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Is your farm way of life under attack?

Personal online attacks against farmers are heating up, and a farm psychologist warns it’s only going to get worse

It’s not just weather woes, trade issues and government inaction that’s keeping farmers up at night these days.

A sense of being scrutinized by the public is taking a toll too, especially when accompanied by the online jeering, baiting and vilification that are getting flamed at the farmers too.

That won’t be news to anyone who has already felt what it’s like being targeted on social media, but now it’s even showing up as an occupational stress in broader surveys by researchers at the University of Guelph.

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Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, associate professor in the department of population medicine, whose groundbreaking 2016 report identified high levels of anxiety and depression in the Canadian farm population, is leading a small team to look more closely at the root causes of it, and she shared their preliminary findings at the fall’s Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) conference.

In all, the team surveyed 75 farmers to find what causes stress on the farm, and where farmers seek help when they need it.

The consumer connection didn’t emerge until the team began crunching the data.

It turns out participants regularly spoke of a disconnect between the public and agriculture, and their perception that it leads to mistrust of farmers, says Jones-Bitton.

“We didn’t specifically ask about public scrutiny but a number of participants brought it up on their own,” she says. “They described feeling scrutinized, that they were under a microscope, in terms of farming… that they felt that they were constantly under attack.”

And if being the target of cyberbullying and the risk of being subjected to verbal abuse and threats isn’t enough, some also felt they could be on the list for an invasion by animal rights extremists.

“People described always wondering if they’re going to be next, worrying about their kids (if it happens).”

Jones-Bitton says their research team aims to release a paper on the findings of these interviews this year. The goal is to improve the ability of agricultural and health professionals alike to respond to stressors among Canadian farmers.

“We’ll be looking at what’s happening in other parts of the world as well,” she notes.

Country Guide also reached out to Pierrette Desrosiers, a Quebec-based work psychologist, coach and author specializing in agriculture for her take on what’s going on, and how this is affecting the farm community.

These are personal attacks that really undermine a farmer’s sense of identity, feelings of safety and psychological security, Desrosiers says. You don’t know what may be coming at you next.

“This is a huge stress,” she says. “And it’s unpredictable. Anything that’s unpredictable, but possible, is stressful.”

What makes it worse is that social media for some farmers has been where they’ve shared farm photos and stories in order to connect with the wider community. Now, Desrosiers says, some have closed their accounts after being targets of vicious taunts and threats. “Which is very, very sad and unfortunate,” she says, adding some won’t even speak publicly about what they’ve experienced, afraid to risk attracting any more attention.

Desrosiers suggests taking a break if social media becomes stressful. Connect instead with friends and others in your community. And if you do maintain a presence in social media, be very careful how you engage with it, she says.

And don’t get into online arguments. “Because you will get nowhere,” Desrosiers says. “Don’t begin or try to maintain an argument. It is like two languages, and you will just become more upset, and more stressed.”

The May 2019 Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food Mental Health: A Priority for Our Farmers report also highlights the problem of cyberbullying and online abuse, including testimony from farmers who had been called murderers and rapists online.

That report recommends that programs be set up to address cyberbullying in agriculture, much like the strategies used to protect young people and other vulnerable Canadians.

That report also recommends Ottawa consider making it a crime to use intimidation or cyberbullying targeted at any group of Canadians based on their occupation or place of residence.

Jones-Bitton says if anything has already come of their study, it’s that farmers who are worried about this can be assured they’re not alone.

“I think the larger help is going to come from government and police agencies having a stronger sense of how big of an issue this is in agriculture,” Jones-Bitton says.

Desrosiers says while she’d like to think what’s happening may die down, she believes that’s unlikely, given what farmers in other parts of the world have been experiencing, and the way this seems to be ratcheting up so quickly here.

“In France, in the U.K., and Australia and U.S. many farmers are cyberbullied like this,” she says. French farmers she’s spoken to are surprised it hasn’t yet exploded here too.

“They told me that we were very naive,” Desrosiers says. And the French farmers wanted to ask, “What were you thinking to not be prepared?”

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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