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By Taylor Knopf

When Russ Vollmer’s father passed away five years ago, he left his job and went home to become the fifth generation to run his family’s farm in Franklin County.

Russ Vollmer (left) took over his father’s (right) organic strawberry farm five years ago after he passed away. But strawberry farming proved too difficult in the North Carolina climate, and Russ was forced to make some changes to the family farm. Photo credit: Courtesy of Vollmer Farm

Historically, the Vollmer farm ran on tobacco. But the industry changed, and Vollmer’s father transitioned to organic strawberries, as well as some other berries and vegetables. When the younger Vollmer took over the farm, he had three years of “strawberry disasters.”

Hail storms damaged and disease attacked the plants. And Vollmer discovered that organic strawberries don’t grow well in the humid North Carolina climate.

The farm was in a financial crisis and he said he was forced to make some tough decisions during a very stressful time.

Ultimately, he said he relied on his faith and counsel from other farmers. Vollmer diversified his crops and income streams with agritourism and is working toward new opportunities for the farm.

He says the experience made him stronger and more aware of the warning signs of stress and depression.

“I really was completely unaware of the mental health crisis. But I truly believe it is a crisis within our farming community,” Vollmer said.

A few years ago, he came across the statistic that people working in farming, fishing and forestry jobs are 3.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the average U.S. worker.

This group is among the top three occupations with the highest rate of suicide in the country.

“When I found out that farmers are, unfortunately, at the top of that list, my eyes opened up to something that was not being talked about,” Vollmer said.

As president of the North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association, Vollmer said he feels it’s his responsibility to spread awareness. The association held its first session about stress and mental health at their 13th annual conference earlier this month in Winston-Salem.

Warning signs

Robin Tutor-Marcom, director of the NC Agromedicine Institute, led an interactive session on mental health warning signs and resources for farmers. In turn, some opened up about how they handle farm-related stress.

Robin Tutor, director of the Agromedicine Institute. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“Pride with a capital ‘P’ gets in the way of us talking to people,” she told her audience.

Farming can be a lonely business, she said adding that communication is not weakness.

“It takes a very strong person to say what’s on their mind,” she said.

A few in the room said they rely heavily on their faith and take their problems to God in prayer.

“Other than God, who could you talk to or who might you need to be talking to?” Tutor-Marcom asked.

She talked about the importance of communicating with family regularly. She told a story of a farmer who didn’t tell his family about his farm’s financial problems until it was going to auction.

She suggested family gatherings and group emails.

“If you’re going to talk, be honest with yourself and who you are talking to,” Tutor-Marcom said. “Hard business decisions might have to be made. Modern farming can be more complicated. So reach out and ask for help.”

She told the farmers to be aware of those around them and watch for warning signs, such as an increase in a life insurance policy, giving away possessions, or someone saying, “my family will be better off without me.”

There are hotlines available for NC farmers in crisis. Find the phone numbers here.

“Your family will never be better off without you,” she said. “Generations later, your family will mourn you if you chose not to stay with them.”

‘Tape and twine’

Tutor-Marcom is familiar with farm life. She was raised on one, and she has two sons in the industry. One is a hog producer, the other a cattleman.

In a recent article for the North Carolina Medical Journal, Tutor-Marcom recounted a time she felt helpless when her son said, “times like these will make you think of doing things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

The Agromedicine Institute receives requests for help with behavioral health issues daily. The number of requests is increasing due to the difficult economics of farming, deteriorating public relations, and weather issues, Tutor-Marcom wrote in the article.

Since 2017, cattle prices have dropped 13 percent, pork is down 7 percent, and vegetable prices are down 10 percent. All of these are expected to drop even more in the coming year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Producer Price Index.

“Multi-million dollar judgments in nuisance hog farm lawsuits are crippling multi-generational farms,” Tutor-Marcom wrote. “Dairy farms have operated at or below costs for years and now are being told that their contracts are being withdrawn.”

Then Hurricane Florence blew in and created $1.1 billion in farm losses on the heels of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Resiliency is low and stress is building.

As a result, the Agromedicine Institute has developed a “tape and twine” initiative, or rather, talking about what cannot be fixed with tape and twine.

“Because farmers think they can fix anything with bailing twine and duct tape,” Marcom-Tutor said.

“We want to give them the tools they need to deal with their stress,” she said, noting there’s been an increased awareness about the mental health of farmers since the last hurricane. “There’s so much we can’t take away, but they need tools to be able to cope with it.”

Russ Vollmer has faced some stressful times in the North Carolina farm industry, and now is becoming a voice for mental health awareness. Photo credit: courtesy of Vollmer Farm

The NC Farm Bureau has held several meetings in the eastern part of the state and brought people to talk about farm finances and stress. And Marcom-Tutor has worked to create a collective effort between the Bureau, the Agromedicine Institute and N.C. State University and its county extension offices.

A number of groups across the state have asked Marcom-Tutor to give the “Tape and Twine” presentation. She’s meeting with farm insurance agents, the dairy council and cattlemen groups.She also received some requests after her talk at the Agritourism conference.

Vollmer, the farmer from Franklin County, said he’s talked with a friend who conducts farm auctions who said it’s going to be a busy year.

“After Florence, many are at the end of their rope. It can be difficult because, for many, this is the only job they’ve ever done,” Vollmer said.

Security in diversity

Vollmer manages to pad his farm’s income with agritourism, festivals, events and farm stays. He holds a blueberry music festival in June, a YMCA event in April and school tours around pumpkin season.

Most recently, he and his fiance are working to open a farm-to-table restaurant, using produce from the Vollmer Farm.

“Diversification has become extremely important to create any kind of security, as much as one can have in the agriculture business,” he said.

North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association membership has grown over 50 percent in the last two years, he said. Farmers come to learn the logistics of creating and maintaining agritourism on their farm.

“As farm families are faced with certain realities, what they’re finding out is that they cannot continue to rely on tobacco, corn, soybeans or cotton, or whatever it is that has done the heavy lifting on their farm,” Vollmer said.

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...