A Black man wearing a baseball cap and navy blue button-up shirt stands with his arms crossed and smiles at the camera. He is standing in a rounded glass enclosure with rows of crops growing behind him.
Musa Hasan is one of many Georgia farmers speaking out about the overlooked mental health struggles of Black farmers. (Photo courtesy of Bread and Butter Farms)

Since his 2006 military deployment, Iraq veteran and fourth-generation farmer Aubrey Berry suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The stress and anxiety accumulated from military life left Aubrey yearning for mental and emotional restoration.    

Farming is a form of therapy for Aubrey and the rest of the Berry men at Berry Farm in Ludowici, located 55 miles southwest of Savannah.  

Trying to care for the 500-acre farm can be mentally and physically straining for the Berry men who are also husbands and fathers.

“This is where I go to calm my mind,” Aubrey said, gesturing to the farm’s expansive cabbage field behind him. “If I weren’t doing this, I would probably be in bad shape.”

For Georgia’s Black farmers, agriculture is not only a means to produce food and other crops; it also serves to address mental health problems.   

The unpredictability of weather, climate change’s unseasonable droughts, flooding, storms, freezes and physical strains make farming one of the most stressful jobs in the U.S.  

Multiple studies show the suicide rates of farmers are two to five times higher than the national average. 

While there is a significant increase in society’s mental health awareness, farmers are often omitted from the conversation. At least these are the sentiments of farmer Bobby Wilson, the president and CEO of Metro Atlanta Urban Farm in College Park. 

Georgia’s State Affairs reported that 29% of farmers said they thought of dying by suicide at least once a month. Of the farmers surveyed, 42% had suicidal thoughts at least once in the last year, while 47% said they experienced loneliness at least once a month. 

If you happen to pass by Wilson’s three-story College Park Victorian home-turned-agricultural oasis, there is a strong likelihood you may come across a “free food” sign posted just out front. After 20 years of building community gardens, Wilson invested his retirement money to create a nonprofit farm that feeds more than 200 families per week.  

Since 2009, Wilson supplies organic produce for community members, mentors youth from the juvenile justice court system and hosts agricultural workshops to collaborate with college students.

Statistics provided by Feeding America estimate that one in nine people face hunger in Georgia. 

A Black man with a wide-brimmed hat and a bright blue polo crouches in the dirt and tends to plants in his garden.

Wilson said he made it his life’s mission to assist in feeding the hungry and to help “eliminate food deserts” and improve “access to healthy food options” in Atlanta. He said the image of starving children and adults can be a depressing sight to see and helping others gives his life purpose while simultaneously helping to relieve his own anxiety and seasonal depression. 

At 74 years old, Wilson boasts he can outwork the average 20 to 30-year-old entry-level farmer, but he finds that tending to his farm is most fulfilling with the help of his community.  

“It’s not as easy as just talking about my feelings to a mental health professional,” Wilson said. “I rely on the support of my family and my community.” 

Wilson credits non-controllable factors such as long hours, social isolation and economic difficulties as just some of the mental burdens affecting agricultural workers.  

He also cites another contributing factor impacting his mental health. 

“The real cancer,” Wilson said, “is the government’s ongoing discrimination against farmers of color.”  

To continue his life’s work, Wilson is forced to turn to the federal government for financial aid. Unfortunately for Black farmers, asking for assistance often feels like begging, and begging means you have already been overlooked. For farmers like him, it negatively affects their mental health. 

“It is extremely depressing when you can’t think of a single reason why the government is adamantly denying your application for a loan, despite the obvious,” Wilson said, nodding to his hands spread out in front of him.   

Wilson’s wife, Margarett, pleads with him to give up the long fight, telling him, “It’s just not worth it.” 

Most recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the Discrimination Financial Assistance Program for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners who experienced discrimination in its farm lending programs before January 2021. Congress provided a total of $2.2 billion for this program. If awarded, individuals can earn a settlement up to a certain amount depending on how many eligible applicants get approved.  

Berry Farm filed its application by the Jan. 13, 2024 deadline. 

“The USDA’s lending process, for the last century, is not set up for supposed nontraditional growers, including the farmers who face high rejection and withdrawal rates as a result,” said Zach Ducheneaux, the Farm Service Administrator at USDA.  

The application process to receive loans and grants from the government is often tedious for Georgia farmers. When applications are denied, the USDA allows farmers to file an appeals request.  

As an agency of the USDA, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) is supposed to offer loans to help farmers and ranchers get the financing they need to start, expand, or maintain a family farm. Despite the USDA’s zero-tolerance of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability, Wilson is just one of many farmers alleging the USDA’s notorious history of inequity against farmers of color.   

Family is everything for organic farmers Musa and Micole Hasan at Bread and Butter Farms in Sparta, 30 miles northeast of Milledgeville. They run their 10-acre vegetable farm with the help of their four children. But when Musa received devastating news about a close family member’s deteriorating health condition, he dropped everything to be present and it impacted his mental health.  

Hasan said he experienced stress-induced panic attacks at least once a day. While he appreciated the support he received from his friends and family, the emotional, physical and financial burdens of managing a farm while caring for a loved one proved to be cumbersome at times.    

Hasan claims he was continuously denied access to USDA low-interest rate loans and loan servicing, grant programs and assistance, despite meeting all the requirements and having the right credentials. These rejections impacted his mental health as well. 

A 2022 NPR analysis of USDA data found that Black farmers receive a disproportionately low share of direct loans given to farmers, leaving them behind in a program that is important to their livelihoods. Direct loans are supposed to be among the easiest to get at USDA, however, the analysis found that only 36% of farmers who identified as Black were granted direct loans. In contrast, 72% of white farmers who applied were approved.

The USDA has long tried to fix these systemic problems, but many farmers like Hasan remain skeptical that its efforts will ultimately benefit those who need it most. Rather than wait on the government to make amends for previous and current wrongdoings, Musa said he is most inspired by his community’s refusal to simply wait.  

“Instead,” Hasan explained, “folks are stepping outside of the obstacles and the structural racism to create the organizations and mentorship programs that they needed without solely depending on the government.” 

Bread and Butter Farms collaborates with MARTA stations and various farmers’ markets. It also has partnerships with different organizations, such as the Athens Land Trust, to work with underserved and underprivileged communities. 

“When I needed them most, my government failed me,” Hasan said. “My greatest advice to any farmer facing similar problems is to turn to your family and community. That, in itself, reduces your anxiety.”  

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