The Opioid Crisis Infiltrates America’s Farmlands

A US farm

Truly, America’s farmlands are the heart of America. With millions of acres of fertile fields ready for crops that will feed the world, the sight of waving grain or cornstalks are symbolic of America’s greatness. You might think this is the last place that drug abuse or addiction would be a problem. Sadly, that is no longer true.

A recent survey probed the depth of the addiction problem among rural and farming communities, with an emphasis on our current opioid crisis. Here’s what this survey found.

  • Seventy-four percent of residents in rural communities have experienced the impact of the opioid epidemic on their own lives or the lives of people they know.
  • Between 1999 and 2015, the rate of opioid overdose deaths among 18-to-25-year-old rural residents quadrupled.
  • For females in rural areas, the rate of overdose deaths tripled.
  • The number of newborn babies struggling with the effects of drugs the mother consumed has been increasing across the country. In rural areas, this problem has been increasing twice as fast as in metropolitan areas.
  • Scarce resources for addiction treatment in areas that are largely rural could be aggravating the situation.

As in many other regions, this problem was sparked by overprescribing of opioid painkillers. It’s easy for farm and blue-collar work to cause injuries, either through accidents or repetitive stress. The days of freewheeling prescribing of OxyContin, Percocet and Lortab may be waning, but nearly two million Americans are already addicted. When money or prescriptions run out, desperate patients may turn to heroin dealers who are easier to find than ever before, even in the country.

Natural Disasters Aggravate the Situation

A different study from Penn State found that this already-bad situation is worsened when you factor in natural disasters like extreme weather. When natural disasters like floods, droughts or hurricanes occur, opioid overdoses increase. In farm country, opioid overdoses also increased when farm income decreased.

These effects are not surprising. During times of difficulty or heightened stress, those who have learned to rely on the euphoria of opioids are more likely to seek out this source of solace.

Lost Heirs to Carry on the Farming Tradition

Age distribution for drug overdose deaths
Age distribution for drug overdose deaths (Courtesy of CDC)

In this chart, you can see the age distribution of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. In rural areas, those aged 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 are likely to be the adult children of farm owners who would normally be groomed to take over the family business. If they are addicted or die of overdoses, there may be no capable heirs to take over.

Rural Life is No Protection

It’s not that addiction or overdose death in a rural area is any more or less tragic than a death anywhere else. It’s that it is so unexpected, so out of character for the salt-of-the-earth Americans who raise our food crops. If our current and future farmers are losing their freedom to addiction and their lives to overdoses at the same rate as city dwellers, there is no inch of American that is untouched by this disaster.

Protecting the American way of life means fighting back with every resource at our command including educating our youth on the value and safety of staying drug-free. And helping those who are trapped in their addictions to break free. Please call us if we can help someone you care about.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.