The Mental Health Case for Leaving Factory Farms Behind

Some farmers are transitioning from factory farms to plant-based businesses — with the hope of changing more than the food system.

A hand holding a seedling.

Reported Food Workers

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Paula Boles says her husband, Dale, didn’t want to be a farmer, but when his father passed away he found himself in possession of the family farm. Growing up, he helped raise cattle, rice and tobacco. But together the couple decided to transition the farm into something new — a chicken farm — and that’s when their problems began.

It’s a story common to the  contract chicken farming business. The Boles were told by Tyson that raising broiler chickens would allow the couple to make easy money in retirement. Instead, they found themselves spiraling into debt, struggling to stay afloat while Tyson continued to profit. “I considered ourselves indentured servants ’cause that’s…the way we were treated,” says Paula Boles.

Boles says she and her husband didn’t just suffer financially. Raising broilers for Tyson jeopardized their mental health and strained their marriage. For the Boles, the path out of that crisis was to become one of the few early adopters to transition out of raising livestock — converting their chicken houses to greenhouses.

They aren’t alone. Though the movement is still small, it is growing, thanks in part to efforts by projects like Transfarmation and Rowdy Girl Sanctuary. For the Boles, transitioning away from raising meat for corporations has helped reduce their stress and provide freedom that they hadn’t enjoyed during their years of raising chickens.

In part that’s because contrary to what they were told by Tyson, the business of raising chickens for the poultry conglomerate controlled their lives. Paula recalls having to get up at 3 AM to check on the birds and the sheds anytime an alarm would go off, alerting them to something amiss. The demand was so great that Dale Boles even missed their son’s college graduation, as he was unable to leave the farm.

Factory Farming Linked to Stress

In 2018, the CDC identified farmers as the occupation with the highest rate of suicide. While that specific finding was retracted due to an inaccurate interpretation of the data, mental health struggles remain a challenge in the agriculture industry.

As a therapist focused on serving farmers in rural Minnesota, Ted Matthews has firsthand experience with the mental health crisis in farming. One of the major stressors Matthews points to is the increasing size of farm operations. “Not that long ago if you had 100 or 200 cows you were a big dairy,” he says. But today some dairies have tens of thousands of cows. As competitors grow in size, it’s becoming harder and harder to compete, driving smaller-scale farmers into predatory contracts with conglomerates like Tyson and Smithfield.

Once they’ve signed a contract, the farmer loses all control over how animals are raised and, as was the case for the Boles, they don’t even own the livestock they’re housing.

That lack of control over everything from stocking density to feed represents a major stressor for farmers, says Tyler Whitley based upon his meetings with dozens of them. Whitley spearheads Transfarmation, one of the projects focused on helping farmers transition out of livestock, like the Boles.

Trapped in a contract with Tyson, Paula watched as thousands of chicks were dumped unceremoniously into their chicken sheds, with no regard for the condition of the animals. “You can tell within 24 hours whether you’re screwed or not,” says Boles, as some of the flocks were from hatcheries that produced “better birds.”

As the flock got older, she would walk through the sheds filled “wall to wall and door to door” with chickens. Sometimes while making the trek she’d see a bird stiffen and fall back, a sure sign of a heart attack. “It was just really inhumane,” she says.

If the dead weren’t removed daily, the other birds would start pecking at the carcasses. Cleaning up the expired chickens was no easy task. “Out of that many birds, you’re going to have some die everyday,” she says. And as they grew heavier, several trips were required to haul their dead bodies out.

She recalls feeling especially distraught when, just a few short weeks later, they would be caught, placed into cages and loaded onto the trucks. It wasn’t uncommon for birds to die during loading or on the trip to the slaughterhouse. For Boles, the animal suffering was compounded by the fact that every dead bird represented money lost and more debt.

From Chicken Barns to Growing Greens

Eventually, they were able to leverage their retirement savings and Dale’s construction experience to transition their chicken sheds to greenhouses for growing greens. Now ,they help guide other farmers looking to do the same.

Even though they now have greenhouses instead of chicken houses, the Boles are still dealing with the fallout of running a broiler farm. In 2020, Dale had a heart attack that the first responders didn’t think he would survive. The cause: stress-induced heart damage that Paula believes was from their time running the chicken farm. His survival was thanks to “the grace of God,” she says.

While the Boles are by no means alone in their concern for the welfare of their animals, Matthews points out that many farmers view it as simply “part of the job.” Some situations, however, are so horrible that basically everyone is impacted.

He points to hog farmers during COVID-19. Due to slaughterhouse shutdowns, farmers “had to euthanize pigs [who] were totally healthy.” The farmers’ job during that time basically became killing pigs and dumping the bodies. They have “nightmares about those kinds of things,” says Matthews.

In Whitley’s experience, even if poor animal welfare is considered just part of being a livestock farmer, it often contributes to why the farmers he works with want to transition their farms. “They’ll name living next to a barn of screaming pigs or chickens [or] picking up dead chickens” as quality of life issues associated with being a farmer, says Whitley.

Compounding the issue is a reluctance to talk about their mental health. Farmers “don’t look at it like mental health,” says Matthews. “They look at it like mental illness,” which makes them reluctant to seek help.

For Paula Boles, their experience has led to a better future, enabling her to help others struggling in her community. She spends her days growing flowers and produce in her chicken sheds turned greenhouses. Of the converted structures she says: “the same greenhouse I used to cry over at night [allows us] to grow…microgreens and bless people.”

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