In June 1991 a four-person panel of representatives of their fields presented their insights about sustainable agriculture and sustainable mental health during the annual conference of the National Association for Rural Mental Health (NARMH) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A summary of the panelists’ remarks was published in 1992 in Rural Community Mental Health, the official journal of the NARMH at the time.*

Let’s look at what was said, with an eye to whether sustainable agriculture and mental health have changed during the past 30 years. Here are the remarks of the panelists in 1991: Mr. Paul Johnson, Dr. Gordon Bultena, Mr. Jim Chrisinger, and myself.

Paul Johnson, a farmer and a former Iowa legislator who authored the Iowa Clean Water Act in the 1970s, began the panel discussion. He described sustainable agriculture “as working with the land and other resources rather than exploiting them to maximize production.”

Johnson explained, “Sustainable agriculture techniques include intensive crop rotation and management, use of on-farm inputs including farm-produced fertilizer and family labor, intensive cultivation instead of herbicides and pesticides, a blend of crops and livestock which facilitate ecological balance, and contribution of the family members to the community in which they live.”

He added, “Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, tends to focus on maximization of profitability. Conventional farmers increasingly rely on technology to enable them to farm more land at minimum cost and with maximum output.”

Dr. Gordon Bultena, an Iowa State University Professor of Rural Sociology who is now deceased, reported the results of surveys that he conducted with his colleague, Dr. Eric Hoiberg, of 1,236 Midwestern farmers, and which compared conventional and sustainable farmers. Conventional farmers managed 637 acres on average and owned 42 percent of the land they farmed, while sustainable agricultural practitioners operated 391 acres, of which they owned 52 percent.

The researchers found that sustainable farmers were more accepting of risks than conventional farmers and were more likely to be influenced by environmental and health considerations in their farming methods than conventional farmers. A cohort of 120 conventional Iowa farmers and 116 sustainable farmers indicated that “68 percent of the sustainable farmers viewed their methods of farming as increasing their satisfaction” while “18 percent of conventional farmers anticipated increased satisfaction from their farming methods.”

Sustainable farmers considered that possible lower production from their methods was more than offset by improved physical health, reduced job stress, more challenging and satisfying work activities, and more satisfying family and community relations.

Sustainable farmers also were more likely to have one or more of their children continue in the farming operation than were the conventional farmers.

Jim Chrisinger, an attorney and former Assistant to the Director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University, offered the perspective of a policy development specialist. As a Foreign Service officer in Czechoslovakia before it split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Chrisinger led post-communist economics and agribusiness projects in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for Iowa State University.

Chrisinger observed, “Sustainable agriculture and other responses to increased environmental regulation must show that changing farming practices will, in some way ‘pay,’ as well as protect the environment. Environmental impacts must be valued and incorporated into analytical systems which can quantitatively describe the benefits and risks of adopting sustainable agriculture practice.”

As the last presenter and the discussion moderator, my summary included the following:
1) Research affirmation of the claimed health benefits of sustainable farming practices is needed: 2) Individual sustainable farmers, neighbors, and entire communities are likely to develop increased public confidence in sustainable agriculture products; 3) It is beneficial for rural mental health providers to become informed of the benefits of sustainable agricultural practices because sustainable agriculture offers important information for rural community life, and 4) Mental health care providers and planners need to become aware of these benefits.

How have sustainable agriculture and sustainable mental health networks changed since the 1991 panel presentation, if at all? Here is a summary:

  • The term, organic farming, has largely replaced sustainable farming
  • Yields of organic crops compare favorably with conventional crop methods; for example, organic soybean production usually exceeds conventional farming methods by about 2 bushels per acre
  • Conventional farmers produce about 10 percent more corn per acre than organic farmers, mostly because of heavy applications of nitrogen, phosphate, and liquid or dry manure
  • Recent research in the UK and the US indicate that substantial portions of off-farm fertilizers, as well as surface-applied manure that lack binding substances such as straw, dissipate into the air or waterways during spring runoff and heavy rains
  • The movement toward organic farming is speeding up, mostly fueled by consumer demand, but also by conventional farmers seeking alternative methods of production
  • Organic crop and livestock producer meetings, such as the Practical Farmers of Iowa, have become so popular that their attendance often exceeds that of the annual meetings of organizations geared primarily to conventional farmers
  • The behavioral health of the agricultural population has become recognized as critically important to the majority of agricultural producers and the general population in order to achieve optimal farm production
  • Media such as farm newspapers and magazines, radio, television, and online websites have helped make talking about mental health issues okay among farmers and others
  • The term, behavioral health, is now preferred over mental health by governments, healthcare personnel, media, and the general public, thereby reducing negative stigma about seeking professional assistance when needed and discussing personal issues more openly
  • More behavioral health resources tailored for farm people are available than 30 years ago
  • The federal Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is one such resource because it facilitates state and local farm crisis telephone helplines, counseling services that are paid for like an Employee Assistance Plan, community workshops about managing farm stress, and trains professionals who serve farmers, such as USDA
  • Farm Service Agency staff, state Extension employees, and licensed counselors in psychology and related disciplines to assist distressed farmers effectively
    Many young educators and providers of services to farmers are choosing careers that help agricultural producers

Dr. Hoiberg summarized his observations: There are significant changes that are worthy of restudy over time, such as changing societal norms and values that impact agricultural practices, environmental impacts, and mental health. He added, “Using longitudinal methods to investigate the dynamics of a changing agriculture and changing society seems appropriate.”

In conclusion, it’s fair to say that sustainable farming and sustainable mental health networks have evolved significantly over the past 30 years.

*The official journal of the NARMH now is the Journal of Rural Mental Health; it is managed and published by the American Psychological Association.