“Farming can be stressful even in the best of times,” said Leilani Carlson, Maine AgrAbility coordinator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
MAINE, US – Financial worries, unpredictable weather conditions and isolation make farming a tough job, but COVID has created another layer of stress for farm workers in Maine, especially if they are disabled.
“Farming can be stressful even in the best of times,” Leilani Carlson, Maine Agrability coordinator at the cooperative extension of the University of Maine, said.
When these problems are added to existing physical or emotional barriers in the industry, anxiety and stress levels increase, according to Carlson.
“Without support, this stress can lead to depression and further health problems,” she said.
Maine AgrAbility is a non-profit collaboration of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Alpha One, a group that helps promote the independence of people with disabilities.
Maine AgrAbility worked with UMaine Extension Farm Coaching to produce this video to help farmers find solutions to challenges they may face.
“A healthy farm is nothing without a healthy farmer,” Carlson said.
Dr Leslie Forstadt is a human development specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. She said the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently gave Maine a large grant to help farmers and other farm workers reduce stress that affects mental health.
This money is used to help farmers access advice, preventive services and interventions such as the purchase of hearing aids.
The Maine Farmer Resource Network asked farm workers how COVID affected their stress levels.
The results of the third COVID survey among farmers found the following:
The survey showed that 74% of respondents reported increased stress during the growing season compared to the previous year. And the main stressors were changes in the market due to COVID at 63%, drought or other weather events at 73%, and changes in farm income and expenses due to COVID at 48%.
And that stress worsens the typical winter blues of Maine farmers every cold season.
The same survey found that 46% of Maine farmers who responded said their farm incomes had declined in 2020 compared to the previous year.
Richard Brzozowski is the Food System Program Administrator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“Farmers always seem to be optimistic. However, winters in Maine are long and cold. The days are short. Farmers are likely affected, but they rarely show it. Farmers try to stay busy to prepare for the next growing season. “said Brzozowski.
And for anyone who thinks farmers don’t work in the winter, Carlson has set the record straight.
“Agriculture doesn’t stop in winter. Animals still need to be fed, chores over, [and] fences repaired, ”she said.
And to stay safe while accomplishing these tasks during the winter months, Maine AgrAbility has implemented a list of 10 tips for farmers. Top of the list? Dress like an onion and be pragmatic about the length of certain tasks and chores.
A simple task in hot weather can be greatly affected by snow and ice.
For farmers, fishermen, forestry workers and other farm workers who face a barrier or handicap in their profession, Carlson said Maine AgrAbility provides recommendations and links to resources that can help workers free of charge.
To learn more about Maine AgrAbility, Click here.
Forstadt said she wanted Mainers to remember that farming is a profession.
“People have incredible skills and knowledge,” she said. Likewise, people working on farms are training for a trade, and it can be stressful when the situation does not promote the well-being of an individual.
Robin Beck is a disabled shepherd in Livermore Falls. She has been on her current farm since 2011.
She and his wife are the keepers of Rockin ‘Sheep Farm.
Beck said she suffered from debilitating arthritis in her hands, fingers and knees. And the cold, wet weather takes a toll on her joints when she tries to do her job.
Rolling a wheelbarrow through snow and ice is totally different from the warmer seasons.
“It makes the job very difficult. It wears you out a lot faster,” she said.
The Shepherd said COVID has made it increasingly difficult to access doctors.
“It’s a little scary, you know? ” she said. “You have to wait a few months to see an orthopedic surgeon take care of you. They are slammed.”
Beck said his wife’s knee surgery was scheduled for December but was delayed.
On top of that, farming has one of the highest injury rates of any career, Beck said. She listed as examples cut fingers, falls, tractor crashes and more during the very cold Maine winter.
“With emergency rooms once again overrun with COVID and EMSs too busy or sick, what does a farmer do when they need emergency care? ”
A source of help? Agrability.
“I’m lucky. I have good resources with AgrAbility and the USDA,” she said. “They are helping me compile the equipment I need.”
Beck said she was 57 and still had years of farming ahead of her.
What most people might not realize about shepherds is that they take care of their own animals a lot, especially hoof care.
“I am very lucky. I have a vet who comes once a year,” she said. Other times, Beck said, she can call the vet and get advice on how to handle certain issues. Beck has to prepare his own medicines and syringes, which is difficult with his hands.
His sheep need their hooves trimmed every month. Maine has a lot of grass and soft turf so their hooves grow much faster. Then there is the shearing of his sheep, which happens once or twice a year.
Beck said she was lucky Maine had talented sheep shearers.
But when Beck has to shear his own sheep, his disability makes it difficult. The shears weigh a lot and the vibrations can cause problems with his joints.
“It’s not a small, lightweight tool. It’s quite taxing for you,” she said.
Fortunately, programs like AgrAbility are available to help farmers like Beck. She said AgrAbility could come to a farm and watch a farmer work, then make suggestions on how it would be easier to manage the tasks. The program can also help find affordable equipment.
“The most important thing, you have to know your resources and what is available to help you,” she said.
The Vocational Rehabilitation Division also helped Beck, she said, by setting her up with a business plan manager when she started operating the farm. This helped her with the equipment and allowed her to post signs for the farm so people could come and buy her produce.
She said, “These are great resources for everyone, but especially for farmers.