The high rate of suicide among the farming community is alarming, but it is not entirely tied to the plummeting commodity prices as most believe. There is no question that low prices for milk, soybeans and corn have increased farmer stress throughout the country. What few understand are a number of other factors associated with the increased stress farmers face today. By putting our energy into what we can change, instead of being overwhelmed by what we have no control over, we can reduce our stress.
There is generalized stress year-round.
First, you need to get your books in order to apply for your operating loan. You hope you have everything in order, that interest rates are low, that your equity in the farm will be able to cover the loan, and in some cases, that your spouse will sign the note.
Secondly, after you have secured the loan, you buy what you will need to operate. Then it is time to plant, weather permitting. Will it be too wet, too dry, too hot or cold?
Once you get the seed in the ground, the anxiety over the need for rain and warmth for the seed to take sets in. Will it come in time, and could there be a rogue cold-snap that will kill-off any vulnerable young growth?
After getting through the planting season, there is little respite from worry and planning. Pests, diseases, natural disasters and weather are all potential threats to the crop, but if you can skirt past those issues then it is time to think about harvesting.
At harvest time, it is a race against the weather again, and you do what you can to keep your equipment in good working order, but break-downs every now and then are inevitable. You hope they happen when there is a buffer of time to deal with it, but that rarely happens. After the harvest it is time to come full-circle once again and take a good hard look at the books, so you can begin the dance with the lender all over again.
Dairy farms have an even harder time if you can believe it! The sinking milk prices mean that many farmers are getting paid less than what it costs to operate. That is why we are seeing so many dairy farms go under this year. These farmers often start their days before the sun comes up and this work schedule is year-round. There is no vacation time for dairy farmers and no days off.
This is a small glimpse into what farmers go through throughout the year.
As you know, it is an extremely stressful profession as it is, without the dropping commodity prices, and there is little that can be done to change that. So the issue becomes, what can we do?
By putting our energy into what we can change, instead of being overwhelmed by what we have no control over, we can reduce our stress. Farming has always been a very stressful occupation, with so many possible negative outcomes, and everyone handles stress in different ways. Some people seem to shoulder a great deal of stress while others are unable to do the same.
In order to look at ways to lower our stress, we need to identify what our emotional makeup is without judging ourselves harshly.
Getting angry with ourselves for not being able to handle all of our stress is not only not going to hep but will be counter productive. A lot as been talked and written about farmer suicide. Several of the above mentioned stressors have been attributed to farmers taking their own lives; however, there are more issues around farm stress to look at:
Communication on the Farm
This is more and more important as the role of women on the farm has changed. Women often times do the books, and work off-farm to help supplement the farm. So there are far more things to talk about and far less time to talk. As men feel stress they tend to pull back further and further, and talk less and less. My dealings with many women in agriculture shows their number one issue on the farm is lack of communication. Men, on the other hand, when stressed, tend to communicate less.
Multigenerational Farm Transition
It is a myth that fathers would hand over their farms to their child (or children) because they wanted to retire. Farmers turn over their farm when they are physically unable to farm any longer. This has created a great deal of stress because in the past several thousand years our bodies wore out in their 40s or early 50s. Thanks to technology and medical advancements, farmers often times can and do farm well into their 80s. This creates a middle generation that will probably never take over the farm, and it will be their children that the farm is passed onto.
Chores for Our Children
For generations, children have been a viable workforce on the farm. In this day and age, we fewer and fewer children doing chores for a variety of reasons. We must all remember that work ethic does not come from philosophy, it comes from work. Our children doing chores on the farm, is in my opinion, not only often times necessary, but crucial on a family farm.
How farmers got to know their mother and father was by doing farm chores alongside them. For generations, farm families had a stronger bond due to their constant relationship in all aspects of their lives. I think it is a wonderful thing for families to work together as that helps to creates what many farm families want and value most - a strong family bond.
What can we do about the stress on the farm?
Although it is impossible to prevent stress, there are things we can do to lower it. The focus needs to be on the family bond and the team approach to our future as farmers. I recommend to all couples that I work with that they spend a minimum of 15 minutes every day to talk about their common daily occurrences.
Before you think about how easy that would be, try it for seven days. Most of you will see it is more difficult than you thought. The simple reasons for that is that two heads are better than one and bonding comes with communication.
I will conclude this article by saying we must remember to be nice to one another. When we think of being nice, we need to first look in the mirror. By being kind to ourselves, we have a greater capacity to be kind to others.
For more helpful advice about improving farmer mental health visit www.farmcounseling.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.