Because it’s a declining industry

Rosmann, an Iowa farmer, is a psychologist and one of the nation’s leading farmer behavioral health experts. He often answers phone calls from those in crisis. And for 40 years, he has worked to understand why farmers take their lives at such alarming rates – currently, higher rates than any other occupation in the United States.

That industries decline in importance is simply a truth about our universe. As productivity rises we need fewer people to perform that task. Thus some of them must leave said production. We’re simply not going to get the world getting richer without this happening.

This doesn’t mean that it’s easy of course. People tend not to change their lives until forced to do so. And that forcing will indeed often enough include a great deal of economic pain.

There is no specific solution to this. There’s a general one, sure. The process of transition from one mode of life to another could be made easier. I’ve a great affinity for the Danish view of these things. Good unemployment pay, good training opportunities. Losing a job really isn’t all that much of a stress or a strain. Obviously, losing a business will still be stressful but it’s still not an economic wipe out.

The other part of the system is that after some period of time (maybe 2 years for Denmark?) support ceases to near nothing. Labour is made liquid – not perhaps le mot juste as it’s a bit close to Soylent – which is economically efficient. The Danish unions simply don’t whine and strike and obstruct about job losses as a result.

There’s thus a general solution available, a support net for those who must transition. But there isn’t a specific one for farmers nor any other particular industry or line of work. Simply because we do want sectors where productivity is rising fast to have fewer people doing the stuff, assuming that there’s a limit to the demand or the actual product itself. That’s rather what economic advance is.

30 thoughts on “Because it’s a declining industry”

  1. There’s something I would council anyone. (And have, many times.Mostly to deaf ears until it’s too late.) Life is change. No matter what you do & how successful you are at doing it, you may wake up one day & find it’s gone away from you. Always have a plan for how you’d survive if it does. Plan for failure. Learn something would provide you an alternative. Deal with it now because you sure won’t be in the position to do so if the shit hits the fan.

  2. “A support net for those who must transition”.

    What –like the support the BLM has been giving Ranchers like the Bundy family and others?

    Indeed the phrase has a sinister bureaucratic ring to it. Could not Auschwitz be said to be a support net for those who “must” transition?

    The state needs to be out of farming and –ultimately–out of everything.

  3. I don’t agree that farming is a declining industry since people continue to need food.

    I imagine that part of the problem for farmers is that they have no control of the supply chain downstream from them and have to contend with an array of unquantifiable risks while working with narrow margins.

    It would be interesting to have Jim’s view.

  4. I’ve always tried to formulate a get out plan at the outset. Once you’re convinced you can handle a worst case scenario, almost anything seems doable. It helps if you are adaptable, willing to turn your hand… And that’s the problem with farming – many find it difficult if not impossible to imagine a different life/environment.

  5. this is an interesting read on the Danish model; two years of benefit stretchable to three by volunteer work, then nothing – payment is £2,200 or so per month or 90% of your peak salary in the previous period, whichever is lower

    I heard a story about a guy working for a large US oil company during that last major oil price downturn. He got laid off and went to claim unemployment, and the local rules were that you got generous benefits for three months, then zip. The argument ran that three months is enough to find a job, any job, that will keep food on the table and allow you to look for something better. So he, a highly qualified and experienced geologist, took a job as a night clerk in a 7/11. In Texas, where there are many, many guns and a similarly high level of armed robbery, that’s a job with a very short life expectancy, but it was a job. Quickly got marked out as competent and promoted to day shift, then picked to manage a few stores, then more, until he eventually ended up running 7/11 across the whole southern US.

  6. Farming is an interesting one, not only is it a declining industry in terms of labour requirements, it’s also a ‘lifestyle’, which makes it very hard for those who are farmers to change to a non-farming lifestyle.

  7. The suicide rate for farmers in the UK is also well above average and I think this can be ascribed to a number of factors, but principally:

    – Access to the means: firearms, poisons, etc.
    – Isolation. Farmers tend to have a highly independent – Oh, OK. Curmudgeonly – streak; they don’t have fellow workers to bitch and moan to.
    – They have no control of their market and, to a lesser extent, their product.

  8. @Bernie G, you are so right. The get out plan is central to being able to put up with short-term crap at work, and gives you a long-term alternative. Add in the fact that it is easier to get a job if you already have one, and you have a happier life.

    The alternative is to suffer until you break and quit, and then become jobless and probably unemployable.

  9. Suicide is usually the result of chronic depression. “Access to the means” is silly; all adults have access to means. And the means is secondary, following the decision to kill ones self.

    The problem is chronic depression, not things.

  10. @Gamecock

    Is there not evidence that access to means is correlated with suicide rate? It would be logical – it reduces the “cost” of an attempt (reduces psychological barriers) and makes successful attempts more likely. I seem to recall that even among doctors, suicide rates are higher among those specialties with easiest access to or knowledge of the drugs – or is this an urban myth?

  11. MBE

    I wouldn’t buy that for a second.

    Sure, I could accept some valid correlation where stupidity or some similar factor was involved. But otherwise, does it really pass the smell test?

    And the follow up “two packet” thing – which nut job really thought that was a plausible control!

  12. The suicide rate for farmers in the UK is also well above average and I think this can be ascribed to a number of factors, but principally:

    Also, the weight of family history. If a piece of land and the farmhouse has been in the home for generations, continuing it is a heavy burden indeed. It’s why a lot of farmers where I grew up tried (often unsuccessfully) to persuade their sons not to go into farming. Back when I was a kid there was a radio programme based on this book about a tragic murder-suicide in a Devon farm, that came about because the family was about to lose a farm that had been with them for generations.

  13. Quickly got marked out as competent and promoted to day shift, then picked to manage a few stores, then more, until he eventually ended up running 7/11 across the whole southern US.

    That’s why taking even a shit job is worthwhile: down at this level competence is in rare supply, and you’ll be plucked out and promoted within hours.

  14. Philip Scott Thomas

    MBE –

    You’re right. The suicide rate in the UK dropped dramatically after the switchover from coal gas to natural gas. Overall it dropped by a third. I’ve seen other references that claimed that amongst males in particular it halved.


  15. “The argument ran that three months is enough to find a job, any job, that will keep food on the table and allow you to look for something better.”

    How I wish that culture held in the UK. I’ve been turned down for yet another keeps-food-on-the-table job because I’m overqualified.

  16. Bloke in North Dorset

    Suicide, especially amongst young men, can be impulsive and easy access to guns or poisons can mean that they are more likely to be successful, which leads to the higher figures.

    This paper was referenced in something I was listening to:

    The scientific study of suicide has partly been an effort to erase myths. Perhaps the biggest fallacy is that suicides are typically long-planned deeds. While this can be true—people who attempt suicide often face a cascade of problems—empirical evidence suggests that they act in a moment of brief but heightened vulnerability.

    “One of the things that got me interested in launching the Means Matter campaign was that I had been reading through thousands of thumbnail sketches of suicide deaths, to see if a reporting system we were testing was catching the feel for the case,” says Barber. “I started noticing that, jeez, this death happened the same day that the kid was arguing with his parents, or that the young man had just broken up with his girlfriend, or that the middle-aged guy had gotten word that the divorce papers had come through. That reactivity surprised me, because I’d always pictured suicide as being a painful, deliberative process, something that was getting worse and worse, escalating until finally you’ve got it all planned out and you do it. It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be a cop arguing with his wife, and in the midst of the argument, pulling out his gun and killing himself.”

    This impulsivity was underscored in a 2001 study in Houston of people ages 13 to 34 who had survived a near-lethal suicide attempt. Asked how much time had passed between when they decided to take their lives and when they actually made the attempt, a startling 24 percent said less than 5 minutes; 48 percent said less than 20 minutes; 70 percent said less than one hour; and 86 percent said less than eight hours. The episodic nature of suicidal feelings is also borne out in the aftermath: 9 out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive do not go on to die by suicide later. As Miller puts it, “If you save a life in the short run, you likely save a life in the long run.”

  17. Bloke in North Dorset

    On the topic of welfare and work, in ’60s and early ’70s UK unemployment benefits were quite generous for the first 12 months, something like 80% of salary IIRC, and it was dependent on how you lost your job.

    I met a number of Sgts when I joined the Army who’d left for a year, lived on the benefits, and then joined up again without loss of seniority. At least one had done it on purpose to get a long holiday.

  18. down at this level competence is in rare supply, and you’ll be plucked out and promoted within hours

    Leaving school I got a summer job at Woolworth’s in Rochdale, in the warehouse bit – storing stuff, unpacking it & moving it to the shop floor. The guy who ran the warehouse went off on holiday after a week and the deputy manager of the shop put me in charge for the fortnight he was away. The other warehouse guys seemed happy enough with the arrangement. No ambition there…

  19. There’s a pair of 19th century census entries for my father’s family that struck us. In one my ancestor was recorded as “farmer”. In the next, as “farmer and landed proprietor”. We guess (we haven’t checked) that he’d been a tenant farmer who’d then bought his farm from the Big Hoose.

    Happily the family got out of farming long ago. Though as a lad I still enjoyed walking through fields of cows or visiting pig styes. Genetic, probably.

    I also enjoyed peering in at the slaughterhouse. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t become a vet or a doctor.

  20. Take a bottle of aspirin. You’re done.

    Run your car in your garage with the door closed. You’re done.

    Hiding tools doesn’t treat chronic depression.

  21. Farming in Western European countries is a declining industry. The idea that Ma & Pa and their 250 acres could be the cutting edge of food production in economies that spend as much on bottled water as the entire profits of the agricultural sector is ludicrous (if you take out subsidies UK farm profits are about 2bn/pa, the UK bottled water market is worth £2.4bn. Ok thats comparing sales with profits, but you get the drift).

    Farmings not a big deal in countries like the UK. Mainly because there aren’t the economies of scale possible abroad, the weather isn’t conducive either (while temperate its entirely unpredictable), and being a small highly populated country means that rules and regulations are always going to be imposed by the majority on an industry that is nothing more than an irritation really.

    Its also the case that farming globally is an incredibly competitive industry, in which all the productivity gains that occur accrue to the consumer, and none to the producer, other than for a short period of time. If someone invents a new way of doubling production that will inevitably result in a halving of the price of the produce – farm produce is largely fungible, mostly easily transported in bulk around the world, and there are multiple small producers, thus resulting in zero pricing power for each individual producer. Farmers have to deal with multinational conglomerates on both sides of their business – agricultural supply is dominated by a few large companies, who can thus dictate their pricing, and the produce is bought by large national and multinational companies who can thus drive the market price down. Its often said farming buys retail and sells wholesale, and it often feels that way. The people selling you inputs can put their prices up with impunity it seems, yet the price of wheat is the same in nominal terms it was 25 years ago.

    All of which seems to me to mean farming is just something that high cost high regulatory countries like the UK cannot do, certainly not in the way we have for the last 70 years.

  22. GC
    “Hiding tools doesn’t treat chronic depression”

    Agreed. But that isn’t the claim. Relatively few people with depression actually attempt suicide in any given year (and not all attempts are by people with chronic depression) and if tools for the desired mode of suicide are not readily available (“desired mode” is important here – lots of people do not make use of what is available to them because they find the ‘convenient’ method scary or icky or too technically demanding or just impossible to go through with) then many won’t make that final leap. The effort and period of commitment it requires, the people you’ll interact with along the way, whatever it is, something seems to prevent the impulsive mindframe at the climax of suicidal thought actually translating into an attempt.

  23. BIND’s link didn’t work but it is at and it is a surprisingly nuanced read bearing in mind it comes from public health bods who might have a hard time understanding NRA types.

    Two more relevant snippets:

    In the national debate over gun violence—a debate stoked by mass murders such as last December’s tragedy in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school—a glaring fact gets obscured: Far more people kill themselves with a firearm each year than are murdered with one. In 2010 in the U.S., 19,392 people committed suicide with guns, compared with 11,078 who were killed by others. According to Matthew Miller, associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) at Harvard School of Public Health, “If every life is important, and if you’re trying to save people from dying by gunfire, then you can’t ignore nearly two-thirds of the people who are dying.” Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S.; in 2010, 38,364 people killed themselves. In more than half of these cases, they used firearms. Indeed, more people in this country kill themselves with guns than with all other intentional means combined, including hanging, poisoning or overdose, jumping, or cutting. Though guns are not the most common method by which people attempt suicide, they are the most lethal. About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death. (Drug overdose, the most widely used method in suicide attempts, is fatal in less than 3 percent of cases.) Moreover, guns are an irreversible solution to what is often a passing crisis. Suicidal individuals who take pills or inhale car exhaust or use razors have time to reconsider their actions or summon help. With a firearm, once the trigger is pulled, there’s no turning back.

    When we think of suicide, we usually think of a desperate act capping years of torment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, complex and deep-rooted problems—such as depression and other mental disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, and a family history of suicide—often shadow victims. Suicide among males is four times higher than among females. In adults, separation or divorce raises the risk of suicide attempts. In young people, physical or sexual abuse and disruptive behavior increase vulnerability.

    The harrowing fact of suicide demands a story: “Why?” But from a public health perspective, an equally illuminating question is “How?” Intent matters, but so does method, because the method by which one attempts suicide has a great deal to do with whether one lives or dies. What makes guns the most common mode of suicide in this country? The answer: They are both lethal and accessible. About one in three American households contains a gun. The price of this easy access is high. Gun owners and their families are much more likely to kill themselves than are non-gun-owners. A 2008 study by Miller and David Hemenway, HICRC director and author of the book Private Guns, Public Health, found that rates of firearm suicides in states with the highest rates of gun ownership are 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women, compared with states with the lowest gun ownership—though the rates of non-firearm suicides are about the same. A gun in the home raises the suicide risk for everyone: gun owner, spouse and children alike.

    This stark connection holds true even when other factors are taken into account. “It was a reasonable hypothesis to think that the type of person who chooses to own a gun is different from the type of person who chooses not to. Maybe there’s a ‘go-it-alone’ attitude that leads to less help seeking. Or maybe gun owners are more likely to live in rural areas, and rural locales are associated with greater suicidality,” explains Catherine Barber, director of HICRC’s Means Matter campaign, a suicide prevention effort that focuses on the ways people attempt to take their own lives. “But when we compared people in gun-owning households to people not in gun-owning households, there was no difference in terms of rates of mental illness or in terms of the proportion saying that they had seriously considered suicide,” Barber says. “Actually, among gun owners, a smaller proportion say that they had attempted suicide. So it’s not that gun owners are more suicidal. It’s that they’re more likely to die in the event that they become suicidal, because they are using a gun.”

    A central tenet of public health is that environment shapes individual behavior. In the realm of suicide, this truth has played out dramatically in recent history. When widely used lethal means are made less available or less deadly, suicide rates by that method decline, as do suicide rates overall. In Sri Lanka, for example, where pesticides are the leading suicide method, the suicide rate fell by half between 1995 and 2005, after the most highly human-toxic pesticides were restricted. Similarly, in the United Kingdom before the 1950s, domestic gas derived from coal contained 10 to 20 percent carbon monoxide, and poisoning by gas inhalation was the leading means of suicide. A source of natural gas virtually free of carbon monoxide was introduced in 1958; over time, as carbon monoxide in gas decreased, so did the number of suicides overall—driven by a drop in carbon monoxide suicides, even as other methods increased somewhat. Changing the means by which people try to kill themselves doesn’t necessarily ease the suicidal impulse or even the rate of attempts. But it does save lives by reducing the deadliness of those attempts.

  24. jgh
    “How I wish that culture held in the UK. I’ve been turned down for yet another keeps-food-on-the-table job because I’m overqualified.”

    Don’t I know it. And also the inverse: take a keep-food-on-table job, then find your job applications declined because you are sifted out by HR based only on present job.

  25. “That’s why taking even a shit job is worthwhile: down at this level competence is in rare supply, and you’ll be plucked out and promoted within hours.” … ah, bless.

    TN – I can assure you that there’s lots of jobs where if you seem like from a graduate background or whatever, then if they ever even notice, they’ll just think you are a junkie or a schizo and there is no path to betterment. Typically, the gap between management and workers is so huge that they don’t listen and don’t notice and they know you’re doing shit work for shit money and they just want nothing to do with you other than to ensure that you get the work done. OTOH, if you are in such a position, it will soon become clear, and if you want to ‘go the extra mile’ and get noticed, then you will soon cotton on and go work somewhere where your efforts will be noticed ( lots of such places – mcdonalds being one ).

    The not listening to you can be striking, if you make a clever quip – they don’t list, if you point out something wrong – they don’t listen, if you make some intelligent observation about the job/company/market… – they don’t listen. It can be f****** grim at the bottom of the work tree.

  26. ‘lots of people do not make use of what is available to them because they find the ‘convenient’ method scary or icky’

    So put graphic pictures of suicides by firearms in the local press. It is super icky.

  27. @GC

    I don’t follow your argument. Suicide rates go up and down depending on conditions (socio-economic as well as cultural factors); this is well-established, no? For example, a curious fact about economic recessions is that they are associated with both an increase in suicide rates (yes, despite no new aids for suicide becoming magically available, simply the fact that more people are in a situation where serious thoughts of suicide occur) but also a decrease in traffic fatalities (reductions in economic activity reduce mileage travelled, hence lowering deaths on the road). The two effects often used to pretty much net each other out, though the fact that cars have become so much safer now means that the suicide effect predominates. But that’s a digression.

    Comparing Russia vs America and saying “see, no guns!” is just silly. Suicide is mult-factorial. America and Russia are different countries, different cultures, different mental health infrastructure, different family structures, different economic conditions… the apt comparison would be “Russians with guns” vs “Russians without guns”. Or “Americans with guns” vs “Americans without guns”. Which is what the studies did, and, even controlling for other variables, Americans with guns have a higher suicide rate, and this helps explain the higher suicide rates among rural Americans.

  28. @GC

    To be fair the paper you cite does support your argument. For example the paper states “People do not commit suicide because they have guns available. In the absence of fire‐ arms, people who are inclined to commit suicide kill themselves some other way.[143]”

    Now citation 143 says “See KLECK, supra note 8, at ch. 8; see also World Health Organization, supra note 43, at 3 (showing that around the world “firearms accounted for only one‐fifth of all suicides, just ahead of poisoning . . . . [s]trangulation, i.e. (hanging) was the most frequently used method of suicide”)”

    The global comparison does not seem to really prove their point with me; means of suicide vary across the world, and the fact that other means are available is not, in itself, proof that reducing access to a convenient means of suicide has no effect on suicides. (The presupposition that people will simply switch means is being treated as self-evident, but even if it is true, it is something that deserves an examination of evidence. There is evidence that suicide rates have been changed when access to potentially fatal medication and pesticides was restricted. Do guns behave in the same way or in a different way? Surely it requires research to work out, the mere existence of hanging oneself as an alternative doesn’t mean people are actually doing to do it.) I can’t read the Kleck chapter on Google Books so can’t comment on that, hopefully it has more pertinent evidence! Though the book dates from 1998, so will be missing two decades of later studies.

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