This Hotline Is Designed to Help Farmers Not Just Make a Living, but Live Well

"Midway through the season, I started to wonder how farmers managed to keep going, day after day, season after season."

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Farm Aid is best-known for its annual music, food, and farm festival, but it also provides the only national hotline for farmers.

1-800-FARM-AID provides farmers and their communities with referrals and access to the resources they need. Sometimes, that means directing them to local or regional organizations that provide technical assistance to farmers or helping them develop a plan for financial success. Other times it means listening to farmers who just need someone to talk to. 

In recent years, it also means responding to farmers in crisis. Inverse recently spoke with Maddie Lutkewitte, Farm Aid’s Hotline Manager. Below she explains why the hotline serves as Farm Aid’s insight to the challenges and opportunities that farmers are grappling with, and what can be done to help.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

Hi Maddie! What’s the origin of this hotline?

The hotline started out as a 1-900 phone number to collect donations during and after the first Farm Aid concert on September 22, 1985. Generous people gave from all over the country and the world. The number was very well televised, and it was done so in the context of farmers hearing that they were not alone — that theirs was not a crisis of their making.

It was also the first time farmers had heard that. The narrative before had been that the farmers losing their farms had been bad managers. Hearing that it was not the case; that other farmers were in the same position, and having a phone number to call, farmers overwhelmed the donation line. It was quickly transitioned to a 1-800 hotline. It met a need in the country because there was no national hotline for farmers before.

The focus of the organization in the early days was on answering the hotline, connecting those farmers to resources in their community, and finding and funding those resources. Those first calls were crisis calls. In the early 2000s and until just recently, more call volume came from farmers looking to change or expand their business, maybe go organic, or do direct marketing.

Unfortunately, the downturn in the farm economy since 2013 has caused the calls to shift back into financial concerns.

Farm Aid
Maddie Lutkewitte is Farm Aid's Hotline Manager. 

What does your role as Hotline Manager entail?

We try to refer farmers to the best resources and ensure they’re able to move forward. My job also entails managing our database of resources and referrals to ensure we’re connected to the best organizations to connect farmers to the right resources.

I also work to identify any gaps in our referrals. Lastly, I take in the information we hear from farmers, identify patterns, and lift that up to the rest of the Farm Aid staff. We can see where there are areas that Farm Aid can make an impact. An increase in calls from contract poultry growers clued us into our work to help reform contract poultry farming.

Do farmers ever call in with questions pertaining to their mental health?

They do! More often than not, farmers call and are looking for financial or technical help, but throughout the conversation, it becomes clear that they’re also struggling with their mental health.

The most common reason people get in touch with us is because they’re in a crisis. That can mean the farmers are afraid of their electricity being cut off, they lost their contract and don’t know how to find a new market, no one will lend to them, developers or big agribusinesses want their land, or their farm is figuratively underwater with debt or literally underwater from flooding.

These situations are stressful on their own, but more often we see these situations happening all at once, making it harder to see a way forward. Farming is also often lonely and isolating; there aren’t always co-workers who can help when you’re having a bad day. When you spend all your time in the field, on a tractor, or in and out of the milking parlor, sometimes there is no one else to talk to. When an issue comes along, farmers don’t know who to go to. Couple that with the lack of healthcare, infrastructure, and support for farmers and folks in rural areas, it’s not surprising that many folks don’t know what else to do and call us.

Have you found any of the calls to be especially affecting?

Different calls affect me in different ways. The folks who call in and are concerned about their friends or loved ones, parents who are worried about the electricity going off in their home, or the younger people my age who desperately want to farm but find it hard to do so are all varying levels of affecting. That being said, most people I talk to have a whole lot of hope, strength, and resilience. We also hear from people who want to start farming and that always brings me a lot of hope personally.

farmer
"We also hear from people who want to start farming and that always brings me a lot of hope personally."

What led you to take on this role?

After college, I worked at IBM in New York City as a consultant in financial services. Though it wasn’t obvious from my day-to-day work, I’d always had great concern for both the environment and my community. Through a series of random but wonderful experiences I realized that farming was the best way for me to combine those interests. I enrolled in the Farmer Training Program at the University of Vermont with little to no idea what I would do after the program ended.

Midway through the season, I started to wonder how farmers managed to keep going, day after day, season after season. I especially wondered about my millennial counterparts who have higher reported issues with mental illness. When you add in a rapidly changing climate, student loan debt, a lack of access to land and capital, and a host of other issues, it becomes really easy to see why it’s tough to farm and continue farming.

Last year, I was lucky enough to go to Farm Aid’s festival in Connecticut and I ended up listening in on a panel related to farmer mental health issues and now less than a year later, I work here! The work is really important to me because farmers do really hard work that frankly, I’m not cut out to do. I want to do the work for my friends who are farming and inspire me endlessly and for the people I don’t know who juggle so much. Being able to ease their burden just a little bit and helping them in a very small way stay on their land and keep farming makes my work feel easy.

Reporting and polls indicate that more and more farmers are reporting mental health issues, and realize it’s important to reduce mental health stigma. Do you think things will continue to move in this direction?

I think the issue of farmer mental health is being discussed more and more, which is a positive step to firstly let farmers experiencing mental health issues know they’re not alone, but also to let the public know. Because folks in and out of the farming community are talking about it, the stigma may decrease.

The underlying issues that exacerbate or cause mental health issues are being discussed more in the 2020 election than most of us have seen in a long time. I am cautiously optimistic that some of these underlying strains — such as lack of mental health care, rising input costs, low prices, and market consolidation — are alleviated, and farmers will be less likely to experience these mental health issues in the first place.

What resources are out there for farmers who are experiencing maintaining mental health?

It depends where the farmer is located, but to be honest, a lot of the time there aren’t great resources. In parts of the Midwest, Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline is available. We’re lucky to work alongside organizations like Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, RAFI in North Carolina, Wisconsin Farm Center Helpline, Minnesota Farm Advocates and more.

I know Michigan State has resources for farmers to learn how to recognize mental health issues. More farm organizations are including mental health programming in their work, which is promising. And farmers are stepping forward to share their personal stories. Like in the ‘80s, when farmers shared their stories, it helps other farmers understand they’re not alone.

What is Farm Aid’s dream for farmers of the future?

Fair prices, a break-up of consolidation across the supply chain, equitable access to land and capital. More funding for critical conservation projects; giving farmers financial incentives to farm in ways that mitigate climate change and protect our soil and water; funding and programs for young and socially disadvantaged farmers. The ability for family farmers to make a fair living from the land while caring for it.