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

Progress 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 is a two-year project focused on conducting a needs assessment related to mental health, social supports, and external stressors of beginning Ohio farmers. This approach allows 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 is being implemented by a graduate student with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) under the supervision of Ohio State University’s College of Social Work (OSU CSW).

The needs assessment involved 90 OEFFA participants. We administered an online survey of validated measurement tools to assess farmer stress and related factors, followed by in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 beginning farmers. Farmer input has driven 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.

Findings from the needs assessment is informing resource development, with the input of three farmer key informants. Based on preliminary findings, these efforts have included enhancing and disseminating existing sources and improving mental health literacy among farmers through workshops and consultations. Resources have been piloted at key events such as OEFFA’s Heartland Farm Beginnings program and OEFFA’s annual conference.

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. Resources have been compiled to benefit beginning farmer mental health; a mental health resource e-library will be curated. Through outreach, farmers have gained coping skills 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).

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 have gained coping skills such as stress management (AO3). Farmers will experience an improved quality of life (AO4). Project findings and resources will be 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 convenience sampling through OEFFA’s email distribution list of 632 contacts. Participants were asked to complete a 15-minute survey administered using Qualtrics survey software. Eligibility criteria included that participants 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 and Rudolphi et al.’s 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 from which we will be sampling, and what our research team perceived to be biased language. Our Farm Stress Survey contained 50-items in seven subcategories. The subcategories include 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. 

Patient Health Questionnaire, PHQ-4.

The PHQ-4 is a four-item instrument that combines the PHQ-2 and the GAD-2. 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 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 misuse services.


Data is in the process of being analyzed using SPSS statistical software. Data analysis includes basic descriptive statistics (e.g., measures of distribution, central tendency, dispersion), basic correlations, and inferential statistics. In this case, regression analyses may be used to predict or explain some variables. ANOVA or MANOVA may be used to look at the mean differences between groups.

Phase II: Interview

In March/April 2021, beginning farmers were recruited using purposive convenience and snowball sampling through OEFFA’s email distribution list of 632 contacts. As there are no hard and fast rules for establishing sample sizes for qualitative approaches, our research team believed 15-20 participants would provide the level of heterogeneity needed for our study without sacrificing depth for breadth. In addition, we considered feasibility (time, incentives available).

A semi-structured interview guide was used to collect data. All of the interviews were conducted in the English language. Interviews lasted 60-90 minutes. Each interview was recorded by 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, every participant was 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.


Qualitative data analysis is ongoing. Audio recordings and handwritten notes have been transcribed verbatim from the Zoom recording. Data analysis techniques include reading the data line-by-line, identifying themes, coding categories, developing matrices and drawing cluster diagrams to uncover relationships between themes and categories. Member checking will be performed with our beginning farmer key informants.

Phase III: Mixed-methods integration

            Quantitative survey data and qualitative interview data will be integrated to provide a more holistic picture of farmer mental health and stress. Convergences and divergences in data will be examined; the integration of results will be organized into a joint display.

Research results and discussion:
  1. Survey results

While we initially aimed to have 190 people complete the survey, we recognized the impact of many factors (i.e. COVID-19), and as an exploratory study with a monthlong window for surveying, we were able to have 64 completed surveys. Two respondents did not complete the survey and were excluded from analysis, leaving us with a sample size of 62. 

Over half of our sample were female farmers (51.6%), while 38.7% were male, 9.7% identified as non-binary or transgender. While most participants were white (91.9%), 8.1% identified as Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian. 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. 

In our sample, 58.1% of respondents had mild, moderate, or severe anxiety/depression, compared to 37.9% of the general population of Ohio adults (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020). 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, 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. When asked what their top need for stress management, mental health, and wellness, the four top needs included 1) time for work, family, and self, 2) money, 3) assistance/help/a partner, and 4) social networks/connection. The primary challenging to maintaining 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, in part, to inform in-depth interviews and will be used in outreach and engagement activity development in 2021-2022.

B. Interview results

Twenty semi-structured interviews were administered, each 60-90 minutes long. Qualitative data analysis is ongoing. Results will be available before August 2022.

Participation Summary
90 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

16 Consultations
5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
4 Other educational activities: 1) Radio interview, August 2021, Ohio News Connection, “Ohio researchers bring social work lens to farming”
2) Podcast interview: Mindful Farmer Podcast
3) SSWR Conference poster presentation, Amplifying Voices: A Need to Address Racial and Social Justice in the U.S. Food System, Washington D.C
4) OEFFA conference Exhibit Hall, 2022, Farmer Wellness Table

Participation Summary:

200 Farmers
50 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Workshops and presentations include both a local and national scope. We’ve been able to participate in several conferences such as the 2020 Women, Food and Agriculture Network Conference, the 2021 Just Food Conference, the 2022 Society for Social Work Research Conference, and the 2022 Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference. We’ve also facilitated workshops for OEFFA’s 2021 and 2022 Heartland Farm Beginnings programs.

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. We have also 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.

In addition to the efforts listed above, we have several outreach endeavors in progress. We have a peer-reviewed proposal accepted for the 2022 Agriculture and Human Values conference. We are currently working on several manuscript drafts to submit for publication in peer-reviewed journals. 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, InFACT, and the Local Food Policy Council. We are planning additional workshops and presentations for Countryside Food and Farms, the Ohio Begin Farming Advisory Committee, and OEFFA’s Begin Farming Advisory Council. We plan to continue offering the weekly stress management drop-in sessions, as they have been a success thus far. Lastly, we are collaborating with OEFFA to create a mental health resource e-library curated for farmers; we envision the library as a co-created and co-owned collection of resources in partnership with the Ohio farming community.

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
8 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, we think farmers will take proactive approaches in establishing regular stress management practices; farmers will have enhanced awareness of mental health resources and gained 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 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 as active contributors to food production.

Knowledge Gained:

This project has deepened our understanding of the complex factors at play 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’ve also gained a much 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 has also revealed how much work there is to be done 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 who come 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 truly is to maintaining community food security and a thriving diversified food system. However, there is not a 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).

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.