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.
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.
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.
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."
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.