Valerie Woodhouse is a co-owner of Honeyfield Farm in Norwich. She was in the second week of launching the organic vegetable farm when the pandemic began.

It was a tough time.

"That I can safely say was, you know, my lowest point in my own mental health care," she said. "Just because, you know, there was so much unknown, there was so much out of our control."

Woodhouse, 31, says she uses therapy. When she reached out to a therapist about the stress of farming, however, it didn’t go so well.

"I was told, 'You just need to have better boundaries about your work hours, you shouldn't be working this many hours,' or: 'You just need to take a day off,' or something like that. And that was one of the most unhelpful pieces of advice I could have gotten in that moment from my therapist," she said.

Woodhouse says the popular notion of self-care is not very accessible to farmers.

"That has been a turnoff for a lot of farmers," she said. "And just makes it feel like, 'Well, I just got to, like, keep my head down and just keep moving and get through this.'"

So Vermont’s farmers keep moving through things like the pandemic, inflation, high fuel prices, industry consolidation, climate change, family challenges, all sorts of weather. And they’re continuing to feel stress.

According to a report from the Vermont Department of Health earlier this year, farming is one of the occupations at significantly higher risk for suicide.

To help address Vermont farmers’ mental health needs, the state-sponsored nonprofit Farm First is creating a new program. It’s called a farmer peer support network. The plan is to connect farmers to listen to one another, and to educate one another based on their own experiences. The network can also be an entry point for farmers to talk to one of Farm First’s mental health professionals.

Woodhouse is one of the inaugural farmer peers.

"This opportunity of having a peer network will be one that's going to have huge benefits for people like me who, maybe don't have time to see a therapist regularly, or can't find a therapist who really understands the very real demands of farming," she said. "Getting instead to talk to people who get it and have been there and have real tangible advice — that's where I think a lot of change can be made for farmers."

"Or at the very least, just validation of, 'You're not alone,'" Woodhouse added.

The idea of farmers supporting one another is not necessarily new. But Farm First program manager Karen Crowley says the particular model that Vermont is trying is unique.

"The focus in places where it's been done has been more on peer support groups, which I think is also a great idea and can really serve a role," she said. "But it wasn't really what we were hearing from farmers, that they thought they would like to be doing. They wanted to develop those one-on-one relationships."

Crowley says this program is considered a pilot. It’s funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it began coming together this past winter.

Farm First recruited its first cohort of farmer peers and provided them with some initial — and paid — training. That included recognizing signs of stress, and how to help de-escalate situations through active listening.

From here, the process has slowed a little: Farmers need to farm during the spring, summer and fall.

Leanne Porter, the training coordinator for the farmer peer support network, says the most important thing is to build the network based on what Vermont farmers want and need.

"We'll really rely on the farmers' input to build the rest of this," Porter said. "We have the outline of what we think it will look like, but we're gonna let them do some of the driving."

VPR-Porter Jenks.jpeg
Leanne Porter, left, chats with Alicia Jenks, who grows blueberries at Green Dragon Farm in Perkinsville. Jenks is one of the inaugural farmer peers for the new farmer peer support network that Porter, with the state-sponsored nonprofit Farm First, is helping organize.
Elodie Reed VPR

Porter did this during a recent visit at Green Dragon Farm in the village of Perkinsville, where she and I visited blueberry grower Alicia Jenks.

Jenks is another of the inaugural farmer peers, and discussed with Porter how they might increase Farm First’s outreach about the peer support network.

"I do know farmers like dinners," Jenks said. "Farmers like to sit around and chit chat and have dinner ..."

"... and eat pie," Porter added.

"Yes they like their pie," Jenks agreed. "Farmers like pie!"

As the word does get out, Porter says Farm First is trying to recruit a second group of farmer peers to begin paid training in the fall. Eventually, she says, they’ll set up a web portal to allow farmers to contact those peers.

In the long term, Farm First is also trying to broaden who has access to mental health services specifically designed for agricultural workers.

More than a third of Vermont's immigrant dairy farmworkers, for example, experience significant stress, according to astudy published last year.

Karen Crowley, the program manager for Farm First, says the organization is currently talking with the University of Vermont Extension about how to support existing services for immigrant farmworkers.

"The grant that funded the peer [support network], also, we ended up with a small amount of money to explore how we might best serve migrant farmers — trying to figure out, like, what's the best way to approach this," she said. "Because we don’t have an ongoing funding source, it makes sense to start by gathering information on the current state, rather than offering services."

To do more, Crowley says, Farm First will need some “real resources” to set up multilingual mental health services, plus staff them with people who understand the immigrant farmworker experience.

From the perspective of immigrant farmworkers with the advocacy group Migrant Justice, it would all be worth it. The organization provided the following statement to VPR:

“Many members of our community suffer from anxiety and depression due to isolation, labor abuses, and the trauma of migration. The resources that do exist are limited and inaccessible. We need services that are close to home, in Spanish, and economically accessible.”

Migrant Justice also said that the state should help address the root causes of mental health crises in the farmworker community — by supporting its campaigns against discrimination by law enforcement and for improved housing and labor conditions.