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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 21, 2019

Farmer suicides as high as in the Great Depression? No data says so

In a campaign swing through Iowa, Cory Booker said the people he met there "are right to be angry" over what they see going on in their state.

"Attacks on public education, attacks on labor," said Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey and Democratic presidential candidate, in a March 18 interview with MSNBC. "Attacks on farmers. Farmer suicide rates are as high as they have been since the Great Depression."

Booker’s specific claim about farmer suicides is not accurate, our review found.

There are no known numbers for farmer suicides going back to the 1930s, and Booker's staff did not provide any.

"The information I can find suggests that rates of suicide did increase in general during that time," said Lorann Stallones, an epidemiologist and psychology professor at Colorado State University.

Limited data across the board

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 17 states and compared suicides for major occupational groups in 2012 and 2015. In 2012, the rate of suicides by farmers was 44.9 per 100,000. In 2015, it was 32.2 per 100,000.

(The CDC previously reported much higher rates, which generated a lot of news stories and legislative action. But ultimately, those numbers didn’t stand, and the CDC retracted its report.)

Does that mean the rate dropped between those years? Technically, yes, but beware: The total number of suicides was low — 59 in the first year and 54 in the other. With numbers that small, a few incidents can change the rates considerably.

Washington defines farmers as people who play a role in managing a farm. That’s in contrast to agricultural workers, meaning laborers who plant, weed and pick the crops. For that group, the CDC found rates of 20.4 and 17.3 per 100,000 in the two years.

That offers no support for Booker’s contention, but the study only covered 17 states. It did not include major farming states such as Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and California. 

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Another factor makes the data less than perfect. Brandi Janssen, director of the Center for Agricultural Safety and Health at the University of Iowa, cautioned that part-time farmers are often left out of the farmer statistics, and their deaths are not included in the tallies.

"I think it’s fair to say that we know with some confidence that suicide rates among farmers are higher than the general population, and that they’re probably underreported," Janssen said.

Based on the 2015 CDC numbers, the rate for farmers, 32.2, was more than twice the rate for the general population as a whole, 13.3. (The general rate in 2017 rose to 14.) For context, people in the construction and extraction industry, which includes roofers, oil drill operators and electricians, had the highest suicide rate — 53.2 per 100,000, or more than triple the national average.

The only other data point researchers noted comes from the early 1980s, a time when family farms collapsed at a fierce pace. The National Farm Medicine Center based in Wisconsin gathered suicide reports from Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. It found that rates peaked in 1982 with 58 deaths per 100,000 among farmers and ranchers.

Because of the smaller number of states, that figure isn’t directly comparable to recent data. That said, it undercuts Booker’s statement.

Farmer advocates note growing economic pressures. Farm incomes are expected to show a decline in 2018. Bankruptcies are up in some states, although we found that nationally, they are holding steady. The group Farm Aid said a 30 percent rise in calls to its hotline shows, "farmers are under incredible financial, legal and emotional stress."

However, Stallones said many forces shape suicide trends.

"Economic difficulties can contribute to suicide rate increases," she said. "My own research has suggested that poisoning from pesticides may contribute to mood disorders, which can then lead to (higher) risk of suicide."

Our ruling

Booker said that "farmer suicide rates are as high as they have been since the Great Depression." Broadly stated, the data on farmer suicide is not comprehensive, but what there is does not support that statement.

Limited data from the 1930s suggests the suicide rate in general was a bit lower at the time, but we didn’t find any specific numbers to farmers.

The latest government report on farmer suicides offers a narrow comparison between 2012 and 2015. The rate was higher in 2012, but the number of suicides in both years are too small to draw firm conclusions. In a group of upper-Midwest states, the rate was markedly higher in 1982 than rates reported today.

We rate this claim False.

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"Farmer suicide rates are as high as they have been since the Great Depression."
In an interview with MSNBC
Monday, March 18, 2019

Our Sources

MSNBC, Hardball, March 18, 2019

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Suicide Rates by Major Occupational Group — 17 States, 2012 and 2015, Nov. 16, 2018

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trends in State Suicide Rates, June 8, 2018

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Suicide Mortality in the United States, 1999–2017, November 2018

Scientific American, High Rates of Suicide, Depression Linked to Farmers' Use of Pesticides, Oct. 6, 2014

CDC WISQARS database only goes back to 1981

New Food Economy, How a simple CDC error inflated the farmer suicide crisis story—and led to a rash of inaccurate reporting, June 21, 2018

Purdue Agricultural Safety and Health, Improving Data Quality, Dec. 7, 2011

Farm Aid, Farm Aid Statement on CDC retraction of farmer suicide statistics, June 28, 2018

Iowa Farmer Today, Safety Watch: Suicide rate among farmers at historic high, Dec. 10, 2016

Email interview, Sabrina Singh, spokeswoman, Booker for President, March 20, 2019

Email interview, Lorann Stallones,  professor, Psychology Department, Colorado State University, March 20, 2019

Email interview, Brandi Janssen, director, Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, University of Iowa, March 20, 2019

Email interview, Wendy Ringgenberg, assistant professor, Des Moines University, March 20, 2019


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