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Encore: Farm Workers Far More Likely to Die of Suicide, Why?

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A century farm in Polk County, Iowa

In January of 2011 when Ginnie Peters retired from the Perry Public Library, she was looking forward to spending more time with her husband, Matt, but she never really got the chance.

He died of suicide in May of that year.  “One day he told me he had torment in his head, and then the next day he was gone," she says. 

The two farmed 1500 acres between Perry and Panora, Iowa for most of their lives. Today, Peters blames the stress of planning for the future of her husband’s century farm for what happened. 

One day he told me he had torment in his head, and then the next day he was gone. - Ginnie Peters

Michael Rosmann, a psychologist based in Harlan, Iowa, has been working with farmers like Peters' husband in Iowa since the 1980’s when the farm crisis caused a spike in agricultural worker suicides, domestic violence and homicide on farms. He says stories like Peters' are not as uncommon.

Recent research by Wendy Ringgenberg, who has analyzed Occupational Safety and Health Administration data as it pertains to agricultural workers and violence, confirms that. According to OSHA data for the last 19 years, agricultural workers are 3.6 times more likely to die of suicide than workers in other professions. 

It's not surprising that there is a higher suicide rate among farmers, Ringgenberg says, but the fact that they are nearly 4 times more likely to die of suicide is. "I think this brings home the point that there is a real issue here. We need to look at this much more in depth." 

In addition to working with farmers, Rosmann farms corn and soybeans and says that increased rate of suicide has to do with a list of complex cultural factors as well as what he calls the “agrarian imperitive,” the idea that people who are engaged in farming have a special connection to the land. In the 1980's he worked with other states to set up supports for farmers, but the funding for those supports have since dried up.

This hour on Talk of Iowa, Rosmann and Ringgenberg talk with host Charity Nebbe about life on the farm and the unique set of stressors that go along with a farming lifestyle. Ginnie Peters also shares her story. 

Ginnie Peters talks about her late husband. Then, Michael Rosmann and Wendy Ringgenberg talk with host Charity Nebbe about why farm workers are more than 3 times more likely to die of suicide than the general population.

This show originally aired on June 16, 2014. 

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa