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Women working in agriculture is nothing new. The industry would disintegrate without them. But now, in part thanks to Twitter, women are increasingly becoming the face of agriculture. They are accessible and influential on social media.
And they’re changing the way farmers look at each other and how outsiders look at farmers.
I’m Carrie Tait, a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Calgary bureau, and a Saskie farm kid. I first tuned into Farm Twitter because it reminds me of my roots. I follow farmers from my hometown to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the ‘hood. Pictures of tractors stuck in the mud crack me up. Photos of burned out combines break my heart.
But the most fascinating part of Farm Twitter, to me, revolves around a slice of life I never experienced as a kid: Farmers, ranchers, livestock producers and others in the ag industry, talking about death by suicide, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.
Right there. Publicly. On Twitter. For everyone to see.
Farmers face unique stressors, often because they can’t control the variables affecting their livelihoods. Shifting global commodity prices, ever-changing trade barriers, climate change, geopolitical instability, machine breakdowns, and plant and animal disease are among a long list of worries. Gaps in rural health care mean farmers can’t always get help.
And that’s if they ask for help. The suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it approach is a key part of rural culture. There’s veneration for stoicism. It’s an attitude that keeps farmers from speaking up.
But there’s a shift happening, and it largely traces back to Kim Keller, a farmer in Saskatchewan. Her call to action, issued on Twitter in 2017 has since snowballed into The Do More Agriculture Foundation, a mental health organization for Canadian farmers with domestic and international sponsors. Lesley Kelly, another Saskatchewan farmer, joined the initial conversation, posting a video of her and her husband opening up. She talked about how she struggled mentally during a difficult pregnancy, for example. She withdrew from others. Her husband talked about his anxiety, sleep deprivation, and the difficulties of being away from his wife and family in the busy seasons.
When Keller posted her initial Twitter thread, she received a private message from then-Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall. The result: A meeting with Lyle Stewart, who was then Saskatchewan’s minister in charge of agriculture. They discussed ways the government could provide support and spread the word about a crisis hotline for farmers.
Last fall, Kelly testified before the standing committee on Agriculture and Agri-food hearings on farmers and mental health. She detailed the stress farmers face, the difficulties they have in accessing help, the shortage of research when it comes to farming and mental health, among other problems.
The committee has since recommended the federal government take action, by funding nationwide mental-illness programs for farmers.
I dropped in on Twitter’s #DoMoreAg a few weeks ago for a story about the mental-health crisis on Canadian farms. The scope of the movement jumped out at me.
Michelle Jones, a fourth generation farmer in Broadview, Mont., tweeted a tearful video of herself last month discussing anxiety and financial stress while standing in a field of winter wheat. She tagged it with #DoMoreAg, the go-to hashtag for farmers discussing mental health. Hundreds of farmers around the world replied with offers of support, counselling suggestions, and stories about their own mental health struggles. Canada, the U.S., Australia – It doesn’t matter. #DoMoreAg has become the international meeting place for farmers to discuss what was once a hush-hush topic.
“Ag Twitter [in the U.S.] tends to use that hashtag when we’re talking about mental health,” Ms. Jones said in an interview.
Farmers are using their prominence to draw attention to other issues.
Ms. Jones, a past president of the Montana Grain Growers, has a small Twitter following, but her expertise is fuelling her rise. She was a guest on ABC News in early May, explaining why U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods are harmful to farmers.
Megz Reynolds, a city-girl-turned-farmer, uses Twitter to explain farming to outsiders. She first caught my eye in 2016, when she wrote on her blog (now defunct) about the difficulties she was facing as a farmer, mother, and wife. She started local, with a video of her singing in the tractor with her two small kids. She later branched out, trying to make farming understandable to urbanites.
Here’s a video of her in a field with a combine, explaining, well, how combines work. Her breakthrough came in 2017, when she posted a video chastising Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for proposed small business tax changes. She’s since spoken before the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food about the mental health crisis on Canadian farms last year. She was back in April, to discuss China’s import restrictions on Canadian canola. She’s also running to be the federal Conservative candidate in her riding.
Now Reynolds has over 20,000 followers. Twitter made her a thing. And now she’s using that power to shake up politics.
For a list of mental health resources for farmers, please visit www.domore.ag/resources
What else we’re reading:
Angela Lovell deserves props for using Farmer Barbie to draw people into a story about women and succession on family farms. Succession planning is difficult, regardless of gender. This story highlights two key points: Women are increasingly taking over the family farm and sometimes creative succession plans can boost the farm’s success. While I will never farm, I’m heartened to see daughters being included in the succession equation. Two other women you should read: Ashley Robinson covers ag for Bloomberg. She is all over China’s canola dispute with Canada. Smart – and fun – angle here on what it means for bin space. And, Karen Briere is a reporter at The Western Producer, a valuable and treasured publication for Canadian farmers. Here’s a biggie on a fight over drainage. No, really, it is interesting.
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