KANSAS CITY, Mo. (DTN) — Farmers and ranchers must overcome the stigma of talking about opioid drug abuse in order to address what has become the worst social problem in rural America, the leaders of the nation’s two largest farm organizations and the highest-ranking rural development official at the Agriculture Department said here in an unusual session at the National Farmers Union convention on Sunday.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall and Anne Hazlett, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s assistant for rural development, joined National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson to highlight the issue.
Joint appearances by the heads of the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union are highly unusual because the two farm organizations often differ on farm policy, but Duvall and Johnson noted that they had joined together to sponsor a survey that showed the shocking impact of the opioid crisis on rural America and agriculture.
Johnson also spoke at the Farm Bureau convention in January.
Johnson noted that the survey showed that about three-quarters of farm families are affected by the opioid crisis, about half of rural families are affected by it and less than half of urban Americans are affected, but farmers say they believe most of the problem is in the urban areas.
“It is a big problem around the country, a bigger problem in rural [rather than urban] areas and even bigger among farmers and ranchers,” Johnson said.
“Step one of the problem has got to be awareness,” Johnson said. “It cries out for us to get past the stigma. We have to start embracing these folks, do things in communities to wrap our arms around each other like we do if someone breaks a leg.”
“People try to turn their heads and not see it,” Duvall added. “The survey really brought it to light.”
Duvall said he first became interested in the opioid issue when the son of one of his neighbors “from one of the finest agriculture families in south Georgia” had surgery, became addicted to pain medication and had to enter treatment for addiction.
Hazlett, who is from Indiana and was formerly the state agriculture director, said she became involved when Austin, a small town there, made national headlines because of its addiction rate.
She pointed out that the opioid crisis puts a lot of stress on rural families, with grandparents raising children and communities struggling with small budgets. The communities are trying to attract business, but they are forced to devote their resources to emergency response, she said.
Neither of the farm leaders nor Hazlett offered big-scale proposals for what rural communities can do, but did talk about small-scale, local solutions.
Duvall noted that his wife is a cancer survivor and that he has taken a much greater interest in what is in her medications since becoming aware of the addiction problem.
He urged people to “pick that bottle up, see what it is, what it might do to you that weighs against you.”
Johnson noted that he takes opioids because he has pain in his spine and that there should not be an overreaction to the use of pain medicine. But he also noted that opioids “impact some folks differently” and that 80% of heroin users start with the use of prescription drugs.
Hazlett said one study showed that 82% of rural people live in a county without resources to deal with the opioid crisis, but that telemedicine sessions can be a big help. She said she recently visited eastern Colorado where a doctor in Denver, through telemedicine, provides the only opioid assistance between Denver and the Kansas border.
USDA is using many resources to work on the issue, but Congress could provide more resources through the rural development title in the farm bill, Hazlett said.
Austin, Indiana, the town of 4,000 people that made national headlines, has started weekly dinners on Thursday nights to try to reduce isolation and the temptation of addiction, Hazlett said. The event is called Food 4R Souls and has its own website (http://food4rsouls.org).
“It is very easy to feel overwhelmed working in this space,” Hazlett said.
The Trump administration, she added, sees addressing the opioid crisis as part of its “focus like a laser on rural prosperity.”
Through USDA’s Rural Development Innovation Center, the Trump administration is trying to bring communities together to share ideas on dealing with the crisis, she said.
Johnson and Duvall said addressing the opioid crisis may be an initial opportunity for Farm Bureau and Farmers Union to work together on other issues.
“Washington, D.C., is really dysfunctional and it is not just a problem in Congress, it is a problem out in our home communities,” Johnson said. “This shows that NFU and Farm Bureau are not in opposition on everything,” and can provide an example of working together.
Duvall said, “We have to stay united, can’t splinter off. We will lose the power we have in Washington.”
Agriculture, he noted, “still swings a big stick” despite the decline in the number of farmers.
At the Farmers Union banquet, Hazlett described the battle against opioids as “the battle for life.”