LAFA breaks new ground on farmer wellness

From left, Lennox and Addington Federation of Agriculture secretary-treasurer Tiffany Babcock-Robinson and president Leonard Austin, Cultivate Counselling Services’ Deborah Vanberkel, Ontario Federation of Agriculture member services representative Resi Walt, and TCO Agromart’s Shane Smith help launch the Lennox and Addington Farmer Wellness Program Monday. Photo by Adam Bramburger.

Adam Bramburger
Beaver Staff

A first-of-its-kind counselling program dedicating to ensuring the mental health and wellness of farmers has sprouted in Lennox and Addington County.

At a celebratory breakfast for Canada’s agriculture day at TCO Agromart, Monday, the Lennox and Addington Federation of Agriculture (LAFA) and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) introduced a new one-year pilot program to link farmers and their families with accessible, counselling services at no cost.

The idea for the Lennox and Addington Farmer Wellness Program took root when local dairy farmer Deborah Vanberkel, a 15-year counselling veteran, was called to assist a farmer in western Ontario who contemplated suicide around this time last year. She noticed a gap in services for her community.

“I had this idea: Why aren’t we offering these services to farmers?” she recalled.

Vanberkel made a call to well-connected dairy farmer Kevin MacLean, who put her in touch with LAFA secretary-treasurer Tiffany Babcock-Robinson and OFA member services representative Resi Walt. The more they talked, the more they realized there was a need that could be served. She also decided to turn away from her work with the public sector to start a business, Cultivate Counselling Services.

Statistics collected from a national survey conducted by the University of Guelph suggest that of 1,100 farmers surveyed, some 58 per cent had high levels of anxiety. Another 35 per cent met the classification for depression and 45 per cent for high stress levels. Despite those numbers, 40 per cent of the producers felt stigma about talking about their concerns with others.

According to Vanberkel, the lifestyle and culture of farming contributes. For example, 2018 was a difficult harvest for many and some farmers are still working to bring crop off their fields. Doing work in the dreary winter weather can take a toll on a farmer and eat away at mental health.

“It’s the uncontrollable events like the prices, the weather, and things that aren’t in their control. The NAFTA agreement coincided with the worst harvest in a number of years. There are fewer and fewer farmers in the industry and they still need to sustain an entire country and world, the pressures are a lot,” she said. “Isolation becomes a huge factor. When you’re working autonomously and you don’t have a lot of people around at that particular moment and you don’t have coping mechanisms it can get out of hand.”

She added farming is unlike any other profession as its “unpredictable, unconventional, and has a culture” of its own that is filled with learned behaviour and patterns of thinking.

Vanberkel said there are crisis lines available to farmers, but they only usually call when at peak crisis times. Often, the person on the other end isn’t familiar with farmers’ timelines, budgets, or even the odd occurrence in a barn that might greatly change fortunes.  She says the difference in her program is that she can visit a farmer on site, she can relate, and she can fit her service in around their chores.  The idea, she said, is to ensure that people have somewhere to turn before a crisis occurs.

“I’m the person who helps the person to maintain it. Sometimes, it’s not therapy and going back into deep, dark things, but it’s looking at what is helpful right now and asking “How can I manage right now in this time?”

Walt said when the LAFA heard about the concept, it wanted to move beyond talk to action. Initially, those federation members who sign up will be eligible for up to three sessions without cost. The sessions can be over the phone, by video or in person. The program is loosely based on one operating in Prince Edward Island, though Vanberkel said her ability to visit farms is unique to this program.

Walt said the OFA will be monitoring the success here prior to expanding elsewhere.

“Obviously the board of directors wants this to be a provincial thing. We keep underlining it’s a pilot project. We want to say ‘Here’s how it worked’ and know that it worked well. We’ll monitor how many people accessed the program and the resources you need. Then we can multiply it.”

Already, Vanberkel said people are calling her from both inside and outside of Lennox and Addington to inquire about services. One day, she hopes all farmers will be able to share in the discussion.

“My biggest thing and the reason I wanted to start this is: Why can’t we talk about mental health? Farmers have no problem talking about the weather. My goal is to have farmers talk about mental health just like they talk about the weather. It’s not a problem anywhere you go, you can always talk about the weather.”

Feedback from among the farmers and dignitaries gathered was positive. Hastings-Lennox and Addington MP Mike Bossio said “it’s needed across the country, let alone southern Ontario.”

He said rural MPs have been looking to see such a program rolled out across the country and hoped to talk to agriculture minister Lawrence Macaulay. Bossio also said he’d like to find counsellors with similar background to work alongside Vanberkel to share the load.

Greater Napanee deputy mayor Max Kaiser said the announcement was timely.

“Every time in our history has its own unique challenges and circumstance. What’s unique about ours is we’re at the mercy of social media, world trade agreements and the politics here and abroad. How food is produced is constantly being attacked by people who don’t produce food and we’re more regulated than ever before,” he said. “All of that is happening when we’re also tasked with providing the safest, most abundant supply of food at the best prices in history. Profit margins are tighter, it doesn’t matter what sector of agriculture you’re in.”

With those mounting stresses, Kaiser said most would still not let on the effects of that pressure.

“Farmers are always the ones to suck it up, rub some dirt on it and drive on. We’ve got stuff to do.  But that stress builds on people. It’s 2019, not 1917 or 1918. This is a different time. It’s in our culture to be sensitive and aware of individual problems and stresses. Farmers are no different in that respect.”

He applauded Vanberkel for sparking the program and said he found it easy to support the concept and the marketing of the program as one that focuses on wellness. The homegrown aspect also appealed.

“It’s really cool that this is in our county. Sometimes L&A doesn’t get a lot of spotlight in agriculture. To have something like this coming from us is pretty cool,” Kaiser said.

He added agriculture remains the top economic driver locally, even with fewer participants. By keeping the sector strong, he said there are benefits extending far beyond the farm gate.

LAFA members looking to access the program can visit or call 613-985-7233.

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