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Jon Tester Blackfoot Clearwater

Sen. Jon Tester announces the reintroduction of his Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act in this Missoulian file photo. 

Responding to a heightened risk of suicide among farmers, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, unveiled a plan Wednesday to raise public awareness and response by government employees working in agriculture.

Tester’s “Seeding Rural Resilience Act” would commit about $3 million to public service announcements and training U.S. Department of Agriculture employees to recognize stress and prevent suicide among farmers. The bill would also commit the U.S. agriculture secretary to working with states and non-government organizations to identify ways for responding to ranch stress.

The bill is a response to Centers for Disease Control reports on suicides by occupation that indicate the rates in agriculture were more than 1.5 times higher than in the general population in 2015.

Tester, a Democrat, faulted President Donald Trump’s trade policies for exacerbating farm stress.

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“As a farmer, I know firsthand the importance of family farm agriculture in rural America, but I also know that farming and ranching has never been easy. That difficulty can take a toll on producers because farming and ranching isn’t just about making a buck. Working the land that’s been in the family for generations is truly a way of life in rural America,” Tester told reporters. “So, the last thing we need to do to these folks is make what is a tougher job even harder. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the administration has done with the trade war and it has been devastating for folks who are involved in family farm agriculture across this country, and Montana is no exception.”

There is a pilot program already in use to develop and provide training for USDA Farm Service Agency workers to help deal with stressed farmers and the government workers who interact with farmers. There’s a recognition that both the workers and the farmers are being negatively affected by economic anxiety in the industry. That pilot, which involves the Michigan State University Extension program, would be expanded to other states under Tester’s proposal.

Tester said most of the $3 million would be spent on public service announcements to raise awareness of suicide risk.

The Centers For Disease Control found the suicide rate among farmers, ranchers and other occupational managers to be 32.2 per 100,000 people in 2015. That number for the same group was 44.9 in 2012. Those rates were 1.5 times higher than for the general population in 2015, two times as high as the general population 2012. For agricultural workers, the suicide rate was 20.4 and 17.3, respectively.

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