Feeding the World – and Feeling Despair
Editor’s note: The tragic news last week of suicides by creative celebrities Kate Spade and Andrew Bourdain captured headlines and emotions. But despair does not discriminate. Storyboard contributor Julia Shipley offers this view into the tragedy that stalks an everyday world we all depend on but sometimes take for granted.
In 2013, journalist Debbie Weingarten was in a dark place. She was a new mother and a farmer, living in an isolated rural area, doing taxing physical work and struggling with both her marriage and family finances. These stressors, compounded by the constant needs of her baby and her crops, fueled a deepening depression. But when Weingarten googled “free counseling for farmers”— her search came up blank. She kept hunting, and stumbled across a website for a defunct agricultural mental health program. With nothing to lose, she dialed the number listed on the site. Someone answered.
On the other end of the line was psychologist Dr. Mike Rosmann, who for the past 40 years has been fielding calls from thousands of farmers in duress.
What started with one farmer’s frantic search for help became a multi-year investigative project for Weingarten, who eventually left her marriage and her farm and began writing. In December 2017, the Guardian US published “Why Farmers Are Killing Themselves in Record Numbers” – an intimate feature that exposes the global prevalence of farmer suicides. The story prompted an outpouring of comments, which led to a follow-up story about the widespread response and to new legislation to support mental health services for farmers in crisis.
Recently Weingarten and her collaborator, photographer Audra Mulkern, founder of the Female Farmer project, received honorable mention from the National Press Foundation for this story.
Despite the embrace of the published story, Weingarten had trouble interesting editors in the idea. The local food movement was booming – and along with it, apparent interest in the world of farming and farmers. Yet Weingarten pitched her story to multiple outlets for more than two years, with no success, until it was championed by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit founded by activist and modern muckracking journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.
The nonprofit funded Weingarten’s reporting trips to Kansas and Iowa, and helped place the story with the Guardian for their co-published “On the Ground” series.
Read the full article here.