Let’s talk about farmworkers

Chris Clayton, a journalist from the US whom I met at a conference in Argentina about five years ago, recently wrote a column about a study on the rate of farmer suicides in the US.

Let’s talk about farmworkers
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This study has often been cited by himself and many others in the media.

I also referred to this study, which was published in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, in a column that Farmer’s Weekly ran in October last year.

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I wrote then that the study indicated the suicide rate among people engaged in agriculture was the highest among 30 national standard occupational classification groups at 84,5 per 100 000 persons in 2012.

However, as Clayton also points out in his column, it turns out the CDC got it wrong, as did I and all the other journalists who, based on the findings of this report, wrote about the high rate of suicide amongst farmers.

The mistake that the CDC made, and that we all then copied, was to conclude that the high suicide rate “among people engaged in agriculture” referred to farmers.

However, it now appears that this high suicide rate is among farmworkers.

The error was first pointed out by the New Food Economy, a new non-profit group, who said in a statement that “either the media misinterpreted its results, mistaking a farmworker suicide crisis for a farmer one, or the CDC made a simple calculating error; one with far-reaching results”.

The CDC has responded by saying that a coding error could have occurred in its research, and that a reanalysis would be done “to assess the validity of results and conclusions in the publication”.

This is a necessary step, but I doubt whether a reanalysis of existing data will be enough to address the many layers of complexity that any research in the farming sector poses.

For starters, the definition of ‘farmer’ will have to be considered. In countries like the US, this may not be so difficult, but in South Africa, where we have a dualistic sector split into commercial and smallholder or subsistence agriculture, finding a single definition to use in a study such as this becomes more problematic.

This doesn’t mean that the mental stress that farmers across the world face is not real, especially in South Africa, where many farmers have been affected by prolonged and devastating droughts, are constantly worried about high crime levels, and where the political situation poses an ever-greater threat.

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As such, we must be acutely aware of the impact these circumstances have on farmers’ emotional well-being.

Where we have failed, however, is our negligence in giving equal attention and priority to how these and other challenges also affect farmworkers.

Instead of being treated as an equal stakeholder in the agriculture sector, farmworkers are seen as one of a number of quickly escalating production input costs, and far too often they are still the mute, background players in the stories we tell about farming.

Here, at Farmer’s Weekly, we will try to do better from now on.

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Denene hails from a sugar cane farm in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, but after school she relocated to the Cape Winelands to study, for many years, at the University of Stellenbosch. She worked as a journalist for Farmer’s Weekly since 2009 and in 2015 moved to Johannesburg as Deputy editor for the magazine. In 2016 she was appointed editor, and at the end of 2021, she stepped down from her position to pursue her journalism career.