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Farmers Mentor Farmers

By John McElveen, Ed.D., M.A., Director of the Georgia Agricultural Wellness Alliance (GAWA)
GAWA is powered by Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center at Mercer University School of Medicine

One evening, multigenerational farmer Will Groover, of Bulloch County, finished his day’s work and began driving his tractor out of the field when he received a call. Idling his tractor down, he paused, took the call and listened to the voice on the other end.

That voice belonged to Heath Lynn, a farmer 13 years younger, who operates a 650-acre row crop and a 100-head cattle operation in nearby Tattnall County; this operation is based on a farm originally owned by his grandfather. He also operates a small trucking business specializing in transporting agricultural products to market for fellow farmers. Lynn reached out to Groover to get guidance on GPS-guided spraying operations and the potential impacts on peanut production. That conversation would help Lynn work through stress he was experiencing, stress that was rooted in various “what-if” scenarios running through his mind.

Such conversations occur regularly as Lynn works through the multi-faceted challenges farmers face that seem to grow in complexity each year. Groover offers his perspective and thoughts based on his own experience gained over the years.

While Groover and his brother, Clark, had the benefit of growing into farming with their father’s guidance, Lynn’s path into farming was quite different. His father had passed away when Lynn was very young, and by the time he reached sufficient age to pursue his dream of farming, his grandfather was no longer working. Lynn is a first-generation farmer for practical purposes.

Farmers without the built-in support and resources inherent in a generational farm often experience more stress. As Groover puts it, “Clark and I were blessed to have our daddy’s guidance and experience to lean on. So, I really admire someone like Heath who has the desire and passion to overcome the challenges of not just farming, but farming without family support. Because of that, I’m happy to help Heath in talking through things whenever needed.”

Stress in Georgia’s Farming Communities

Studies of stress levels experienced by farmers, farm spouses, and farmworkers show levels far exceeding those experienced by the general population. Mercer University School of Medicine Dean Jean Sumner, MD, FACP, said, “Our state farm families and rural communities are under tremendous pressure caused by innumerable challenges that include rising production costs, falling commodity prices, labor shortages, weather-related crises, insect and disease impacts, and loss of available acreage due to encroachment of non-agricultural land development. Also, the next generation of potential farmers often decide to leave the farm behind. The stresses are numerous and unrelenting. The resources needed to address these issues are often in short supply, and poor-quality health insurance among our rural populations further adds to farm stress levels.”

A 2022 study conducted by researchers at the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center (GRHIC) at Mercer University School of Medicine and the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture, surveyed over 1,650 farm owners, spouses, managers, and workers, revealed troubling results showing thoughts of suicide among farmers at levels some 4 times the general population. The results for first-generation farmers, those without a built-in familial support system, are even more troubling. Almost 60% of first-generation farmers surveyed had experienced thoughts of suicide at least once in the previous year, and almost 40% had suicidal thoughts at least monthly over the last 12 months.

Lily Baucom, of Georgia Farm Bureau and the executive director of the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture, was part of the team that conducted the study. Baucom said, “The mental health of our farmers and rural communities was already a priority for Georgia Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau in providing further support of our membership and the ag community at large. When we saw and fully considered the results of the 1,651 surveys returned, addressing farm stress and mental health impacts became even more of an organizational imperative. We let the data speak for itself, and the need to come together to address this issue as a state was undeniable.”

The 2022 study, along with studies conducted by University of Georgia researchers, revealed the need to stabilize rural health care and mental health infrastructure in farming communities. Stakeholder organizations with agriculture and health-focused missions agreed that more effort, information, education, and advocacy must be brought to bear in support of the agricultural community.

Organizations and agencies, including Mercer University School of Medicine and its Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center, Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and the Georgia Department of Agriculture, came together in late 2022 to form the Georgia Agricultural Wellness Alliance (GAWA). GAWA is housed by the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center at Mercer University School of Medicine.

Georgia Agricultural Wellness Alliance

The mission of GAWA is to foster networks of well-being in Georgia agricultural communities through collaboration, education, research, and advocacy is borne out of a vision of a safe, thriving, and healthy agricultural community in Georgia. GAWA’s intent is to connect organizational expertise and community resources in support of conversations and knowledge-sharing to destigmatize mental health challenges experienced by farmers and others in rural communities.

Jennifer Dunn, deputy assistant commissioner for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), meets with agricultural producers at production meetings held county by county. “I have had the privilege of meeting with farmers, engaging them in conversations about their experiences and stress levels,” said Dunn. “I’m always pleased to find that many of them are willing to open up about their stressors, and how they attempt to cope. The conversations are frank and very telling, and the feedback I often get is that those conversations are helpful.”

Dunn speaks of the importance of having GAWA as a connector of the broad expertise of the partnering organizations with each other and with Georgia’s farm communities. She said, “At DBHDD, our work and mission are heavily invested in the health and well-being of our state’s citizens, including farm and rural families. As we’ve seen an increase in citizens reaching out for services, such as the 988 line when experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis, collaboration and knowledge-sharing through GAWA makes perfect sense. That is why DBHDD is a committed GAWA partner.”

As part of GAWA’s plan to connect partner resources and expertise, plans are underway to initiate the formation of local GAWA groups throughout Georgia. The groups will include farming communities, physicians and health care professionals, educators, faith leaders, agribusinesses, local officials, and others interested in supporting better mental health and well-being outcomes in our rural communities.

GRHIC Executive Director Glenda Grant emphasizes the importance of local connections. “In our work in various rural communities, we see some issues that are fairly universal, but we also see issues that may be heightened within certain communities because of unique circumstances and varying degrees of available resources,” said Grant. “No one can better identify what needs exist in a community and the solutions to these challenges than those within that community.”

Additionally, GAWA plans to add more organizations, institutions and agencies who can support rural communities with their expertise and through their missions.

GAWA Director John McElveen said, “The myriad of challenges surrounding mental health and well-being in our unique farming communities and populations call for the support and knowledge that many different organizations can bring to bear. There is a lot of room at this table for those willing to help.”

Lynn said he is glad that organizations like GAWA are working on these issues and people are talking about them. He thinks of farmers who have taken their lives and wonders if it might have been different if they could have talked with someone about what they were going through. Regarding his regular conversations with Will Groover, he said, “These conversations mean a lot to me. I have been doing this [farming] a while now but having someone with even more experience that is willing to listen to me, help me figure out what to do, when, why, or why not — well, that is not something you can put a price tag on. We talk out markets, commodity price fluctuations, crop insurance, which vendors to use, labor costs, you name it. There is no doubt these conversations help me do better and feel better about things.”

For his part, Groover said the conversations with Lynn are two-way streets and that he gets something useful from every conversation between them and with others. Groover said, “I have some fellow farmers I call on regularly to get advice. The conversations I have with Heath might be paying that back in a way.”

For more information about the Georgia Agricultural Wellness Alliance, visit, Call 706.223.5170, or email the Director of GAWA, John McElveen, at