A Podcast about Mental Health and Addictions
Episode 7: Prince Edward Island
Episode 7: FarmersTalk.ca (PEI)
May 5, 2021 – Learn about a unique initiative on Prince Edward Island. FarmersTalk is a call to action urging people in the Prince Edward Island farming community and beyond to open up about the challenges they face, to talk about mental health, and to reach out for help in order to reduce stigma and support resiliency.
Loretta O’Connor: Hello. I’m Loretta O’Connor, Executive Director of the Council of the Federation Secretariat, an organization that supports the work of Canada’s Premiers. Welcome back to the Promising Practices podcast. This is the seventh of our 13-episode series on mental health and addictions.
Today’s episode comes from Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, the birthplace of Confederation, and a place well known for its beautiful landscape of rolling pastures and ocean vistas. The economy of the province is largely resource-based. Referred to as Canada’s Food Island, agrifood is PEI’s largest industry, is the top domestic and international export, and accounts for more than 37% of the province’s total exports. PEI is home to the Culinary Institute of Canada and a growing and diverse culinary scene – it’s literally a foodie’s paradise!
From tip-to-tip of this picturesque Island, the land is dotted with a variety of farms, in a range of sizes – making up over 40% of PEI’s 1.4 million acres. While PEI has long held the distinction of being the largest potato producing province in Canada, these farms also produce a bounty of fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, oilseeds, meat and dairy, including an increasing supply of organic products. These products not only feed PEI and Canada, but they are shipped to over 50 countries around the world. And PEI farmers are also providing services here and abroad. And this is happening with a focus on sustainability, protecting the Island’s natural resources – the land, the air, and the water.
We have always known that farmers are important, and we were reminded of that in the early days of the pandemic when images of empty shelves shone a spotlight on the food supply chain and an increased awareness that farmers are the backbone of that system. This episode of the Canada’s Premiers’ series on mental health will take us behind the scenes to hear from the men and women who work to get the food to our tables and to provide services here and around the world, talking about the pressures they face, the impact that these can and do have on their mental well-being, and how in Prince Edward Island, industry and government have come together to support farmers, farm workers and their families.
Alex Firth: Hello, I'm Alex Firth. Thanks for joining us for PEI’s Promising Practices podcast. We're going to talk to farmers about the challenges they face and we will profile FarmersTalk, a call to action urging people in the Prince Edward Island farming community and beyond to start talking about mental health and mental illness to reduce stigma and support resiliency. FarmersTalk is designed to improve awareness of existing mental health and support for the agriculture community, including the Farmers Assistance Program, a confidential counseling program for farmers, farm workers and their families. Let's first hear from the Premier of Prince Edward Island, the Honourable Dennis King.
Premier Dennis King: I come from a long line of storytellers. I’m a storyteller by nature and I was a storyteller by profession prior to becoming Premier. Much of the material I used to tell stories came from my observations about life in small town and rural Prince Edward Island and how things have changed throughout the generations.
One area that has changed over the course of my life and career, and even in the past two years of being Premier, has been our awareness, our knowledge and how we talk about mental health and addictions. Importantly, we have seen increased understanding and some reversing of the stigma around mental health.
And while things have changed, we still have a long way to go. For a long time, too many people have struggled in silence. And mental health challenges, and poor mental health in general, can affect anyone. It knows no bounds. It can and does affect our work, our families, our friends, our lives.
Mental health is an essential part of our overall health. Mental health means being able to enjoy life and cope with life’s challenges and changes. And without a doubt, the past year has been one of challenge and change. The pandemic has impacted us in ways we may have never imagined and it has taken its toll.
So, this conversation is more important than it has ever been. We have come to realize that not only is it okay to talk about mental health, but it is imperative that we talk about it. It is through talking that we can come to find acceptance, understanding and support.
We know that we have a lot of work to do and we are committed to doing it…. to being responsive to the needs of the community and to taking a wholistic approach to wellness. And through this podcast series with my colleagues from all across this beautiful country, we are striving to learn from each other on how we can best do that.
In this episode, I am pleased to be part of profiling just one of the things that we are doing here on Prince Edward Island – and that’s our FarmersTalk Program – a program designed specially to address the mental health issues of farmers, farm workers and families. You are going to hear from my Minister of Agriculture and Land – who is himself a farmer. You will hear from members of industry, some who have come from generations of farmers and have farmed for decades and others who are just getting started, and you will hear from those who have worked to develop and implement this innovative approach to supporting the agriculture community.
Alex Firth: To start the conversation off on this important issue, the first farmer you will hear from is Sam, a young woman whose passion has seen her travel across Canada, often with a horse in tow, to develop a skill set to fulfill her lifelong dream of owning her own equestrian facility. What has it kind of meant to fulfill this dream of yours, to finally have your own ranch, your goals slowly starting to be accomplished?
Sam: It feels good, but it's also just on the cusp of realizing this is all my responsibility. There's nobody to come in and clean up the mess or pay the bills or fix stuff when I break it or it gets broken. So, there's definitely like a whole new realm of responsibility. I've had jobs where I have a lot of responsibility, but I wasn't like the end of the line.
Alex Firth: When we talked to Sam less than three months into her new venture, she had just suffered a riding injury and is now faced with her first significant challenge in operating this new business.
Sam: Right now, I'm laid up and still trying to manage this place. You know, making sure that the bills are getting paid. Right now, that's my biggest thing is to make sure that I get a hay crop in and hay up so that we can feed the animals here. I just want to make sure that I have crops in and food for the animals because their care is always the first thing that has to be looked after.
Alex Firth: I asked Sam, what advice you would give to someone getting into this industry regarding supporting their mental well-being.
Sam: Through all this, I still make time to ride my horses because that's the reason that I have all of this, ultimately is because I have always just enjoyed my horses and the things that I do with them. So, I make sure that I still make time to get a few rides in a week and spend time with them. And, if I'm out doing stuff, and I want to take 10 minutes to go pet them, I do because at the end of the day, it's not going to make or break how things work. And it keeps my head on my shoulders kind of thing at the end of the day. The biggest thing that I've discovered is that you can't you can't do it all yourself, as much as I like to try. You don't realize how many people are there to give you a hand when you need it. And just talk about it when it gets stressful.
Alex Firth: Next, I sat down with Mary Robinson, a managing partner of a sixth-generation farm, former president of the PEI Federation of Agriculture, and the current president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, also the first woman to hold this position. Mary talked about how farming has changed over the years, what the impact has been on mental health in the industry, and also provides concrete examples of the Farmers Assistance Program and FarmersTalk.ca.
Mary Robinson: There's been some really exciting, positive changes in agriculture, I think. Some of those unfortunately, have kind of come about because of tightening up of margins. But what it's meant is that people have to pay a lot of attention to the inputs they're using, and the quality and yields they're getting, because ultimately, it's just like any business, you want to be able to be profitable, so you've got to really keep your eye on that.
Another thing I've noticed is what I see is greater collaboration amongst players in agriculture in PEI. So, growing up, I always had the sense that you kind of hid your successes from your neighbours, because you viewed them as your competitors. And now what I see is, in particular, potato farmers saying, if we're going to keep our processors and our packers happy here in Prince Edward Island, we've got to do a great job, we've got to have great products that they can take to market, and it means that we've got a place to consistently sell our products. So, there's been a bunch of changes that you know, have meant perhaps amalgamation of farms and that's all being driven by the marketplace. And people just trying to continue to do what they've been doing for generations, in some cases, keep that family farm going as much as possible. So, I think it's definitely different. I can't imagine what it was like in 1810, to be relying on growing enough food to stay alive. That's a different kind of stress than what we see today.
Alex Firth: Yes.
Mary Robinson: But the stresses we see today, when you have multiple employees is, the people I know in agriculture, really take ownership of making sure that those people are well cared for and that they're your workforce, they’re who you rely on to continue moving forward. And we've seen quite a reduction in accessible labour force. So that in itself has created a huge amount of stress. Across the country, we've seen farmers walk away from crops because they couldn't find people to harvest. So that kind of stress, I cannot imagine what that's like.
Alex Firth: What do you think the general public should be aware of in terms of the reality of farming and the associated mental health challenges?
Mary Robinson: There's so much. If you look at any farmer, they have to be a jack of all trades. So any farmer on their own farm typically is responsible for human resources, for buying equipment, for maintaining equipment, for making decisions on what kind of inputs, making decisions on what kind of crops, planning, leasing land in, leasing land out, making sure the bank is happy, making sure that your on-farm food safety audit went well, making sure that if you're shipping internationally that you're not using products that are going to preclude you from being able to access those markets. It just goes on and the layers of the onion are many, many, many and I think consistently for farmers across Canada, it's important for people outside of agriculture to recognize a couple things. Number one is Canada is blessed with such amazing resources. We've got natural resources, land, water, beautiful conditions to grow crops in. And we've got all these people in the agriculture community that are heavily invested and passionate about doing that. So, we've got farming acumen, business acumen. We've got a brand internationally that's recognized as high quality. So when we look at the potential for agriculture in Canada, if we really invest in that, how much that would drive the economy, which is very important. And I don't mean to say money is everything, but we do have to pay our bills. And we've got a lot of bills coming out of COVID, for sure. So that there's that side of it. I think it's important for people outside of agriculture to have a look at agriculture and recognize that farmers don't control the weather, but they definitely have to deal with it, with whatever the weather brings to them. So, if that means a killing frost in late spring, or that means no rain in summer, or that means an incredibly wet harvest, all of those realities impact how that farm is going to make it through the year or not. The other thing would be price takers. If you cannot differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and you're selling on a commoditized market, let's say you're selling corn or barley or something that, you know, my ton of barley is no different than your ton of barley. So, we're going to get paid the same. So, we've no way of influencing the price we're being paid. So, if markets, you know, if we look in Canada a couple years ago, for our canola growers in western Canada, in particular being shut out of the Chinese markets, well, that was devastating for them. So, we're very much exposed to climate change. We're very much exposed to geopolitical issues. We're very much exposed here on PEI. We were shut out of the American market, because we had a quarantinable pest. And the frustrations of that and how you deal with that is … it's all very, very big.
Alex Firth: Do you think that the challenges that are facing PEI farmers are unique to us? Or are they similar across the country?
Mary Robinson: Well, both. I think there are many similarities from what I've seen across the country for the different stresses that farmers feel. Climate, markets, lack of understanding from the general population as to what agriculture is, and a lack of appreciation as to the fact that agriculture, our primary producers are the foundation for all of the, you know, the bacon, the meat, the french fries. You look at the food in your grocery store, and try to trace back the journey it made before it ended up in your grocery carts. And I think people might lose sight of the fact that the foundation of this is a very precious foundation that we should not only be proud of and excited about, but we should be supporting and we should be telling every member of government that we need to make sure these people are not only financially given the right kind of supports, but that we look after them as far as their mental health too, because it is a massive amount of stress and pressure. And we need our farmers.
Alex Firth: We then talked to Marc and Krista, third-generation farmers operating an organic greenhouse farm, selling directly, locally and regionally, while trying to maintain a work-life balance and stay true to the vision for their business and their family. I asked them about the reality of farming versus the idyllic image.
Marc: I do own a number of pairs of coveralls. I don't have that many plaid shirts. And I don't spend much time with a pitchfork. I spend most of my time in the office and managing people, managing plants. So, it is a little different than what the average person might have in their mind. The day-to-day challenges can be certainly many. I really do just focus on the business run as it should.
Krista: There sometimes are pictures painted about agriculture and farm family that it's grand. But again, it's really a business. And it's a tough business. Coming from the mother/wife side, I often did the bookkeeping, as well. And again, that can be very lonely. You're at home, you're with the kids, and it's the awareness that you are alone. And there were times that I would say to Marc like, “You can't be my everything.” It was a lot of pressure on us. Now he's on the farm, full time. And now I'm off the farm. But we made that choice strategically and brought in a manager. I think it's really important that you have people you can rely on because it's a lot of weight when it's all your responsibility as a partnership.
Marc: I think the biggest thing that has changed for me, when you go right to the bottom, you have a different perspective, and so, the stresses, I don't know if there are any, the same or different, but you just have a different perspective and maybe hopefully a different awareness of what those extreme stressors are so that you can try to do what you can to manage them.
Krista: It was an eye opener for me. People that are born and raised on these farms, it is 100% their identity. Right? It is it is exactly 100% who they are. So, when that is challenged to be taken away, it's huge.
Marc: And a generational identity.
Alex Firth: Marc talked to us about the importance of having support and the Farmers Assistance Program.
Marc: But that whole Farmers Assistance Program, I mean, PEI, I think, seems to be taking a bit of a leadership role or has taken leadership role over the last number of years. So, it is just keeping that conversation going as much as possible. On the other hand, I think one thing that's helped me personally over the years is being able to lean on people. An entrepreneur, especially, can be a lonely profession, because not everybody around you, you know, not all your buddies understand, being involved in a business, maybe your wife doesn't understand the things that you have to deal with. So having a network of either mentors or peers that you can talk to, and that you know, that understand a little bit more where you're coming from, I think that those types of groups are certainly invaluable.
Alex Firth: We will hear from Ron Maynard, next, who runs a generational family farm and has long been involved with the dairy industry provincially, nationally and internationally, and is currently the president of the PEI Federation of Agriculture.
Ron Maynard: Well, the Farmers Assistance Program has been going since 2004, actually, and it was started when some counselors came to us and the Department of Agriculture and said that they were seeing a number of farmer clients and, you know, asking specific questions and, and they were looking for more knowledge, I guess, and on the farming aspect of farming, some of the trials and tribulations that we have as farmers. So that kind of got together and that's what started that. And they asked the Department of Agriculture to ask the Federation if we were interested in kind of organizing it and coordinating it. And that's what we've done since 2004. And so, with the financial assistance of the provincial Department of Agriculture, and then also now some other corporate clients, like Amalgamated Dairies, and Farm Credit Canada and the Dairy Trust Fund. So that's where our financing comes from.
Alex Firth: Okay. Have you found that there's been a good response?
Ron Maynard: There's two aspects of it. The Farmers Assistance Program, but also the Talk program is something. The program was out there, and we had to get more farmers involved. And I guess, with the general conversation more on mental health, now, we wanted to make sure that was also an aspect of farmers. And so, this FarmersTalk program came from, unfortunately, a suicide of a fellow dairyman of ours that we knew and, and so that was fairly well known within the province. Getting out there and getting information out about the program and getting it widely distributed, I guess, and known throughout the agricultural community.
Alex Firth: So, did you have any reservations that there might not have been that expectation where people would be comfortable kind of getting involved and seeking help?
Ron Maynard: The counselors do a great job. And I think, you know, word of mouth is, of course, the best type of advertising. And so, when people now as we get more familiar and more open, I guess, on the topic of mental health across the board, you know, not only in farmers, but across the community in general. I think, you know, this is a service that we're providing, and it's available, and we're here to help. And that's what we want to do.
Alex Firth: Did anything surprise you, when you were kind of getting it off the ground, or since?
Ron Maynard: We've been surprised at the uptake over the last five years, it's grown dramatically. And whether that's fortunate or unfortunate, I think it's fortunate in that people, you know, that stress levels were out there before and kind of people were trying to deal with it themselves, maybe, instead of now saying, “Hey, there is assistance out there.” And, you know, we're here to help and it's very confidential, you know, the calls don't come in to us, they go to the counselors directly. And so, we see the numbers and as far as knowing whether it's farmer X, farmer Y or farmer Z, we have no idea about that. The counselors deal with that totally. So, the aspect of it is that the counselors are familiar with agriculture and some of the stresses and topics that are in agriculture. The drought for example, last summer, we assist the counselors in giving them information about what's happening out there. And so that's, I think that's one aspect of it. And the other aspect of it is the availability of them. These counselors are available. There's some free sessions. We've added another counselor, you know, we've expanded it to include farm employees now, and so that's helped the situation in that, you know, a lot of times, it's not only the farmer, it's, you know, more and more of us are relying on good employees, and we want to help them in the community also. We at the Federation are very pleased to be involved with and coordinating, that we tried to have less of an impact on people. But we know that most certainly that they are out there, and that, you know, this is a service that's provided, and we encourage people to utilize it for many things – long hours, and, you know, a lot of them by themselves, and there's stresses there, there's the stresses with employees and getting employees. And so, there's a whole gamut of things that the counselors deal with.
Alex Firth: We talked with Frank Bulger, one of the counselors providing support through the Farmers Assistance Program, I asked him about the challenges he sees, and what makes the program unique.
Frank Bulger: The farming way of life is a stressful one. Farmers can call and they're going to get a confidential, highly skilled program, readily available to them. There's lots of opportunities in that environment for stress to develop within the farmer and the farmer's family. If they, for example, a farmer is feeling that he or she is getting stressed, and that is affecting their relationships with themselves, for example, or with their partners or with their family, they can call, we can meet with them, and try to work on that, resolve the stress and hopefully get them functioning well again.
Alex Firth: I asked Frank what his advice would be to another jurisdiction looking to add an initiative like the Farmers Assistance Program.
Frank Bulger: I think every situation is unique. It requires flexibility, every jurisdiction is different, and the culture of every situation is different. So, one has to be flexible, and you have to be, I think, the workers within that system have to be given the autonomy to do their job and to do it well. One of the things that is really unique about the program, and which makes it work, is the fact that it's at arm's length from government. And I believe that any program that has been developed in another province or anywhere, I think, I believe, that's an important consideration to be done. This has very little or no connections with government. I fully recognize that there is some funding that comes, but basically, there's no direct accountability, for example, and very little or no input into the day-to-day operation of the program from government. So, there's the absence of the bureaucracy is what I'm saying. And that is really, I believe, one of the cornerstones of the program. We're able to adjust as we go along and basically meet the clients as the need may be, for example, if there's has to be an extra session added on for a particular reason. Well, we can do that. We always make it a point to meet quickly, if somebody calls, we try to meet with them within, certainly within a week. We have very little or no waiting list. And so, I believe that's important too, for farmers to realize that we are there and we are available to them.
Alex Firth: We're going to hear more from Mary Robinson. I asked her about the awareness across the country in the agricultural community on the issue of mental health.
Mary Robinson: I'm involved with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and we give out an award every year. It's called the Brigid Rivoire Award and it celebrates someone that has done exemplary things in regard to mental health. I think in Prince Edward Island, we're normally kind of held up as an example because of our Farmers Assistance Program, which I have used personally. I've gone and had sessions with the counselors and can't say enough about how wonderful it is that our province has invested in our farmers’ well-being and really appreciate that the PEI Federation of Agriculture administers the program with the folks at the Farmers Assistance Program. So, I think there is a lot of good work being done.
Dealing with mental health issues earlier instead of letting them become exacerbated is vital. I think it's important for everybody, even non-farmers to have a look around, and especially during COVID, check in on people to say, Are you okay? Hindsight is always 20/20. And I don't know anyone in agriculture that hasn't been touched by some kind of tragedy that they wish they’d just asked, Are you okay? I have friends who have lost spouses, and I can't imagine what they go through in continuing to operate their farm without their life partner and their business partner. I wonder if they're okay. I have friends who, unfortunately, didn't survive that, you know, you look back at your last exchange with them and you think, should I have paid more attention? Should I have asked, “Are you okay?” And I have friends today that I know are going through really rough times that are complicated. And I think that there's too much, I guess the word is, stoicism, is that the word, where people sometimes feel like they just have to push through and they just have to get to the other side of it and they'll be okay. So, reaching out and making sure the people around you are doing okay, asking that second or third time: “Is there anything I can do to help?” “Do you need to talk to anybody?” These are really important questions. And it's so nice to not have to deal with the hindsight “Should I have checked in, again?”
For me, I think some of the important work to do is not only to raise the profile of mental health and help people understand that just like when you have a broken arm, you need to deal with it, you need to get it fixed, because you can't go on. People need to reach out for mental health support. And I think a lot of my focus is that we need to make things less stressful for farmers, be that something as sterile as business risk management programs and making sure we have the right financial backstops for people so they don't feel so much stress. I think we need to have a much more holistic lens from the perspective of government, in how we put so much pressure on our farmers. And we need to instead be helping them and putting them in a position that they can continue to do what we all need them to do, which is to grow amazing, beautiful food, take care of our environment and help drive our economy.
Alex Firth: Our final guest we will hear from is the Honourable Bloyce Thompson, Minister of Agriculture and Land.
Minister Bloyce Thompson: A mental health initiative might not be the first thing people expect from a Minister of Agriculture. But for me, the link between agriculture and mental health is something that is both sensitive and very personal.
I’ve been a farmer all my life and my family before me were farmers. Many of my friends and neighbours are farmers. I can tell you from my experience and from the lives of those around me, farming can be stressful. You are at the mercy of things that are out of your control like weather, markets, pests, and labour uncertainties.
Every crop year, you have to invest a great deal of time and money with no guarantee of a return. The weather can make or break you, and so can the marketplace. The result is too often that farmers face stress in silence. Too many of our friends and colleagues wrestle alone with anxiety, depression and isolation.
As Minister, I felt it was up to me to shed some light on the situation and offer some resources to assist the farm community. My department and I were determined to encourage open conversation about mental health and farming. Our message to farmers in crisis was simple - You aren’t alone.
I felt it was vital that farmers know that there are people who care, and there are resources available. We have qualified professionals available who not only know about mental health but understand the challenges of farming life.
To deliver that message, we developed FarmersTalk, a website and awareness campaign aimed at getting farmers to open up about the emotional and mental challenges they face. This is a place where people can be honest about their own challenges and offer encouragement to others. It offers a space where someone facing mental and emotional strain can come and be directed to help they need.
I know people who have struggled with mental health, and I have known people for whose struggles just become too much to handle. Farmers are tough people, but farming can be a tough way of life. I want my fellow farmers to understand that they are not in this struggle alone and that there are other options. It is important to let each other know that you are not alone as a farmer dealing with stress, depression or anxiety. The good news is that we have resources available. The farm community is using the help offered.
In the past year, over 250 counselling sessions were provided free of charge to members of the PEI agricultural community. And we sparked a conversation among federal, provincial and territorial agriculture ministers about mental health and farming. The Farmer Assistance Program, developed in partnership with the PEI Federation of Agriculture, offers counseling and support for farmers and farm families facing a range of challenges. I am proud that my department works with our partners at PEI Federation of Agriculture and other groups in offering this program.
As long as I am minister, I will do what I can to encourage farmers to open up about mental health and I want to ask you to do the same. Have a look at our FarmersTalk.ca webpage. There’s a spot where you can post photos or videos of yourself about your own experience with mental health or offering support to others. You can use our FarmersTalk speech bubble, write whatever message you like, take a picture and post it on the website. Let’s talk about mental health at FarmersTalk.ca. Thank you.
Alex Firth: Thank you for joining us today for this important discussion. The music in our episode is from the PEI band, The East Pointers. The song Wintergreen is about offering a light in the darkness to those who need it. I’d like to give the final word to the Premier Dennis King.
Premier Dennis King: I hope that you learn something from this series – and it is my hope and my belief that together we can make a difference. I would like to remind everyone listening, that if you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. There are resources listed on FarmersTalk.ca and anyone in PEI can call the Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885, day or night. In an emergency, please call 911. Help is there if you need it. Please reach out if you do.
Loretta O’Connor: Thank you for helping us all learn about FarmersTalk.ca. What a unique and beneficial initiative on Prince Edward Island.
Next week, the podcast series will take us to the Northwest Territories, where we will learn more about On the Land Healing programs. You will hear how taking a holistic approach focused on one’s connection to land, culture and tradition can have a lasting impact on a person’s journey to recover from mental health challenges and addiction. So, please join us again next week for another promising practice in the field of mental health and addictions.