By Connor Lynch
MOIRA — Back in 2013 Dale Ketcheson, a crop farmer north of Belleville, planned to end his life. He went out into a soybean field with the plan to walk in front of the tractor. His wife, Teena, saved him. Ketcheson had hung around that morning to say goodbye to his kids as they got on the school bus. She’d never seen him do that before and knew something was wrong.
What had gone wrong for Ketcheson will sound familiar to many farmers. A long dry spring and the cost of farm repairs and other financial issues were wearing him down. The farm was struggling, so the farmer was struggling.
Why not quit? Walk away from the farm, or sell part of it off? “Quitting seemed like it would be the biggest failure I could make back then.” Suicide was a preferable option.
Farmers take a lot of pride in their operations. Ketcheson is the eighth generation to work this farm. Farmers often grow up on land cultivated by the blood, sweat and tears of generations before them. As kids they learn how to work machinery. They watch their family work long hours, and many farmers take pride in getting their kids involved in the operation. The work is ever-present and many farmers’ retirement plan is to die in the tractor. As Picton-area crop farmer Lloyd Crowe put it, farming isn’t a job. “It’s a calling. It’s in our DNA.”
But being so intimately tied to the farm can make the concept of letting it go unfathomable. If farming is in your DNA and the farm is failing, what does that make you?
Much of that mentality is internal, though not all, Ketcheson said. “(There’s) still a whole generation out there, my father’s generation, who think if you have to restructure or sell the farm, it’s shameful. I’ve been told my grandfather would be ashamed of me if I had done that.”
Taking over the farm was a lesson in responsibility, but also helplessness, Ketcheson said. He was made more and more responsible for different aspects of the farm, but his father was still calling the shots. “None of the power, all of the responsibility,” was how it worked. “He just wanted to be able to blame me if it went wrong.”
After his father died, Ketcheson sold a parcel of the farm. Partly it was to help fund his mom’s retirement, since she was going to move into town, and partly it was to restructure the farm. “One of my father’s friends called and wanted to know why I was selling a parcel. (He) said it was a bad idea, I should never sell land, (that) I was a bad farmer.” For many farmers, their social circle is other farmers who grew up with and internalized the same attitudes.
It’s not clear how often Canadian farmers commit suicide. Certainly the stories are all-too common. One 1999 study suggested that Canadian farmer suicide rates might be lower than the general population, citing the strong social ties of farming communities. But that would make Canada a pretty unusual outlier. A 2016 U.S. Center for Disease Control report led many news outlets to conclude farmers were committing suicide at alarming rates, when in fact it was farm workers committed suicide at a much higher rate. Male farmers in Australia, however, commit suicide at about twice the rate of the regular population. UK data from 2018 suggested that at least one agricultural worker was committing suicide, on average, per week. Invariably cited are financial concerns.
North Dundas crop and dairy farmer Josh Jaquemet has heard stories from his dad about farmers who’ve committed suicide, though he doesn’t know any himself who have. Not everyone who grows up on the farm sticks around to run it, obviously. But for those who do, there’s a great deal of pride in what’s been built, he said. But with great pride comes great responsibility.
If the farm were struggling Jaquemet knew he would struggle with the decision to carry on. “I would definitely feel pressured. From nobody but myself, but that would be my mentality: I failed. How come I couldn’t do it but three generations before me could? What mistakes did I make along the way?”
And the pressure is greater than ever. Farmer counsellor Lauren Van Ewyk of Wellspring Counselling Services, who also runs Cedarview Farm at Brigden, just south of Sarnia, can attest. Modern debt loads on farms are massive, and “ far exceed (those of) any generation before us.” There’s a “sense of pride, (but) oftentimes with the farmers I work with, (there’s) no sense of completion. Never a chance to say I’m done for the day.”
There’s always work to be done on the farm, which can lead some farmers to a grim conclusion: “No matter what you do, it’s never enough.” Some farmers have taken it a step further to conclude that their families are better off with their life insurance policy than with them, Ewyk said.
Because farming is so wrapped up in people’s identity, it can be difficult to step back, especially when times are tough, she said. But it’s critical to know that there are options other than an all-or-nothing decision. It might mean switching the type of livestock you raise, selling off a parcel to ease debt, or selling off animals to boost cash flow and take some of the workload away. Or it might mean selling the farm. “We need to ensure that farmers know they don’t need to feel trapped. (It) doesn’t mean you have to sell, or keep, the farm.”
Renfrew County farm real estate agent in Renfrew County Ross Peever said as a rule it’s older farmers selling the farm to retire, not younger farmers selling because it’s not working out. But 2020 seems to be an exception. Middle-aged farmers are selling a lot more land than they usually do, he said. A few difficult years in a row have convinced some smaller farms to get out. But a great many are selling off parcels to ease their debt load and keep the farm going, Peever said.
Embrun-area cash crop farmer Michel Dignard, a sixth-generation farmer, has farmed all his life. “I would never work in the office.”
He knows a few farmers who’ve gotten out of farming. “(They were) down for a year. I talked to them later, and things were better.” It’s not easy switching from something you’ve been doing for so long; Dignard himself used to be a dairy farmer, and milked cows for 45 years. Then he stopped, and switched to cash crops. It took him about six months to adjust mentally, but he did.
And attitudes seem to be changing, he said. “Go back say 10-15-20 years, you’re supposed to take over the farm.” Nowadays, it’s more of an option than an expectation. “There’s less pressure now than there was 20 years ago.”
Dale Ketcheson recalls some of that pressure, and the mentality of past decades. “20 years ago you were kinda told that if you didn’t farm, you were selling insurance or working in an office. There’s a whole lot in between. ” It’s something the farming community needs to actively push back on, he said. “A lot of farm kids would do well in trades and stuff instead.
Ketcheson’s son, who’s 14, has shown a lot of interest in being a machinist. “I’m trying to make sure he knows he can do that and not farm, or do that and farm too.”