Credit: George Danby | BDN

We owe much to our farm families, particularly for dedicating their lives to ensuring we have access to safe, secure, affordable and nutritious food, while at the same time protecting the environment and our precious natural resources.

But producing the harvest we enjoy is extremely challenging. Roadblocks that farmers face in order to get their products from the field to the consumer are often out of their control, including extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, trade barriers that limit or eliminate foreign markets, cost of inputs measured against return on investment, lack of farm labor due to government policies, rapidly changing consumer demands and the need for an off-farm job for supplemental income and health insurance.

These external pressures, coupled with geographical and social isolation, and lack of health insurance coverage and diminished access to mental health care professionals give way to increased financial, legal, mental and physical stress. Chronic psychological stress, if not properly treated, can lead to increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

Additionally, farming is a profession with high risk for injuries, which can lead to prescription opioid use. In a recent study commissioned by the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union, 77 percent of farmers said they could easily get opioids without a prescription, and 75 percent reported being directly affected by opioid misuse, addiction or overdose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses of opioids in rural areas have surpassed those in urban areas. The CDC also reports that suicide rates among farmers is twice that of the general population.

Our nation’s farmers are indispensable, and it is incumbent upon each of us as consumers of food and other agricultural products to ensure that their health is maintained. We need to explore actions that could be taken by individuals, communities, organizations and even by policymakers to prevent or mitigate negative impacts on the farming population.

Just this past year, faculty and staff within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland developed and published a robust series of web-based tools and guides through the University of Maryland Extension program focused on farming communities to help reduce economic stress, to address legal issues that may arise and to recognize when distress may lead to depression and possibly thoughts of suicide. UME also was recently awarded $1 million to lead a statewide effort to combat the opioid epidemic throughout rural Maryland, strengthening the ability of rural communities to recognize, understand and respond to opioid misuse and other mental and behavioral health issues helping to curb youth susceptibility to substance abuse.

We are taking a very proactive approach to educate our farm families and rural citizens about signs of excessive distress that can incapacitate an individual and to guide them in accessing support and help when these signs appear. We owe so much of our future to our farmers and their families, and we must ensure they have access to resources to stay physically and mentally healthy. As educators and researchers, we are committed to ensuring the sustainability of a robust agricultural system in Maryland and throughout the US.

Craig Beyrouty is dean and director of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.