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The stress level in rural communities is off the charts. Farm and ranch closures, land forfeitures, labor issues, and more contribute. According to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a full five years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit—rates of suicide in rural communities measured twice that of urban areas.

To address this desperate problem, the USDA is creating the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, four regional projects intended to improve behavioral health by providing stress management assistance for people in farming, ranching, and other agriculture-related occupations as well as assistance for their families. The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture has been chosen to coordinate the effort in the South.

The three-year, $7.2 million southern region effort, funded by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will span 13 states and two U.S. territories. It will include more than 50 partner organizations, from land-grant institutions to government agencies, commodity and lending groups, and non-profit organizations.

Heather Sedges, an associate professor in the UT Extension Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, will serve as the southern region project leader and coordinate efforts across the state of Tennessee. Among the state’s leading partners are the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the UT Institute of Agriculture’s MANAGE program (Measuring, Analyzing, Navigating, and Achieving Goals Effectively), and the Tennessee Farmer Suicide Prevention Taskforce.

“This funding allows us to establish a multi-faceted and network-driven response to the needs of farmers and ranchers, their families, and communities as they navigate challenging times,” says Sedges.

The network will coordinate six specific strategies designed to help rural citizens and communities. These include establishing a hotline for immediate accessibility, developing a comprehensive website with information and resources to address individual situations, and curating and creating resources for the website. The effort will also establish training for representatives working within rural communities to support individuals through direct services or support groups. Research into how to alleviate farmer and rancher stress as well as the issues endemic to rural communities is also part of the effort.

Tim Cross, senior vice president and senior vice chancellor for the UT Institute of Agriculture, says the regional networks are needed and UT Extension is well suited to lead the effort to establish the southern region network. “These regional networks should be a natural synergy between our agriculture and family and consumer sciences programs in cooperation with other public and private partners. Individual farmer success and mentally strong families are a direct complement to economically and physically healthy rural communities.”

“We support work that promotes the well-being and good mental health of farmers and their families,” says Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher. “Farming families encounter factors such as isolation, market instability, unpredictable weather, and plant and livestock diseases that contribute to stress. We’re glad to be a partner in projects that lead to solutions for our farming community.”

As announced by USDA, each of the four regions will receive approximately $7.2 million over the course of three years. The other regional efforts will be led by the University of Illinois, Urbana (North Central Region); the National Young Farmers Coalition (Northeast Region); and Washington State University (Western Region).

Sedges says partners will begin almost immediately working to establish the overall network infrastructure, as well as links to partnering agencies. Training and outreach will begin in 2021.


Patty McDaniels (615-835-4570,