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Farmer suicide prevention program expands impact

Photo courtesy Ron Pilling
The “Save a Shore Farmer,” campaign initiated last year by the Jessie Klump Suicide Awareness and Prevention. Program is running again in 2019 after the Rural Maryland Council awarded grant funding to continue the outreach effort for a second year, with organizers now working to provide the tools to launch comparable undertakings in other rural regions.

By Greg Ellison

(Aug. 28, 2019)

Since launching the “Save a Shore Farmer,” campaign last year, the Jessie Klump Suicide Awareness and Prevention Program has seen the approach resonate throughout the area, with renewed funding helping to finance an expanded approach in year two.

Ron Pilling, treasurer for the Jessie Klump Memorial Fund, said the initial program tracked better than expected in the first year.

“Its’ taken on a much greater lifer than we ever anticipated,” he said.

Looking to promote the cause in 2019, Pilling said that hope became a reality after the Rural Maryland Council awarded additional grant funding for a second year.

Pilling said the impetus for the famer initiative was based on a report from the Center for Disease Control in 2016 listing suicide attempts by profession.

Since that time those figures have been adjusted by the CDC to separate farm workers from agricultural ownership.

“The result of that is the suicide rate among farm workers rose dramatically,” he said.

Factors behind the trend include employment uncertainty, low pay and physically demanding work, Pilling said.

“In the administrative category, it turned out that farmers themselves had an elevated and rising risk of suicide,” he said.

These points were confirmed previously to the CDC report, Pilling said.

“The University of Iowa did a study looking at data between 2010-2013 and concluded that the farmers that work their own farm are three times as likely to make an attempt on their lives compared to the national average,” he said.

Aware the demographic in question would be unlikely to admit, as many people are, that they are struggling with suicidal thoughts, Pilling said a different approach was adopted.

“We started this campaign without deluding ourselves into thinking that we were going to get farmers out to public suicide prevention workshops,” he said.

In addition to the stigma surrounding the topic, Pilling said farmers are typically fiercely independent.

Hoping to educate its audience about available resources, Pilling said two billboards were erected last year on Route 13 between Salisbury and Crisfield.

“The whole goal was to send people who needed information … to the website

The oversized visuals had an immediate impact, Pilling said.

“The day before the billboards went up we had five visits to the website,” he said. “The day after … we had 35 visits to the website.”

Those metrics were further boosted with more than 1,000 public service announcements on television and by placing brochures at 19 sites on the lower Eastern Shore and making appearances at farm-related events.

“We’re working with the Future Farmers of America kids but not reaching directly to a farmer,” he said. “We really thought the spouses and farm kids were our audience.”

In addition to website traffic, the media blitz also garnered phone calls from far and wide.

“I interviewed with “Lancaster Farmer,” which is a professional journal for central Pennsylvania farmers,” he said. “I did two or three radio interviews here and one in Mount Airy.”

The outreach yielded better results than envisioned when the University of Minnesota Rural Health Center reached out, Pilling said.

“They have a contract with the USDA to create a suicide prevention tool kit that will become part of the national arsenal to prevent farmer suicides,” he said. “’Save a Shore Famer,’ our little program down here, will be cited in the tool kit as a model campaign.”

Pilling said on tap next month are two speaking engagements at the Maryland Suicide Prevention Conference and the Maryland Rural Health Association Conference.

“Anybody who is anybody in suicide prevention or rural health care goes to these two conferences,” he said.

The aim this year is to provide information for others interested in following suit.

“Hopefully, when they walk out of that conference if they’re interested in launching their own campaign directed at their local famers and the agricultural economy, they’re going to have from us everything they need to get it off the ground for free,” he said.

Involved organizations will be provided graphic arts images to produce a brochure, posters and billboards. Also MP4 files will be given to use for producing public service announcements.

“From all these files we stripped out the local stuff so what remains is the basic facts,” he said. “We’re also translating to Spanish.”

Additionally, Pilling said “Save a Shore Farmer,” brochures would be placed at up to 30 spots throughout the lower Eastern Shore this year, along with new billboards and television spots.

“We hope to expand our interaction and partnership with the Future Farmers of America and 4-H,” he said.

Pilling said sharing details about the rationale for the agricultural-focused suicide prevention campaign is the intent of the upcoming speaking engagements.

“We do have the resources to make it easier for other organizations to do pretty much the same thing,” he said.