill.
“We didn’t know it was coming up but when we found out about it we were able to provide testimony,” explained Tierney Creech, a fellow founding member of the Young Farmers Coalition who runs a vegetable farm in Rochester. “It just happened so fast, and as a coalition it’s something that we’ve been trying to find ways to effect change. Then this came up, and to be able to work really hard to help make this change has been very fulfilling.”
While the group is still grieving over the loss of their friend, their pain is now tempered slightly knowing that McClane’s memory will live on through the bill. According to Creech, McClane’s death acted as a catalyst for the group’s focus on mental health.
“The Coalition has always had a mission to support and connect young farmers,” Creech said in a press release provided by the Young Farmers Coalition. “We knew that the social support we got from our other young farmers was extremely important in this challenging, often isolating profession, and we tried to bring opportunity for those friendships and connections to other farmers around the state. We never used the words mental health or talked openly of suicide, until this past spring when (Justin) took his own life on his farm in Lewis County.”
In a phone interview, Creech added, “We always understood that it was important for farmers to make connections with other young farmers. The people that I started the coalition with eight years ago are still the people that I’m closest with. Even though they are all over the country now, I know that I can still call them at any time.”
Creech pointed out that although farmers and ranchers are known for being tough and self-reliant, those traits actually conspire to put them in greater danger of taking their own lives. Creech added that physical demands, along with financial and succession pressures, also combine to put farmers at risk of suicide.
“I think that farmers and ranchers are in a unique position. It’s just a different kind of group of people. They don’t really reach out for help,” said Creech. “It wasn’t anything that we talked about as a mental health asset in the beginning, but it is certainly something that we talk about now.”
HB 2671 is intended to provide bilingual support for both mental and behavioral health for people in a wide range of agricultural occupations. That work would include a task force within the Office of Rural Health intended to specifically address suicide and behavioral health among farmers and ranchers. Additionally, pilot programs would be established in two Washington counties that would run a public hotline and provide health resources and education to struggling farmers, ranchers and laborers.
Derek Sanderson, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, provided testimony on the bill to the Legislature and called mental health considerations a priority for the state.
“Behavioral health of our agricultural workers and farmers is important on a humanitarian level, but it’s also very important for the viability and longevity of the state’s agricultural industry,” said Sanderson.
Creech noted that numerous agricultural organizations also provided testimony on HB 2671, including the Cattlemen's Association, wheat growers and granges.
“It was pretty amazing how many of the groups had also lost members to suicide,” said Creech. “They all could tell a story of their own of how they had lost someone they knew.”
While the final implementation details of the bill are still being ironed out, the Washington Young Farmers Coalition is not waiting to begin extending their gratitude to the people and politicians who helped move the bill forward.
“The Washington Young Farmers Coalition (WAYFC) wants to sincerely thank all those who helped pass this bill in the House and the Senate. We are especially grateful for Representative JT Wilcox, who introduced the bill in the House, and committee members in both chambers who ensured that this bill progressed through the legislative process,” read a press release.
Creech noted that Wilcox, of the Wilcox egg family, became aware of the issue of farmer suicides after reading a story in The Guardian last December.
The passage of HB 2671 came just days before HR 5250, also known as the STRESS Act, was introduced to Congress on the national stage. That bill seeks to establish the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in order to provide mental health resources to farmers across the country. The bill was initially authorized in 2008 but never received any funding.
“Behavioral health of our agricultural workers and farmers is important on a humanitarian level, but it’s also very important for the viability and longevity of the state’s agriculture industry,” said Sanderson, in a release.
During the signing of the bill, Gov. Inslee noted his gratitude to the organizations that helped to turn HB 2671 into a reality, and said he was looking forward to seeing the bill come to life.
Additional information on HB 2671 can be found online at https://tinyurl.com/yc2cartr. The Young Farmers Coalition will host its next meeting on March 29, at 7 p.m., at Fish Tale in downtown Olympia. The meeting is open to the general public and is family-friendly. Additional information on the Young Farmers Coalition can be found on their Facebook page.