By Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, USDA
No one comes together during a crisis like the American farmer. From economic downturns to natural disasters, farmers and ranchers have faced them all and come out standing tall. We need that spirit of cooperation and perseverance now to face the deadly crisis of opioid misuse in rural America.
Thankfully, we have a great partner in National Farmers Union (NFU). For well over a century, NFU has advocated for the well-being and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and fishermen and the small towns they call home.
In recent years, prosperity in these treasured places has been deeply impacted by the darkness of addiction. Nearly 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2016, which is the most in history and more than the number of lives lost in a car accident or gun-related homicide. Many of these deaths stemmed from a misuse of opioids. This crisis has hit rural America especially hard, with nearly 74 percent of farmers impacted directly, according to a survey conducted by NFU and the American Farm Bureau Federation last fall.
My own roots in this issue stem back to 2015 when my home state of Indiana made national headlines after the small rural town of Austin experienced a significant disease outbreak stemming from drug use. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to learn more while working on Capitol Hill and serving in volunteer ministry in West Virginia. And, today, I am extraordinarily blessed with the opportunity to serve at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at a time when the need for leadership in rural America could not be greater.
Under the leadership of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, our team is focused on increasing economic opportunity and improving the quality of life in rural America. We believe that the issue of addiction in rural communities is more than a health issue: this is a matter of rural prosperity. From Michigan to Montana, the opioid crisis is impacting worker productivity, increasing health care demands, and putting substantial stress on limited emergency response and law enforcement resources. This issue is also making economic development even more difficult for rural communities that are already operating on slim budgets and struggling to attract new business.
We need all hands on deck to confront and solve this problem. At USDA, we are focused on assisting rural leaders in building an effective local response through program investment, strategic partnerships, and best practices identification and implementation. As we move forward in this effort, I am most grateful for the leadership of NFU in stepping up to raise awareness about this important but difficult issue. From speaking at prominent agriculture events to their FarmTownstrong.org website, NFU and its members are helping impacted farm and ranch families and rural places find hope by breaking down shame and linking up with resources.
I had an opportunity to join President Johnson and Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall in January for a panel discussion about the opioid epidemic at the annual Farm Bureau meeting in Nashville. Similarly, I am excited to be coming to Kansas City next month to join these two leaders once again for a panel at NFU’s annual convention. These types of conversations not only help shine light on an otherwise dark issue, but they open up the doors of creativity as we begin to share practical ideas about how to build a strong response at that community level.
More than talk, I am looking forward to working with NFU and our other agriculture partners to stand tall together against opioid misuse in rural America. On the Farmtownstrong.org website, Farm Bureau and NFU include a bold declaration: “Farm towns will overcome this epidemic through strong farmer-to-farmer support and the resilience of our communities.” We could not agree more with this sentiment and stand ready to be a partner with rural America in this fight.
Anne Hazlett serves as the Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development at the United States Department of Agriculture. An Indiana native, she has a deep and lifelong passion for rural America, small towns and the people who call them home.
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