To say harvest conditions were difficult in 2019 for some western Canadian potato producers would be an understatement. The total unharvested potato acres last year in Canada was just under 20,300. Cold, wet conditions followed by snow meant approximately 84 per cent of those unharvested acres were located in Manitoba and Alberta, where about 13,000 and 4,000 acres, respectively, were left in the ground (Market News, page 50).
This is the second year Manitoba potato growers — mainly in the Portage la Prairie and Carberry regions — have had to abandon part or all of their potato crops because of challenging weather conditions. In 2018, 5,300 acres went unharvested in that province. That same year, P.E.I. growers left 6,800 acres in the ground and the total unharvested acres in Canada was more than 16,000.
Terence Hochstein, executive director for the Potato Growers of Alberta, believes this is the right time to address an issue most farmers are uncomfortable talking about. He says losses of this magnitude can be devastating for producers and their families as financial obligations create unimaginable stress on the family unit and can put the mental health of those individuals in jeopardy.
This problem is compounded by attitudes both within and outside the agricultural industry. For example, farmers are perceived as “rough and tough” types with the “world at their feet,” says Hochstein.
“Most do not understand without a crop we do not eat, we do not pay our bills, and we aren’t able to do things for our families. The stress of it is causing many families to seriously consider if it’s all worth it. The people that are closest to you are the ones that take the brunt of the impact — your family, your spouse, your children.”
Additionally, men tend to keep the problems they are facing and the stress they are enduring to themselves, he says, whereas women are having more conversations about the challenges the farming life presents.
“They are worried about their husbands, their kids and the farm, in general.”
However, there is evidence growers are starting to talk more about their lives.
Recently, Hochstein says he’s seen more producers opening up. “I’ve had a lot of conversations [with farmers] in my office, at a conference, or at their kitchen tables — not about growing crops, but just about life. They want someone to talk to and not be judged,” he says. “The weather situation doesn’t make the [farm] operation a failure, or the individual a failure.”
Knowing they aren’t alone is an important message Hochstein wants to convey to farmers. For every 10 families, there are likely seven who are experiencing stress, or are in crisis, due to the pressures and financial burden of farming, and it’s likely every farmer personally knows one family going through difficult times, says Hochstein. To deal with the emotional toll farming can take, his advice is clear.
“Reach out and talk about it. Talk to your fellow growers. Talk to your friends.”
There are also organizations growers can connect with to help them deal with the challenges of farming, as well as those issues many producers would rather not talk about, such as stress, depression and isolation.
“Ag for Life Foundation does an amazing job,” says Hochstein. “Right now, St. John Ambulance has programs for coaching for Mental Health First Aid. I hope to take the program, so I understand more both for myself and for my growers.”
The Do More Agriculture Foundation also provides resources for the mental health and well-being of Canadian producers.
All producers, at one time or another, face hardships; however, they don’t have to suffer in silence, says Hochstein.
“Just reach out. There are places to talk, people to listen. You’re not the only one.”