"How are you really doing?": Social Sustainability of Beginning Farmers

Final report for GNC20-299

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,797.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2022
Grant Recipients: The Ohio State University College of Social Work; The Ohio State University College of Social Work
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Michelle Kaiser
Ohio State College of Social Work
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Project Information


"How are you really doing?": Social Sustainability of Beginning Farmers was a two-year research project focused on conducting an assessment of mental health, social supports, and external stressors of beginning Ohio farmers. Reports suggest a prevalence of depression, anxiety, and suicide among U.S. farmers (Arif, Adeyemi, Laditka, Laditka, & Borders, 2021; Wedell, Sherman, & Chadde, 2020; Weingarten, 2018), but minimal literature exists concerning beginner farmers’ well-being. Midwestern farmers face an array of stressors (Arora et al., 2020; Chengane, Beseler, Duysen, & Rautiainen, 2021; Henning-Smith, Alberth, Bjornestad, Becot, & Inwood, 2022). Between 2014 and 2018, 450 Midwestern farmers died by suicide (Wedell et al., 2020). Our approach allowed us to consider systemic issues in beginning farming that contribute to stress. Social sustainability is one aspect of sustainable development and focuses on the social well-being of a community (e.g., a place or a profession like farming). Social, economic, and environmental sustainability can work together to achieve equitable, viable, and quality standards of living. The project was implemented by an Ohio State University College of Social Work (OSU CSW) graduate student with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) under the supervision of OSU CSW faculty mentors.

The research involved 90 beginning farmer participants. We used a community-engaged, explanatory sequential mixed methods research design with the qualitative portion as the prioritized strand. We administered an online survey (n=62) of validated measurement tools to assess farmer stress and related factors, followed by in-depth semi-structured interviews (n=20). Farmer input drove the project process through meetings with OEFFA’s leadership and Begin Farming staff and the engagement of three beginning farmer key informants as project consultants.

Research findings have informed education and outreach efforts, including the enhancement and dissemination of existing sources and the improvement of mental health literacy among farmers through workshops and consultations. Outreach efforts were leveraged with the 2021-2022 Schweitzer Fellowship Program. Workshops have been facilitated at key events such as OEFFA’s Heartland Farm Beginnings program and OEFFA’s annual conference. Through outreach, farmers have gained coping skills, such as social support identification, and increased knowledge of available resources. Project findings and policy recommendations that support the social sustainability of beginning farmers will be disseminated through OEFFA and the Ohio Food Policy Network (OFPN).

As a result of the project, mental health needs and assets have been identified among the beginning farmer community in Ohio, and awareness of farmer mental health has been bolstered. In our sample, 58.1% of respondents reported mild, moderate, or severe symptom-burden of anxiety or depression. Participants accessed various mental health supports. For example, 26.2% said they utilized in-person counseling or therapy, 21.3% used telecounseling, 29.5% used prayer or faith-based therapy, and 36.1% used alternative or body-based therapy. Over 66% of men had not accessed any mental health supports in the past year, compared to 13% of females and 17% of non-binary or transgender survey respondents. Top stressors included having too much to do and too little time, COVID-19, not enough person-power on the farm, climate change, and social justice. Interview participants described coping with stress using social support, the therapeutic nature of farming, and individual coping mechanisms such as eating well and exercising. Interviewees described their experiences with mental health as “a roller coaster” with rugged individualism perpetuating mental health challenges. The farm was described as a cure and a cause of stress. Barriers to accessing stress or mental health support included social stigma and inaccessibility due to perceived high financial cost, inadequate health insurance, or difficulties finding care. Lastly, interviewees described "the stress of capitalism,” work-life imbalance, gaps in social support, and experiences of discrimination as systemic stressors. Interview participants had mixed perspectives regarding social justice and climate change as sources of stress.

Research dissemination is ongoing. Project findings and policy recommendations that support the social sustainability of beginning farmers will be disseminated through OEFFA and the Ohio Food Policy Network (OFPN).

Access the bibliography for this grant report: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1WeybRhOPm3SyXHVzaoXjh8saFccMUNN9/view?usp=sharing 

Project Objectives:

By the end of Y1 (year 1), through collecting, cleaning, and analyzing survey data and interview data, we identified the mental health needs of beginning farmers in Ohio, including the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and high-stress levels, and the contributing factors (LO1). We identified assets that contribute to the well-being and sustainability of beginning Ohio farmers including social networks and organizational resources in their communities (LO2). Through relationship-building and outreach, we increased awareness about mental health among beginning farmers in Ohio (LO3).

In Y2, as a result of the development (AO1) and dissemination of resources (AO2), farmers have increased knowledge of mental health resources available (LO3). Through participation in outreach workshops, farmers gained coping skills such as stress management (AO3). Farmers will experience an improved quality of life (AO4). Project findings and resources are being disseminated, nationally, to catalyze work that supports farmer mental health (AO5). New collaborations have been formed between OEFFA, The Ohio State University College of Social Work, and beginning farmers in Ohio (AO6). Project findings will be used to leverage future funding opportunities for continued work in this arena (AO7).


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Materials and methods:

Research Design

Working with our community partner, OEFFA, we designed an explanatory sequential mixed-methods study. Our explanatory sequential design included two phases – a quantitative survey followed by a qualitative in-depth interview, with the qualitative interviews as the prioritized method. While the quantitative data provided a rudimentary understanding of stressors, the qualitative data helped explain significant or confusing quantitative data, bringing a richer, deeper understanding of the research question. The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of The Ohio State University.

Phase I: Survey

In October 2020, beginning farmers were recruited using purposive sampling through OEFFA’s email distribution list of 632 contacts. Participants were asked to complete a 15-minute survey administered using Qualtrics survey software. To be eligible, participants needed to be 18 years of age or older, be able to read and understand basic English, and be farmers or producers with less than 10 years of production experience. One automated follow-up email was sent as a reminder to those who had not yet responded during the data collection period. At the end of the survey, participants had the option to confidentially enter a drawing to receive a $20 VISA electronic gift card as compensation for their time.


The U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module: Six-Item Short Form.

The U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module: Six-Item Short Form is an abbreviated measurement of the 18-question U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module. The abbreviated measurement is used to decrease participant burden since it is part of a longer survey. The six-item short form is an adequate substitution for the longer 18-question instrument with 92% sensitivity and 99.4% specificity for the determination of overall household food insecurity.

The Farm Stress Survey.

We used a modified Farm Stress Survey based on Eberhardt and Pooyan’s (1990) and Rudolphi et al.’s (2020) Farm Stress Surveys. This was modified based on different theoretical framings, an appropriate level of language and focus for our study, edits from our community partner who knows the population, and what our research team perceived to be biased language. Our Farm Stress Survey contained 50-items in seven subcategories: working conditions, social and geographical factors, personal finances, time pressure, environmental conditions, current events and policy, and employee relations. A higher score indicates greater stressors. Items that were “not applicable” for over 10% of the sample were excluded from analyses.

Patient Health Questionnaire, PHQ-4.

The PHQ-4 is a four-item instrument that combines the PHQ-2 and the GAD-2 (Kroenke et al., 2009). In doing so, it contains two anxiety items and two depression items of measurement. The PHQ-4 is used as a brief screening tool as a way to identify potential cases of anxiety and depression. It is not a diagnostic tool, but a measurement of symptom burden. The PHQ-4 is known to be useful in a diverse array of clinical settings. The construct validity of the PHQ-4 has been supported by the fact that higher PHQ-4 scores are associated with increased functional impairment. Its internal reliability (Cronbach α) was good (>0.80) for all scales. 

Sociodemographic Measures & Farm Characteristics. 

Sociodemographic measures (13-questions) include age, gender, race/ethnicity information, veteran status, household information, and health insurance status. Farm characteristics (11-questions) include farm size (total number of acres operated), the number of years farming, agricultural product type, land ownership info, growing practices, and position on the farm.

Open-Ended and Wellness-Oriented Questions. 

The survey included 4 qualitative open-ended questions to gather more detailed information about beginning farmer needs and challenges related to mental health support along with their current use of mental health services. It also included 2-questions regarding the use of mental health or substance use services.


Survey data were analyzed with SPSS statistical software using descriptive statistics (e.g., measures of distribution, central tendency, dispersion). Two respondents completed less than half of the survey and were excluded from the analysis (n = 62).

Phase II: Interview

In March/April 2021, beginning farmers were recruited using purposive sampling through OEFFA’s email distribution list of 632 contacts. The final sample size (n=20) was informed by our community-engaged research approach (Padgett, 2017) and pragmatic worldview (Creswell and Clark, 2018) in which we aimed for focused, feasible methods (Padgett, 2017), according to the grant funds available to us, without compromising the sufficient depth required for applied research (Padgett, 2017).

A semi-structured interview guide was used to collect data. The interview guide development was informed by preliminary survey results; it was developed in partnership with OEFFA and our beginning farmer key informants. All of the interviews were conducted in the English language. Interviews lasted 60-90 minutes with an average interview time of 71 minutes. Each interview was recorded via Zoom upon permission of the participants. The interview guide included questions related to experiences with stress and mental health, and the social sustainability of beginning farming. There were also questions about farm characteristics and demographic information.

Considering the interview questions addressed potentially sensitive topics like mental health stressors, and to minimize any unexpected risks of participation in accordance with approved IRB informed consent procedures for human subjects research, participants were emailed a one-page mental health resource sheet so they could seek mental health guidance, if needed. Each participant received a $50 electronic VISA gift card incentive via email for participating in the study.


Audio recordings and handwritten notes were transcribed verbatim from the Zoom recording. After transcription, the transcripts were read and re-read to establish familiarity. Interview transcripts were analyzed using an iterative thematic qualitative analysis approach with first-cycle inductive coding followed by second-cycle pattern coding to condense codes into categories (Saldana, 2016). Categories were reviewed, compared, and then grouped into themes and sub-themes. The graduate student led the coding process while the faculty research mentor, other research team members, and key informants audited their efforts, checking for consistency and meaningfulness. Categories, sub-themes, and themes were member checked with key informants and OEFFA staff.

Interview transcripts are currently undergoing a secondary qualitative analysis with a grounded theory approach to understand how participants conceptualize social sustainability. Similar to the primary data analysis, we are using an iterative thematic analysis approach with first-cycle open coding and second-cycle theoretical coding.

Phase III: Mixed-methods integration

            To provide a more holistic picture of beginning farmer mental health and stress, quantitative survey data and qualitative interview data were compared and integrated while looking for data convergence and divergence.

Research results and discussion:

A. Survey results

We initially aimed to have 190 people complete the survey; however, as an exploratory study with a month-long window for data collection amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we received 64 completed surveys. Two respondents did not complete the survey and were excluded from the analysis, leaving us with a sample size of 62. 

Over half of our sample were female farmers (51.6%), while 38.7% were male, and 9.7% identified as non-binary or transgender. While most participants were white (91.9%), 8.1% identified as Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian. Survey respondents ranged from 25 to 74 years old with 57% reporting their age as 25 to 44 years old. Around 45% had a bachelor’s degree, and 39.1% had graduate or professional degrees. Sixty percent of respondents farmed in rural areas, while 22.2% farmed along the rural-urban fringe. Over 76% of our sample were first-generation farmers, and overall, farmers produced a wide range of agricultural products (e.g., annual, perennial, livestock) and used a variety of practices (e.g., organic but not certified, pasture-raised livestock, reduced tillage). Nearly 40% had a full-time off-farm job, and 20.3% had a part-time off-farm job. Around 14% of our sample had a household income between $0 and $24,999/year, while 29.3% had household incomes over $100,000. Another 26% were between $25k-$49,999, and 17.2% were between $50k-$74,999. In our sample, 67.2% did not have a child/dependent, and 83% lived with at least one other adult. Eighty-nine percent reported having high food security, while 11% reported low or very low food security (i.e., food insecurity).

In our sample, 58.1% of respondents reported mild, moderate, or severe symptom-burden of anxiety or depression. Anxiety was suggested among 34% of the sample, which is higher than 19% among the U.S. general population (ADAA, 2022). Depression was suggested among 16% of respondents, compared to 8.4% of U.S. adults (NIMH, 2022). Participants accessed various mental health supports. For example, 26.2% utilized in-person counseling or therapy, 21.3% used telecounseling, 29.5% used prayer or faith-based therapy, and 36.1% used alternative or body-based therapy. Over 66% of men had not accessed any mental health support in the past year, though our data suggests that 37.5% of men experienced anxiety, 25% experienced depression, and 68.9% had anxiety/depression/stress interfere with life.

Top systemic stressors impacting mental health included having too much to do and too little time, COVID-19, not having enough person-power, climate change, and social justice. Participants shared their greatest needs for stress management, mental health, and wellness, which included: 1) time for work, family, and self, 2) money, 3) assistance/help/a partner, and 4) social networks/connection. The primary challenges to maintaining positive mental health and wellness included: 1) financial worry/circumstances, 2) not enough free time for self/off-farm, 3) social connection/isolation, and 4) time pressure. Nearly 87% of women, 54.2% of men, and 100% of non-binary or transgender individuals said that social justice was a source of stress, while 40% of non-binary or transgender, 23.4% of women, and 60% of non-white participants reported discrimination as a source of stress. Survey results were used to inform in-depth interviews along with outreach and engagement activity in Year 2 of the project.

B. Interview results

Twenty semi-structured interviews were administered, each 60-90 minutes long. Thirty-five percent of interviewees identified as male, 45% as female, and 20% as non-binary, transgender, two-spirit, or gender fluid. Seventy-five percent of interviewees were white, 15% were Black or Black and Indigenous, 5% were Latine, and 5% were Asian. Ninety percent of interviewees were first-generation farmers. The mean age of interviewees was 38.3, with a range from 27 to 60 years old.

For ease of reporting, interview results are organized into four categories, though there is some overlap between categories. The four categories are 1) How are beginning farmers coping with stress or mental health?, 2) What are beginning farmers’ experiences with mental health?, 3) What barriers do beginning farmers face in accessing stress management or mental health resources?, 4) What systemic factors contribute to stress for beginning farmers?

I. How are beginning farmers coping with stress or mental health?

  • Social support and mutual aid. Participants described receiving emotional support from friends, neighbors, family/spouses, mentors, and like-minded people. Some expressed difficulties finding groups of like-minded people. Participants also noted instrumental or informational support from farm organizations (e.g., conferences, farmer networks) and farm volunteers. However, several interviewees expressed difficulty accessing informational support that was relevant to them as farmers using alternative farming practices or working on a small scale.

Several participants described social support, mutual aid, and pooling knowledge at farmers markets: “But I also find that going to the farmers markets is like a really fun part of my week and is helpful in like being able to chat with other farmers and, like, I felt like I made like some pretty close friends over the past year at the market and then at the, I did the winter market as well, I guess I didn't mention that. So yeah, just like those kinds of connections were really nice to have on a weekly basis, and just someone to chat with and, and kinda talk about, how's your week going? Urgh, It's July! Just nice to like have someone else who knows that without having to, you know, kind of explain why July is a brutal month.” However, this experience was not described by interview participants who were BIPOC, queer, or non-binary.

  • Therapeutic nature of farming. Participants described how being in the soil, spending time with animals, and working outdoors in nature is calming. Some respondents turned to farming as a way to combat stress. Farm work was described as rewarding work that provides purpose.
  • Individual coping mechanisms. Interviewees described physical practices such as eating nutrient-dense foods, being physically active, breathing exercises and mindfulness, taking breaks, and acupuncture or other bodywork. Psychological or cognitive coping practices included problem-solving, creating a sense of control, letting things go, positive reframing, and positive distractions with hobbies. Interpersonal coping practices included transparent communication with partners and customers.

Minimizing discrimination as a potential coping mechanism: Some respondents shared experiences of discrimination or oppression, but the interviewer noticed that they downplayed these experiences, perhaps to cognitively reframe and minimize the challenges: “I’ve probably only maybe had like one experience where I’ve kind of felt unsafe as a female farmer. Like, I got kind of harassed when I was out at a farm site by myself by a neighbor, who was like cat-calling me and was like, was a little, I was scared. And that, like, certainly affected my desire to be on the site alone for a while and was hard. And I’m lucky that that’s, like, the worst thing that I can think of that really, like has stuck with me and had like a response like that where I felt unsafe for a while in that environment.”

  • Lacking current coping strategies. Some participants described how they do not manage their stress well: “I can’t say that I do manage it very well. I have definitely had, you know, stress-related health stuff. I started getting migraines, very bad.” (Barriers to stress management are described in a subsequent section.)

II. What are beginning farmers’ experiences with mental health?

  • Mental health as “a roller coaster.” Several participants used the term “roller coaster” to describe their experiences with mental health and stress: “It [farming] has its, it has its amazing highs, but it’s but its lows are so much lower than I ever thought possible.” The roller coaster related to the seasonality of farming, with a hectic growing season and a slow/depressing winter: “I mean, farmers markets to me like are church. So like, every Saturday I’m going to church. Then like, church ends and then it’s, it’s winter and the days are shorter and it’s colder and it’s like, I don’t have as much fresh grown food and I just, I just feel it. It weighs on me. But winter is always, I feel like that’s for a lot of people, but winter is one of the more (pause), uh it’s just one of the more (pause) mellow times, depressing times.” The “roller coaster” also related to acute stressors faced by participants: “Acute stress, like doing veterinary care without a lot of education or supplies, like putting a lamb’s intestines back in at like midnight in your kitchen.”
  • Rugged individualism perpetuates mental health challenges. Interviewees described not knowing when to ask for help or thinking “this is the way it is” regarding mental health challenges. Participants associated mental health support with times of crises rather than a proactive approach to sustaining mental well-being: “So I have seen a therapist, a couple different therapists over the years, mostly kind of in more so like in times of crisis, not as, like a maintenance approach.” Some participants described going to therapy and finding it beneficial, yet the financial cost of therapy was high: “I would say it’s [therapy] probably, we probably spend as much on therapy as we do on groceries, like, it’s one of our major expenses.”

Participants described working through or ignoring depression or anxiety symptoms. As a result, negative mental health outcomes showed themselves in unpredictable ways, such as physical manifestations like panic attacks, headaches, and autoimmune condition flare-ups. One participant described how she learned to pay attention to early signs of stress:

“In tractor machinery, there is a cotter pin that you’ll put in that will break and that’s to prevent something even more expensive from breaking, and if something is consistently wrong in your cotter pin, it’s so tempting to be like, I’m just going to put a fucking steel bolt in here and this will never break again… which you would never do with a tractor, because that means that your engine is just going to shred itself to bits or whatever. So I think once you start realizing that small mental health problems are the cotter pins of your whole being, instead of being like, oh, I guess I'll just cry less, being like oh… this is letting me know that there’s gonna be a full engine shutdown.”

  • Farm as “a tool for mental health” but also a detriment. Participants described the therapeutic nature of working outside. However, not all aspects of farming were beneficial. Participants described sacrificing vacation or time away from the farm and not being able to process personal challenges such as death/grief/loss. Some aspects of farming contribute to feelings of depression such as not making enough money or not being able to pay the bills.

"You know, we do sacrifice a lot, especially when we're raising the animals. I mean, we couldn't leave the house to go and do anything, because we didn't have the resources of others to come and help."

"Mental health is hard, because like I said, you're not going to make a lot of money at this, you're going to go into a lot of debt in the beginning season, and then you start to, you start to break even around August every year."


III. What barriers do beginning farmers face in accessing stress management or mental health resources?  

  • Inaccessibility due to high cost, inadequate health insurance, or difficulty finding care. Participants described how it is difficult and time-consuming to find a therapist or “finding someone that I can trust,” especially when navigating confusing health insurance compatibility. Some described not knowing what resources are available to them. Rural spaces were described as having inadequate mental health resources: "Access to health professionals in the local area is super hard. It was like a three-hour trip to go get therapy… that's like a good part of a work day.” Others described that available resources are for mental health crises rather than more proactive, mental health maintenance approaches.

Some interviewees described mental health professionals’ lack of implicit understanding of farming or the relationship to land: “I guess any issues that might be related to farming, I don't think anybody [therapists] would be inclined to understand the full picture of the challenges that we face. So I guess with the issues related to farming, I wouldn't really put a lot of trust, maybe, into their diagnosis or advice. Because they haven't been in the trenches and they don't know how it is, you know, it's a very unique, it's a very unique feeling, you know, to have, you know, $2,000 of crops in, or whatever, and then to experience a flood, you know. And people don't understand that because, you know, they might think it's, you, oh, you, you know, $2,000 or as a monetary loss or whatever. But really to me, it's a lot more than that because I've had a lot of time commitment in that, you know. It's more of a gut shot than just the money thing. And I don't think people would understand that, or maybe discount it to a level where I would be a little bit upset about it, you know?”

  • Social stigma: “it's something we're all expected to, like, bottle up and deal with, it seems." Interviewees described social stigma around seeking care. Specific reasons included fear of being vulnerable, stigma around making time for care, and difficulties asking for help.

"My wife has occasionally, occasionally told me I should go speak with someone (small smile). I've never spoken with anyone… I'm a guy, so guys, typically, you know, they don’t talk about things too much."

"I'm just not a huge asker of help. And especially when it comes to mental health, I'm not going to reach out publicly and ask someone for help. And so you know, when I can't find what I'm needing, or know where to look, then I kind of feel a little stuck just because I'm not comfortable to reach out to people and ask."


IV. What systemic factors contribute to stress for beginning farmers?

  • “The stress of capitalism.” Participants described the challenge of running a farm in a competitive, individualistic market structure. Competition with larger, more equipped farms or corporations that can sell lower-priced produce created stress. Competition impacted information sharing between farmers.

Difficulties accessing start-up capital and land in the current economic system was another source of stress: "And so I am also single, and I'm also of femme identity. And so those, and of Latinx origin, and so those are a couple strikes against me in terms of would I qualify for a bank loan?" For those participants renting or leasing land from landowners, conflicts with the landowners were common among our sample.

Participants also described the stress that comes from “wearing many different hats,” such as managing the tasks of farming, marketing, transportation, and website management. The physicality of the job was also reported as a stressor: "I'm pretty much one accident away from (chuckles) stopping everything that I like to do, so, and going bankrupt. So yeah, that is something that's stressful, for sure." It was common for interviewees to work 80 to 90 hours a week to complete farm tasks. This left little to no time for family or friends during the farm season, sometimes resulting in strained relationships:

“They [family] kind of understand now that, you know, they're not gonna see me during the summer unless they come to market or come over to the farm to help.”

“Yeah, it's very stressful. I am a woman, so I have children. I am (pause) whether I want to or not, children need their mom, like, I breastfed both my kids, I had to pump milk in the middle of the workday, that was very challenging, because I was always like, dehydrated, and I definitely struggled balancing motherhood and farming.”

Interviewees described a sense of disappointment and disbelief in the financial reality of farming. Most described maintaining off-farm employment for financial security, which took away from their time and ability to get work done on the farm. They also described the high cost of health insurance and medical care as a source of stress; the high cost of healthcare was motivation for maintaining off-farm employment.

  • Discrimination and inequitable access to resources based on social identity and marginalization. Participants described microaggressions, not feeling seen, disparate social support, or not being trusted or taken seriously as a farmer due to their identity as a woman, queer person, or POC.

"Being queer and non-binary, for some people in the farming community requires a lot of like explanation. And I don't necessarily always feel like the level of safety of, that I, I would like to feel like I can engage in those like conversations."

"Majority of the time when you look at who owns the land, and who are the current farmers, and who are selling at the markets, it is a white male-dominated space. And so it's hard for say, like, even a femme farmer, to get into that space, even a white femme farmer, even a Latinx femme farmer, a black femme farmer, like how many black femme farmers do you know, right?"

  • Gaps in social support. Interviewees described social isolation and loneliness as a source of stress, especially in the context of COVID-19. Feelings of alienation and underappreciation were also expressed. Participants discussed the notion of farmers not being valued and farming not being respected as a career path: "We as like a culture are so alienated from our food system, there really isn't an appreciation or respect for where our food comes from." They also described inadequate informational support, especially for their unique type of farm model (i.e., alternative or small-scale agriculture):

“It seems like I'm always reinventing the wheel. In other words, you know, maybe someone has developed a practice, and it's worked very well for them. But it's hard to get that information from them, even when you ask.”

“Because what we do is so specialized, even in the livestock world, like all of the extension spreadsheets for calculating your costs are based on a really different model.”

  • Differing perspectives of social justice as a stressor. Participants had varying responses to the prompt about social justice-related stress. Some shared that it is not at all a source of stress: “I don’t know that it affects me too much.” and “In some ways, I’ve put my worrying about that on pause until we have land.” Others connected social justice with a desire to serve a more diverse customer base than they are currently serving. Sustainable food is not equally accessible to everyone. Some mentioned land theft from indigenous people: "Understanding the privilege that my husband and I have as inheriting land and being white people living on land that was occupied by Native Americans and land that was stolen. Yeah, that really sucks. That feels really awful." Others connected the question to increasing inclusion and diversity within the agricultural community (i.e., creating more inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ and POC farmers). Lastly, other participants expressed concern for social justice issues but felt frustrated that they did not have sufficient time for social justice causes: "Main feeling is helplessness, really. I don't know what the hell I could do to make things better other than just… trying to make this little corner of the world as nice and welcoming as possible."
  • Mixed perspectives regarding climate-change-related stress. Participants had mixed perspectives regarding weather and climate change. Most participants identified weather as a source of stress, but many did not identify climate change, specifically. Some were not concerned with climate change, “I don’t see it as too bad of a thing,” while others described it as a major stressor. Other participants decided to stop worrying about it because “climate change is not something we can control.”

Qualitative data analysis is ongoing. We are currently analyzing the qualitative interviews to understand how interviewees conceptualize social sustainability as beginning farmers. Results will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Preliminary categories include 1) enhanced social safety nets, 2) land access, 3) community support and education, 4) equity, and 5) collaboration.

Participation Summary
90 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

18 Consultations
5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
6 Other educational activities: 1) Featured in Public News Service. “Ohio Researchers Bring Social Work Lens to Farming.” (2021, August 9). https://publicnewsservice.org/2021-08-09/sustainable-agriculture/ohio-researchers-bring-social-work-lens-to-farming/a75284-1%7C9-0-a1,9-0-a2
2) Featured on The Mindful Farmers Podcast. “#5 Farmer Social Support.” Fiona Doherty and Andrea Rissing. (2021, May 4). https://www.mindfulfarmerspodcast.com/e/5-farmer-social-support-andrea-rissing-and-fiona-doherty/
3) Society for Social Work Research Conference poster presentation, Amplifying Voices: A Need to Address Racial and Social Justice in the U.S. Food System, Washington D.C, January 2022
4) Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference Exhibit Hall, Farmer Wellness Table, Dayton, Ohio, February 2022,
5) Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Annual Conference poster presentation, Power, privilege, and identity: A call for an intersectional approach to farmer well-being, Athens, Georgia, May 2022
6) Planetary Health Alliance Conference lightning talk, A Critical Ecosystems & Intersectional Approach to Understanding Farmer Mental Health: A Mixed Methods Study, Boston, MA, November 2022

Participation Summary:

210 Farmers participated
85 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We have provided local and national outreach through workshops and presentations. This includes four national conferences: the 2020 Women, Food and Agriculture Network Conference, the 2021 Just Food Conference, the 2022 Society for Social Work Research Conference, and the  2022 Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Annual Conference. In addition, we participated in the regional 2022 Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference. We facilitated workshops for OEFFA’s 2021 and 2022 Heartland Farm Beginnings programs, and Countryside Food and Farms in the greater Akron, Ohio area. We are currently collaborating with Rural Action to help organize a mental health workshop in February 2023 for the farmers they serve in Southern Ohio.

As a result of the project, we have been invited to speak on one podcast, The Mindful Farmer Podcast, and one radio interview for the Ohio News Connection and have contributed to OEFFA’s quarterly newsletter.

Consultations include networking and idea-sharing with farm service providers and supporting Ohio farmers through weekly stress management drop-in sessions via Zoom.

We have submitted a manuscript for publication in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. The manuscript is currently under peer review as of October 2022.

In addition to the efforts listed above, we have several outreach endeavors in progress. We are working on a second manuscript draft to submit for publication in a peer-reviewed journal (Agriculture and Human Values). We also plan to create a Research Brief to disseminate findings to farmers and community organizations such as OEFFA, OSU Extension, Ohio Begin Farming Advisory Network, and the Local Food Policy Council. We are planning additional workshops and presentations with Rural Action and OEFFA.

Project Outcomes

12 Farmers reporting change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness
12 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
9 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Farmers often wait for “a breaking point” before seeking stress management or mental health care. By engaging farmers in research and outreach efforts, farmers may take proactive approaches to establish regular stress management practices; farmers will have enhanced awareness of mental health resources and bolstered coping skills. By offering multiple types of engagement opportunities (i.e., workshops, one-on-one consultations, newsletter passages, and e-resources), we increased the frequency of touchpoints related to mental health care, expectedly decreasing the stigma around help-seeking behavior. In the long term, increased self-care and stress management will reduce levels of anxiety and depression, and boost reports of life satisfaction. Farmers are the most important tool for food production; we hope that with enhanced well-being, a greater number of farmers will remain in the profession.


Knowledge Gained:

This project has deepened our understanding of the complex factors that contribute to farmer stress, burnout, and mental health challenges. As we search for solutions that bolster farmer social sustainability, we must consider both the contextual and systemic factors at play. We gained a greater awareness of barriers to seeking care, such as stigma, inadequate health insurance coverage, and geographic isolation. The stressors of farmers are multi-layered and call for interdisciplinary interventions approached from multiple systems levels. This includes amplifying diverse voices and local perspectives in decision-making and educating helping professionals to understand the unique needs of food system workers.

This project revealed how much work is needed to create a welcoming and inclusive farming community. Discrimination and social justice were identified as sources of stress. Historical trauma (e.g., land dispossession, institutionalized racism) and cultural norms (heteropatriarchy) continue to challenge the social sustainability of farmers from marginalized identities (i.e. women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and People of Color).

Above all else, our work has demonstrated how critically important farmer well-being is to maintaining community food security and a thriving diversified food system. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Additional resources and funding must be invested to support trauma-informed, anti-oppressive efforts to address mental health, discrimination, and the impacts of exclusionary practices (e.g. financial capital, labor, and land access).

Success stories:

"After nearly a decade working as a diversified vegetable farmer and farm educator, I knew something big was missing. Myself and farmers I work with had plenty of information about varieties, pests, and marketing. What wasn't available was being heard and understood as humans with lives beyond the farm that deserve our time and attention. This project affirms that social support is a necessary and tragically underrated need of beginning farmers, particularly those with marginalized identities. There's much more to be understood and developed to make farming a sustainable opportunity for all." (Quote from a farmer/farm advocate in Central Ohio)


Thank you so much for providing the opportunity to conduct this research project. This community-engaged work has been incredibly meaningful and gratifying over the past two years. The research experience has been invaluable, deepening my knowledge related to beginning farmer stress and mental health, and allowing me to advance my quantitative and qualitative research skills. Most of all, the project has inspired me to continue focusing on this research area as I continue my career through the doctoral program and beyond.

We recommend future studies that 1) utilize social justice and intersectional approaches, acknowledging and actively dismantling structural oppression in the food system; 2) center the voices of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC farmers; 3) include inclusive gender identity options in data collection to include gender identity beyond the gender binary; 4) include mental health professionals in efforts to understand and intervene in matters related to farmer stress and mental health; and 5) aim to understand climate change impacts on farmer mental health, as climate change will compound all stressors farmers already face.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.