Farming and the Opioid Epidemic

U.S._buprenorphine_versus_opioid_overdose_deathsSt Paul, May 31–According to a recent University of Minnesota Extension study, net farming income in Minnesota has flatlined five years in a row. Farmers here have felt the pinch across sectors: corn, soybean, dairy, and all the major livestock except hog.

In its report on the study, the Star Tribune, the agribusinessman-owned newspaper in Minneapolis, offered not a single line about why, really why, farmer incomes are suffering so.

Nothing on the supply-price treadmill on which agribusiness has placed farmers to its singular advantage. Nothing on the resulting damage to rural communities and public health.

Farmers are presently forced by both the contracts they enter and the food system’s broader structure into overproducing food commodities.

Overproduction depresses the gate prices that food companies pay contract farmers. Thinning margins force farmers to attempt to grow their way out of the trap. But dumping more produce into the market only drives prices further down.

Such outsized production goals also turn nearly all farm revenue back toward paying for increasingly expensive inputs. As a result, many of even the largest farmers are cash-poor.

Agribusiness-led production meanwhile erodes rural community life upon which individual farms depend, including here in Minnesota. People are being pushed off their land and out of local towns in favor of consolidated monoculture, replacing community control with corporate power. Whole counties are now company towns.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Alternate approaches to production and rural governance are possible and already in play in many places around the world, rehabilitating local farm economies and environments alike.

Agroecology practices putting farmer autonomy first can supply many of the inputs that take so much of a farm’s budget right on-site at minimal cost. Legume cover crops, for instance, can supply soil nitrogen. Crop rotation can control pests, reducing pesticide use.


The only “good news” about the present income crunch the University of Minnesota Extension study has to offer is that rural communities “have a diverse set of incomes and businesses” to weather what is in actuality a long-term structural crisis pillaging our countryside.

We are asked to take comfort that the gig economy will save the day.

That kind of wishful thinking doesn’t address the resulting pain. The damage extends beyond quarterly budgets and community flight. As Don Davis reports, farmer suicide rates in Minnesota have reached the highest in a generation:

James Kanne, a Franklin-area dairy farmer, said he is concerned about a farmer who told him he is losing $35 an acre, for a total of $100,000. The farmer’s grandfather hanged himself in the 1980s.

Self-harm under such circumstances has become widespread, especially in rural communities worldwide where agribusiness control predominates (well beyond the infamous epidemic of farmer suicides in India).

American farmers who object to the present order are routinely subjected to labor discipline wherein companies supply them with the worst poults or the dregs from company feed silos. Companies have punished growers who attempt to organize among themselves.

Across the U.S., new laws aimed at quashing rural campaigns against corporate interests are following up those against urban protests, although this year Governor Mark Dayton vetoed one of the latter in Minnesota.

The resulting circumstances–unable to produce a way out, unable to protest–act on farmers as a kind of vise. Suicide is the most terrible of responses to the unresolved stress. Other ag community members are self-medicating with prescription opioids. As the American Farm Bureau Federation reports:

While just under half of rural Americans say they have been directly impacted by opioid abuse, 74 percent of farmers and farm workers say they have. Three in four farmers say it would be easy for someone in their community to access opioids illegally, and just under half of rural adults — 46 percent — say the same.

Locally, the epidemic, as Chad Smith reports, has hit Minnesota farm country.

A loss in the sense of community and occupational control has long been cited in the medical literature as a driver in declines in mental health at the individual and community levels.

The damage from such a system of production extends beyond mental health and opioids. Nutrient runoff pollutes drinking water and swimming holes. Ag-based infectious disease hits farmers, their animals and crops, and even their consumer base. In a terrible irony, farming communities suffer food insecurity. Commodities aren’t grown to be eaten locally, but as ingredients for processed food produced out-of-state or offshore.


Big picture, rural public health is presently linked to the way Big Ag bleeds its farmers dry and runs them ragged. The costs of the present system of food production are externalized onto farmers and their communities, even upon their very lives.

Our rural brothers and sisters deserve better. Family farmers have the right to farm fairly and to live together freely, without the stress of production demands that they have little control over and little chance of meeting. Our food future depends on it.

A number of interventions should be pursued in the immediate term.

We need to push through coalition efforts to get the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) reauthorized in the next federal farm bill (and get it finally funded). The Network includes farm helplines and websites, community outreach and education, support groups, and home delivery of mental health assistance.

Here in Minnesota, the legislature responded to the spike in suicides by doubling the state’s Department of Agriculture mental health counselors from one to two. Clearly not enough. More support is necessary from across state capitals.

The Avalere Health map reproduced at the top shows one marker of the gap here in the Upper Midwest’s public health infrastructure addressing the epidemic. The map shows the ratio of certified buprenorphine providers and opioid overdose deaths.  Buprenorphine and naloxone are opioid antagonists that can reverse an opioid overdose. These antagonists must be made more easily accessible.

Longer term, we can reduce demand for opioids and the stress leading to farmer suicides by radically transforming the Midwest’s present system of food production to one centered on farmer autonomy and community control.

RobRob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He’s the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control.

The ideas and opinions posted here are the author’s and not necessarily that of ARERC as an organization.





Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

3 thoughts on “Farming and the Opioid Epidemic

  1. This is just so painful to read, that those who choose a lifestyle over a job, in order to put food on our tables, are reduced to poverty, substance abuse, and suicide. How did we get here?

    I live in Canada, granddaughter of a farm family in rural Saskatchewan, quite removed from the lifestyle, and yet I so appreciate our local farmers and so forego many things so I can buy their quality seasonal food, knowing where it comes from and how it’s produced. They are my neighbours; why shouldn’t they have a decent life?

    Supply management related to dairy is a much-talked-about issue with trade talks taking place, but as I understand it, there are also subsidies in the USA. I don’t think it’s helpful pitting farmer against farmer on different sides of the border in order to curry favour with the voter. Wasted food is abhorrent, being underpaid for a crop is just plain wrong. If we keep poisoning our planet … we know where that will take us all. This issue should rise to the top of any politico’s agenda, to make it right for all of us, starting with the family farm.


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