In Farm Aid’s 35 years working with—and for—farmers, we’ve learned a lot. And we’re still learning, welcoming change and exploring ways to better serve our constituents. To that end, we’ve worked over the past couple of years to expand our Farmer Services offerings, including significantly growing our hotline team and expanding the hotline’s operating hours. What’s also new is our leadership and partnership with other organizations on a large-scale, national grant, the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), which attempts to close gaps around mental health resources for farmers.
The following is a conversation that I had with Caitlin Arnold Stephano (Farm Aid’s Hotline Program Manager), and Alexandria Ward (Farm Aid’s Farmer Services Network Manager) to learn more about this large grant and the work that they’re doing surrounding farmer mental health.
Jessica: Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me. To start, I’m curious about both of your backgrounds and how did you end up working on the Farmer Services Team at Farm Aid?
Alexandria: I first heard about Farm Aid, and that it’s more than just a festival, when I worked with the National Sustainable Agriculture Council (NSAC) because Farm Aid grants to them. The work seemed really cool, and I heard positive things about Farm Aid. At the time, I worked in farmers markets and food access work, but I always wanted to go back to national work. I saw the job with Farm Aid and it seemed perfect because my job is now focused on network building and that’s something I always loved at the farmers markets.
Caitlin: I came to Farm Aid through a couple different ways. I was a farmer for about 12 years after graduating college. I ran my own operations and worked for other farms. I eventually got to a point where I couldn’t afford to buy land. I was in Washington State where land is very expensive, and then I also lost my lease on the land that I was farming. I came to a point where I decided I couldn’t make it as a farmer anymore.
I took a job with the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) and started organizing on the grassroots level around young farmer policy and advocacy. I was also working on my master’s degree in sustainable food systems. The year I moved to the East Coast for NYFC, I lost a very good, young farmer friend to suicide. So, I started to get involved in farmer mental health and suicide prevention. I decided to write my graduate school thesis on farmer mental health and through that process I interviewed a lot of organizations, Farm Aid being one of them. I decided that I wanted to work for Farm Aid one day. Now I’m working here, which is really cool and very funny how things come around.
Jessica: Can you explain what the Farmer Services team offers to farmers?
Alexandria: We have the hotline, disaster assistance and support and response, the FRSAN grant [more on this directly below], and the online search tool called the Farmer Resource Network (FRN).
Jessica: You mention FRSAN; what is it and how did it come to be?
Caitlin: The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) is a USDA program created by funding that was approved in the 2018 Farm Bill. $10 million in funding was allocated for the pilot year (2020), which was spread over four regions: the Northeast, the South, the Central Midwest and the Western region.
Farm Aid reached out to NYFC and asked if we [Caitlin worked at NYFC at the time] wanted to collaborate on a grant proposal in the pilot year. I had just started focusing on farmer mental health and stress, so I was very happy to work on it. NYFC said yes and we wrote the original grant proposal with Farm Aid, Vermont Farm First and University of Maine Extension.
And then we wrote a proposal for the next round of funding, which was for three more years of funding for 2021-2023. With that FRSAN received $7 million per region—quite a bit more money than the first year but spread over three years.
Now we’re in year two of the three-year funding round. We [at Farm Aid] mostly work on the Northeast grant, but Farm Aid was brought in on the Western Region to help with the hotline. In the Northeast we’ve been involved since the beginning, so Alexandria and I serve on the advisory team. It’s very intensive in terms of work and communications and making decisions. We do the internal documentations and budget and project approvals etc. We also have working groups and cohorts made up of farmers and service providers.
This funding has allowed Farm Aid to hire two more part-time hotline operators and expand Farm Aid’s Farmer Resource Network (FRN), which has become the clearinghouse for the grant project.
Jessica: Besides the geographical differences, do the various regions work differently?
Caitlin: The Northeast grant is particular and unique. It’s the only one of the four regions that’s not run by university extension—the co-Principal Investigators (as the grantees are referred to) are all nonprofit organizations. So we have a very different way of working. It’s very collaborative.
We’re also very focused on racial equity as a core piece of the grant. For example, we have plans to bring on a Spanish-first hotline operator and eventually to translate the FRN into Spanish.
I’d say it is also very farmer-focused in a different way than the other regions. They’re all farmer-focused, but the FRSAN grants are service provider grants. It’s really difficult in these grants to give funding directly to farmers. And so, we created a farmer advisory board that consists of 12 farmers who are advisors for the grant. And we pay them for their time.
Jessica: Ok, I understand the basic framework, but tell me a bit about what’s happening on the ground, day-to-day.
Caitlin: The overall goal of FRSAN Northeast is to create a robust network of service providers in this region. Before this grant there were all these service providers working for farmers (from Maine to West Virginia) and a lot of them were working either very locally or on the state level, so there wasn’t a lot of collaboration happening. Now, two years into a three-year grant, there’s so much networking happening. People know what’s going on in other states and other organizations. The first year we were at like 60 organizations and now we have over 100 organizations who are network members.
Alexandria: Also, I’ll add, for FRSAN funding, a single organization can’t apply for the grant. It is required to be a group of organizations together.
Caitlin: Yes. Though we’re less involved on the upper levels of the Western region grant, Farm Aid is the hotline for that region. And our FRN is serving as the model for a clearinghouse that they’re building called Farm Stress. The Western funding also allowed us to hire two hotline operators in the West, which is why we now have expanded hours. That’s been hugely important. Now our hotline answers calls, online submissions and emails from 9am ET to 10pm ET.
Jessica: So what are the next steps considering this grant is in year two of three?
Caitlin: Year two ends in August, and year three starts in September. So, we’re approaching the end of this funding! NYFC and Farm Aid are both advocacy and policy organizations, so I suspect we will be doing quite a bit of advocacy to get this program re-funded in the 2023 farm bill. We already signed onto the letter to push for funding.
The interesting thing about the Northeast region being the only region not run by a university or by Extension (USDA’s Cooperative Extension System) is that the other three regions cannot do any sort of lobbying or advocacy. So, I was trying to push for all the regions to collaborate in advocating, however it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to since they can’t sign on to a letter, for example. So the Northeast region will work heavily on advocacy in year three. Maybe the other regions will do education to the public so that the public can reach out to their legislators to stress how important this program is for farmers.
Jessica: Do you have any sense of the chances that FRSAN will be funded again?
Caitlin: Unless there’s something I don’t know or don’t understand, I feel like it’s got a pretty good chance, though it may not be the same amount of money. This issues—farmer mental health and suicide prevention—are very bipartisan issues. They are not controversial across party lines. So, I would be very surprised if Congress doesn’t fund it.
Jessica: Tell me, why is this work so important?
Alexandria: One thing I can say is that this is a network of very small groups across the regions that may be low capacity, but they’re working really hard to serve the farmers in their area. And they don’t have time to be aware of all the resources that exist in their region because they’re so busy serving their constituents. So FRSAN really opens up capacity and doors and creates a space that otherwise doesn’t have capacity to exist. It builds connections and increases the ability of each organization to collaborate and share resources, which builds power in each region to ultimately serve the farmers and support people going through a mental health crisis, and just raise awareness of mental health and agricultural issues more broadly.
Caitlin: There’s importance of it being a national grant split into regions. Ultimately the goal across all the regions is to build more robust resources for farmers nationally so that we don’t have these gaps in resources state by state. I don’t think three years of funding is going to get us to where we need to be.
Jessica: Can you give a tangible example of why it’s important not to have geographic gaps in resources?
Caitlin: Yeah, so now when the hotline receives a call from a farmer in Missouri there are not many places I can send them. How the hotline operates is that when we have a farmer call the hotline, sometimes we refer them to national organizations, but what we ultimately want is to refer them to local organizations so that they can actually go talk to somebody who knows the area, knows the geography, knows the farming landscape where they are. So we want to have robust resources and referrals in every state so that we don’t get somebody calling from a state that doesn’t really have anything and then we feel like we’re not really helping them.
We also have a goal to bring a national picture to the continued conversation around destigmatizing mental health and stress for farmers so that they feel more comfortable reaching out when they need help.
Jessica: This is not easy work–constantly thinking about mental health and being on the hotline. So, what keeps you all going?
Alexandria: Joking around! Ha! I feel really inspired honestly by our work, and the fact that we have this great hotline team helps too. A lot of the people we work with are excited by this work, they want to talk about it, they want to do it, they want to think about it, and that is exciting to me because it feels regenerative and creative. Like there are these problems, but we’re all working together to try to come up with solutions.
Caitlin: I was also going to say: ‘our team.’ We have this expanded farmer services team of six here at Farm Aid and we work together really well. We all bring such different qualities and strengths to the work. I feel like everyone’s responses to farmers are inspiring. And knowing that we are making a difference for some of our callers. Even if we can help 10 farmers in a month, I feel like that’s worth it. But it’s exhausting talking about all this stuff all the time. The FRSAN grants are really a blessing because they’ve allowed us to do all this incredible work. We have more funding, so we have more work. It’s all good.Learn more about Farm Aid's work supporting family farmers