What stresses farmers in Guam, CNMI and FSM? Report on farm stress released
By Pacific Island Times News Staff
Besides the physical fatigue after spending long hours in the field under the sun, agricultural workers also have to confront mental stress.
As a farmer, Johsper Nedlick Jr. constantly worries about the growth of crops, or whether they will survive or not.
“Sometimes we lose most of our crops due to diseases or bacteria,” said Nedlick, an agricultural technician in the hydroponics center at the College of Micronesia-Federated States of Micronesia.
Farm-related stress is often overlooked because farmers don’t often articulate their concerns, experts said.
“The perception is that farmers stay really calm and cool, but in actuality, our farmers are more stressed than that,” said Don McMoran, who first envisioned and now leads Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program or WRASAP as the Skagit County extension director at Washington State University. “I’ve seen it in my own community, and I wanted to be proactive in making sure that agriculture-related suicides do not happen anywhere.”
Grieving the death of a family member or friend, crop and plant diseases and financial worries are the top stressors among farm workers surveyed on Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Federated States of Micronesia. For producers, the top stressors included production costs, weed and pest control, Covid-19, finances and family.
“Farming is really high-risk work, and farmers do not really talk about their spirits too much, especially their stress level, so we really want to bring this awareness to our region,” said Dr. Kuan-Ju Chen, an agricultural economist at the University of Guam and lead of the Farmer Focus Project.
First-time data on farmer stress in Guam, the CNMI and the FSM has been quantified in a set of reports released in June, which summarize the responses of 161 farm workers and 216 farmers from the survey areas.
The National Violent Death Reporting System of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported in 2016 that farmers are one of five industry groups with the highest suicide rates, with 36 suicides per 100,000 workers.
To combat this statistic, Washington State University obtained a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to create the WRASAP and cultivate resilience among farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers in Western states and territories.
The program is carried out in the Micronesian region through the Farmer Focus Project at the University of Guam.
Of the 216 farm producers surveyed from May to October 2021, the majority — 69 percent in the Northern Mariana Islands and 80 percent in both Guam and the FSM — reported a medium level of stress. And 73 percent of farm workers across these islands, who were surveyed separately from December 2022 to March 2023, reported a medium level of stress. These percentages were calculated using the Perceived Stress Scale 10, or PSS-10, a commonly used psychological questionnaire.
“It is safe to say that folks in the ‘medium’ range could benefit from more positive coping skills in their toolbox, which can often include counseling,” said Dr. Michelle U. Grocke-Dewey, a health and wellness specialist with MSU Extension, who leads the data collection and reports for WRASAP. “Although PSS is by no means a diagnostic instrument, it does give us some insight into how individuals and perceiving their stressors as either manageable or unmanageable.”
Research from 2012 shows that higher levels on the PSS-10 have been associated with elevated markers of biological aging, higher cortisol levels, as well as suppressed immune function. Additional research shows that people who score higher on the PSS report sleeping fewer hours, skipping breakfast, and consuming greater quantities of alcohol.
To better cope with stress, farmers primarily indicated interest in educational content related to finances, succession and retirement planning, and career and relationship support. Farm workers were also interested in financial management education but additionally expressed interest in nutrition/cooking and physical activity.
In response to the survey results, the Farmer Focus Project at UOG will be holding educational conferences and trainings on a different island in the region every year. The first was held last year in Guam for some 100 farmers, farm workers, and agricultural professionals. A second conference was held in June this year on the island of Pohnpei in the FSM with 25 participants.
The conferences share take-home resources and tools, including hotline numbers for emergencies and websites with helpful resources, including AgWell.org, Utah State University’s Ag Wellness, and farmstress.us.
Additionally, 36 professionals who work with farmers in Guam and Pohnpei have been certified in Mental Health First Aid over a one-day training during the conference.
“It’s really helpful for us so we can identify if our clients are having stress in the field,” said Rickyes Ikin, who works directly with Pohnpei farmers as an assistant of the College of Micronesia-FSM extension program. “[Now], when we see the symptoms, we can ask what’s wrong and how we can help.”