Farmer or farm worker? A critical distinction for CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study in 2016 on the suicide rate amongst farmers and discovered rates significantly higher — some five times higher — than with any other occupational group. This led to a flurry of reporting about trouble in the heartland, including this story. Our reporting cited a study conducted by the University of Iowa, but one of our sources cited CDC data as well. In “Crisis in the Heartland,” we focused our interrogation on the economic pressures that put farmers (and farm workers) at risk for fatal self harm.  

Details of a miscalculation by the CDC in factoring the results of its study have recently surfaced. The problem stems from how farmers are categorized by the government. Under federal occupational guidelines, farmers are classified under management occupations. But the CDC focused its study on people working in “farming, fishing and forestry,” a category where farming distinctly refers to farm workers, not persons who own farms. It’s a distinction with a difference. These farm workers are 80 percent Hispanic; they are laborers engaged in low-wage repetitive activities; they are the produce pickers and the meat packers.

We have all been taught to regard the government as a primary source when conducting research, therefore it is disappointing to learn that recent, headline-generating data collected and disseminated by the government cannot be trusted. We rely heavily on government data in our reporting; numbers from the FDIC and the Fed support everything from opinion pieces to the call report data we publish. This is the same data used in Washington to support easing (or tightening) the rules that govern your businesses.

Now here’s the CDC botching a study through a basic mis-classification, which has resulted not only in a flurry of mis-directed reporting but also in a push by state and federal lawmakers for increased mental health services aimed at farmers. A mental health initiative even found its way into the new farm bill. Sadly, some of these initiatives exclude the laborers who need the help most.

There’s evidence in abundance that times are challenging in rural America. Our feature published last May looked at likely causes of self harm and recounted the pain borne by survivors. Throughout our platforms, we’ve elucidated the economic toll of five years of low commodity prices. Recently, Chad Hart of Iowa State weighed in on the impact of recent tariffs. The stories of hard times facing rural Americans absolutely affect community bankers, which is why we report them. The CDC’s mis-classification of data changes nothing.