In 2019, 18% of respondents to a farm bureau survey said feeling isolated affected their mental health “a lot.” In 2020, as the pandemic raged on, the figure jumped to 41%.

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When COVID-19 first hit, Illinois farmers Adrienne and Drew DeSutter weren’t sure how the pandemic would affect their lives. Farmers already deal with a lot of uncertainty and lead isolated lives, they said.

But the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated farmers’ feelings of isolation, according to a recent survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation. The percentage who said social isolation affects farmers’ mental health jumped more than 20% in 2020 compared to 2019.

COVID-19 took away some of the only outlets farmers have for interacting with others, such as religious gatherings and farm bureau meetings.

“What we experienced in my own home is that, even though our day-to-day life didn’t change as much, we’ve lost nearly all of our non-isolating events,” said Adrienne DeSutter, who lives outside of Galesburg. “So not only do we have this added stress of uncertainty, but now we don’t even get to go to those stress-alleviating things.”

Her husband agreed.

“Those (farm bureau) meetings are kind of a way for me to get out and be around other people that aren’t family members, that aren’t coworkers,” he said. “When you don’t have that access, I think you can feel even more isolated.”

Drew DeSutter, right, and his wife Adrienne talk over coffee in the couple's kitchen at the family farm in New Windsor, Illinois. STEVE DAVIS for The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Morning Consult conducted the survey for the national farm bureau in December, and the results were released in January. It sampled 2,000 rural adults, farmers and farmhands, asking questions about mental health and COVID-19.

In 2019, 46% of farmers said isolation affected their mental health either “some” or “a lot.” In 2020, that number was 68%, according to the survey.

The jump really stood out to Ray Atkinson, a spokesman for the farm bureau federation.

“Farmers spend a lot of time alone on the farm, working in isolation, (from) early in the morning before the sun comes up until late at night when it’s down,” he said. “So I think that’s a really significant finding.”

Atkinson said the consequences of the pandemic — such as the closing of restaurants and schools, big customers of farms — challenged farmers.

“If you had a processing plant that processes mozzarella cheese for restaurants and those shut down because the restaurants shut down, now those farmers are dumping milk and they have no place for their product to go,” he said.

Farmers already experienced a great deal of stress. According to the survey, the top four factors affecting mental health for rural adults are financial issues, fear of losing the farm, an uncertain future and the state of the farm economy.

Experts said other stressors include unpredictable weather and markets and the fact that farming is a lifestyle, not just a business. The work comes with constant family interaction that can lead to family and marital strain.

But the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer to the stress.

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According to the survey, 66% of farmers said the coronavirus has affected their mental health, while about half of rural adults did. Farmers experienced nervousness or anxiety more often than rural adults during the pandemic, according to the survey.

Curtis Harms, who comes from a long line of Illinois farmers, said he’s also struggled with seclusion brought on by the pandemic.

Diagnosed with depression, Harms credited an Agriculture Leaders of Tomorrow meeting last year with helping him become more comfortable talking about it. When he shared what he was going through, people’s faces flashed with recognition, he said.

“We all deal with stress and some of us deal with it better than others. But it’s a lot more common than most people think and I think that’s what happens to stigma too,” he said. “Everybody feels like, ‘Well, I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to be the weird person,’ when in all likelihood, you talk to three other people and at least one other person is going to feel the same way you do.”

According to the survey, 75% of rural adults said that mental health is very important, a 6% increase from 2019.

Also, 87% of farmers said it’s important to reduce the stigma around mental health in agriculture, and 59% said it’s very important.

For those currently struggling through the pandemic, Drew DeSutter wants them to know that getting help is a sign of strength, not a weakness. The survey shows that a third of rural adults have personally sought help for mental health.

“They’re not alone by any means, there are a lot of people who struggle with it,” he said. “Seeking out help in my book is not a weakness. It’s being able to recognize that there’s an issue and get help. That to me is more powerful.”