Down on the Farm
New farm counselling program enlists rural studies experts to help ward off looming crisis in Ontario
BY ANDREW VOWLES
U of G researchers are part of a new provincial counselling program intended to help farmers and rural families weather a “looming crisis” posed by unique challenges and problems in rural Ontario.
Prof. Harry Cummings, Environmental Design and Rural Development, is working with a graduate student to evaluate the new counselling service made available this fall to farmers across the province.
The service, called AgResolve, provides trained counsellors to help farmers and rural families with stress reduction, communication skills, parenting skills, money management and debt counselling. Eighty-four per cent of Ontario farmers in a recent survey said there was an urgent need for a free confidential service to help agricultural producers facing stress.
The program is offered in Haldimand-Norfolk, Chatham-Kent and the Cornwall area. Specially trained experts will counsel clients referred by an existing telephone support service for farm families called Farm Line.
“The idea is that the phone counsellor would make a referral to an agency in one of these areas and encourage the farmer to contact the centre to seek help,” explains Cummings.
The longtime Guelph researcher and rural studies expert has developed a system to monitor the program and analyze the results of the two-year pilot program. “By doing evaluation, you improve the delivery of the program.”
He expects the project to yield a counselling manual that would be made available across Ontario and perhaps even nationally.
AgResolve project manager Leslie Josling believes there's a looming crisis in agriculture. “Farm families need immediate help while governments and the agricultural sector work on political and economic solutions.”
Cummings says farmers face challenges that aren't typically experienced by people in cities or the suburbs. These include the threat of crop failure, low commodity prices, high costs and long hours.
“In the farm family setting, the husband and wife and kids don't leave the home to go to the workplace. They live and breathe the crisis, so you can't get away from it.”
Not only are neighbours and support services fewer and farther away, but also farm families are typically more conservative than their urban counterparts, so asking for help is sometimes more difficult, he says.
Earlier, Cummings studied the problem of spousal abuse in rural communities.
“In the worst kind of situation, the couple can't agree on a solution and it turns to blows. We hope to provide outlets before it gets there to reduce abuse.”
Master's student Kathleen Hyland says farmers have to cope with rapid changes, including increasing corporate concentration among their customers, globalization, altering consumption patterns and an aging farm population.
A longtime staff member at the University, she became interested in farm families while serving as an academic adviser for agricultural diploma programs formerly offered on the main Guelph campus. She helped her supervisor develop an evaluation plan for AgResolve.
Calling farmers “innovative and persistent,” AgResolve co-ordinator Rick Gamble says: “We're confident they can use these tools effectively to enhance life for themselves and their families.”
The program brings U of G together with Haldimand-Norfolk REACH, a rural multi-service agency; Family Services Employee Assistance Programs; and Farm Line. It's funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Farm Credit Canada, the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.