The success or failure of a farming operation depends hugely on the vagaries of weather and climate. For a farmer, a single intense rain event or prolonged dry period can mean a year of lost crops and income.
Climate change is expected to make the line between success and failure even more tenuous for farmers in the future. And this uncertainty about growing conditions is having a noticeable impact on farmers’ mental health, according to a recent study out of Australia’s Murdoch University.
To understand how climate change is impacting farmers’ mental wellbeing, Neville Ellis, from Murdoch University’s Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability, interviewed 22 farmers from the Australian town of Newdegate, located in the country’s southwestern corner. A self-sufficient farming community, Newdegate lies in what is known as Australia’s Wheatbelt, an area of high agricultural importance for Australia.
Since the mid-1970s, Australia’s Wheatbelt has undergone an intense period of drying, with a 20 percent decline in rainfall over the past several decades. That trend is expected to continue as climate change worsens, with Western and Southwestern Australia set to encounter hotter, drier seasons in the coming years.
After conducting the interviews, Ellis found that increasingly variable weather was having a negative impact on many farmers’ wellbeing.
“The South West [sic] of Western Australia has experienced abrupt and severe climate change in the last forty years,” Ellis said in the study’s press release. “Farmers have always worried about the weather but today that worry is becoming detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing. They feel they have less ability to exert control over their farmlands and as a result are fearful for their future.”
Uncertainty, Ellis said, seemed to be at the heart of the farmers’ concerns. According to his interviews, some farmers would check weather forecasts on their phones “up to 30 times a day” across numerous websites. Ellis also said that he talked to farmers that would track distant weather events, like storms in Africa, in the hope that those rains could potentially make their way to Australia.
According to Ellis, one subject referred to the state of farmers’ mental health as akin to seasonal affective disorder — except that instead of suffering from lack of sunlight, farmers are suffering from a lack of rain.
“The farms are more than just a business for these farmers – it’s their home, their personal history. There is no escape if they have a bad day at work,” Ellis said. “Some I talked to had become completely disengaged from the predictions and the forecasts – they shut themselves off in their properties with the curtains drawn so they wouldn’t have to face the realities outside.”
In the United States, climate change is expected to force similar shifts key agricultural regions, especially in the Midwestern Corn Belt, where climate change will likely bring longer periods of dry heat coupled with intense rains. In 2014, the USDA created seven regional “Climate Hubs” aimed at helping farmers obtain up-to-date information about climate and weather. In collaboration with other USDA agencies and land-grant universities, the Climate Hubs are working to create tools that can give farmers the most accurate and up-to-date information about impending weather and climate shifts.
“What farmers really want to know is what is going to happen in the next five to ten days,” Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture at Cornell University, told ThinkProgress. “What we’re working to do [at Cornell] is develop some online decision tools that take the long term weather data that we have, as well as the climate projections, and give farmers a tool that they can use to make more informed decisions.”