Growing healthy food requires a healthy farmer: New Entry wins grant to improve social sustainability

Monday, July 1, 2019 // Focused on the Farmer

Farmers can often suffer from social isolation and mental depression.

So much work and attention are given on a farm to growing healthy food for the world and making communities around them strong. But what is often overlooked is the actual health of the farmer.

In a true sustainable farm model, the order is three-fold: Economic, Environmental, and Social Sustainability.  All three of these pillars need to be in balance for a harmonious and successful farm operation.

Labor shortfalls, global markets, climate change, changes in technology and consumer preference all affect the social sustainability of the farm, the farmer, and the farm family. All of which are factors out of their control but become the root causes of stress and depression, which ultimately can affect farmer quality of life and farm viability. This makes it harder to be resilient in the face of change, their intra-inter-personal skill functions, and the quality of their relationships within and beyond the family unit.

This is becoming more evident. In a survey conducted by New Entry, Cornell Small Farms Program, and University of Maine Cooperative Extension of 229 Northeast farmers, 36% seek social connection at conferences or meetings, and 23% via friends and neighbors. About 21% said they do not seek out or know other farmers with whom to talk, and none have knowledge of events or activities focused specifically on social sustainability.

Ranchers and farmers are telling us that their weakest link is not technology or information,” said Robert Fetsch of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. “Their weakest link is human relationship management.”

To address this growing need, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, in collaboration with University of Maine Cooperative (project lead), Cornell Small Farms program, and the Institute for Mindful Agriculture/Hawthorne Valley recently secured grant funding from the Northeast Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (NESARE) Program to conduct outreach to farmers in the Northeast, create social training programs, and spread the knowledge and results of the outcomes with its regional and national beginner farmer networks.

In the past, few projects have assessed or addressed social sustainability of farms by working directly with farmers, despite programmatic offerings designed to address social sustainability factors when farms are in crisis, such as individualized counseling or hotlines. project will advance the understanding among the farming community of social sustainability and resilience, examine how social sustainability indicators can be measured, and explore online and in-person interventions that improve farmer, worker, and family quality of life.

The team will also expand on a 2014 University of Vermont project that will validate the major social sustainability indicators through research with and education of farmers from across the Northeast. Up to 36 farmers will have the opportunity to participate in programs to learn adaptive strategies for better mental health, and work towards transformative changes to foster resilience through development of personal social sustainability plans. Through project-based retreats and outreach to local community networks, farmers will strengthen the social connections around them.

The project will be run over the course of three years and anticipates reported improvement in farmer quality of life and personal wellness as well as positive changes to their farm environment and family life.   Stay tuned for more opportunities to engage in social sustainability research and the educational opportunities available through this project.  For more information, feel free to contact Jennifer Hashley, New Entry Project Director at