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Opioid epidemic hits America’s farmers and ranchers

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

An October 2017 survey sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and National Farmers Union (NFU) and conducted by Morning Consult showed 74 percent of farmers and farmworkers say they have been directly impacted by the opioid epidemic. Additionally, 45 percent of rural adults say they have been impacted. 

“This is a serious and sobering epidemic that affects our rural communities,” says Sherry Saylor, AFBF’s Women’s Leadership chair. “This isn’t a happy topic, but it’s vital we address opioid addiction.”
Saylor listed several personal examples of friends and neighbors affected by opioid addiction, noting her examples are not unique. 

“This is a larger problem for rural America than it is for urban America, surprisingly,” Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president, comments. “This is astounding. The degree to which this issue impacts folks in rural America is surprising.”

AFBF President Zippy Duvall adds the availability of opioids is also shocking, which spurs the added need to combat opioids.

“It’s evidently clear the scourge of opioid addiction has hit farming in rural communities in many states very hard,” Saylor says. “AFBF and NFU have united in a campaign called ‘Farm Town Strong’ to raise awareness, provide a list of resources and start a conversation about rural opioid addiction.”


The complexity of the opioid crisis is extensive, and the Morning Consult says three in four farmers say it would be easy to access a large amount of prescription opioids or painkillers without a prescription, while only 46 percent of rural adults say the same. 

On the flip side, only one in three rural adults say it would be easy to access treatment for their addiction to prescription drugs, and only two in five are confident care would be covered by insurance, convenient or affordable. 

“We’ve known for some time that opioid addiction was a serious problem in farm country, but numbers like these are heartbreaking,” Duvall says. “Opioids have been too easy to come by and too easy to become addicted to.”

However, the survey also found 50 percent of rural adults recognize that opioid addiction is a disease, rather than due to a lack of willpower. Additionally, 75 percent of rural adults recognize abuse of opioids can begin accidentally with the use of what are deemed safe painkillers. 

“Literature suggests 80 percent of those who are addicted to opioids started with legal prescription medication for pain,” according to Johnson. “It likely started because they got run over by a cow or hurt in a farm accident. We have to treat this like we would any other disease.”

Coming together

Each day, 91 people in the U.S. die from opioid addiction, and Duvall explains, “If we, as rural Americans, can come together to help people understand they shouldn’t be ashamed about their addiction, we can help rehabilitate their lives and put them back on a productive route.”

“We chose ‘Farm Town Strong’ as the name of our campaign to point out the strength of the production ag community,” Johnson continues. “If there is one thing the farming and ranching community is known for, if someone is hurt, the whole community turns out to help them.”

Duvall and Johnson both urged communities to reach out and rally around those with addiction, supporting them through the recovery process. 

“If there is a bright side to this dark cloud, it is that when times are really tough in ag, the communities come together,” Johnson says. “This is the sort of behavior we encourage around this issue.”

Rural prosperity

Anne Hazlett, who serves in USDA’s Rural Development program says, the opioid epidemic is more than just a health issue. It is rooted in the prosperity of rural America. 

“While opioids have impacted our country, we see a particularly strong impact on rural communities,” she comments. “In rural America, we have a lot of jobs that are labor intensive with long hours. When someone is hurt, they need something to continue to be able to work.”

In addition, geographic isolation and a degradation of strong relationships has also impacted rural America. A lack of healthcare infrastructure and more can also be implicated in opioid abuse. 

“Under the leadership of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, we are focused on rural prosperity,” Hazlett says. “The challenge of opioid misuse is an issue of rural prosperity and will take all hands on deck to address.”

Hazlett notes dollars spend on drug rehabilitation can have significant impacts on rural businesses. In addition, drug addiction impacts families across the rural U.S.

“When we think about the impact of opioid abuse on families, we see thousands of children being raised by their grandparents or extended family members,” she explains. “Foster care is also up 50 percent in some states, often due to parents dealing with addiction.”

The result is a strain on rural officials, rural budgets and more. 

“These costs are very, very real,” Hazlett emphasizes. “At USDA, we see the opioid epidemic as not just a healthcare issue but an issue of rural prosperity.”

Coming together

To solve the problem of opioid addiction in rural areas, Duvall, Hazlett and Johnson all note working together will help develop a solution. 

Duvall pointed to 2,600 county farm bureaus to mobilize and address the myriad of issues that result in opioid abuse. 

Hazlett said, “First, I would encourage everyone to get engaged and build a local team. Identify community assets available and work together to identify needs, decide what to tackle and jump in.” 

Secondly, she notes building relationships within the community to develop a sense of support for one another will be important.

“As time has gone by, farms have gotten larger and the distance between people has gotten bigger,” Johnson continues. “Getting folks together to sit down, communicate and understand what’s going on will be an important part of the solution.”

“We’re on different sides of many policy issues between AFBF and NFU, of course, but on the big things, we’re in lock-step,” says Johnson. “This is an issue that we’re proud to partner on.”

Saylor comments, “We have to go back to the basics and help each other on this issue. We have to continue fighting this addiction, especially in rural communities.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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