There is no other way to say it, farming is not for all; actually, let me try that again, farming is not for most. The long days of hard work lead into even longer nights. The continual starting and stopping, according to Mother Nature’s current demeanor, can cause severe anxiety and frustration.
Farming is not an occupation – it’s a lifestyle. Farm life, the backbone of the American economy, is often idealized due to its rewarding nature and family-oriented community members. It is really not all that difficult to see why it might be viewed abstractly in that regard; however, the challenges involved in this way of life may be lost to the uninitiated or unaware.
“This has been the most stressful year for dairy farmers in my 30-year career,” says Iowa State University Extension Dairy Specialist Dr. Larry Tranel. People in rural communities are very willing to help others and rarely seem to ask for favors in return, and therein lies part of the concern. Producers are categorically less likely to seek professional help from doctors or counselors but, “Only by promoting and the discussions can we change the culture of stress in agriculture,” says Tranel. As the mental and physical demands of our producers increase daily, farming has become one of the most stressful occupations in the United States.
Even during the best of times balancing family life, budgets, plans for the future and keeping up with developments in production provide many challenges. Then add in an imbalanced and unstable economy, trade disputes, and more frequently occurring extreme weather events and you can begin to understand the multitude of concerns facing our producers. You may notice that most of the concerns are out of the hands of the producers themselves, enhancing the stress of trying to earn a livelihood while contending with elements out of their control; producers and their families may feel that their management decisions were the cause of their troubles instead of these external forces. We hear it time and time again that uncertain financial times may require producers to reevaluate their current operations as a means to continue the legacy of the family farm. However, these cutbacks can extend further than refining production practices. Producers are tightening household budgets, spending less on recreation activities and family life. Those who labor to put food on our table are having a difficult time to put food on their own.
Everyone handles pressure differently so it is vital to educate yourself about warning signs of stress and depression. Tranel says, “Start by educating oneself and help others understand stress; we all experience it varying levels so let’s learn about it and learn to best deal with it in a proactive, not passive or reactive way.” In the same way, how individuals cope with stress can be quite different, as well; some people may cope with a stressful situation by addressing the problem directly and avoiding other important things such as health, family relationships, sleep, and safety. Prolonged stress diminishes our capacity for considering problems and evaluating solutions which may limit the ability to make sound decisions. “Current research in brain health indicates that exposure to prolonged stress can cause long-term changes in the brain including brain structure and function, which could lead to poor emotional regulation and impaired thinking,” says University of Illinois Extension Family Life Educator Karla Belzer. When feelings of stress are overwhelming, write down your goals to help think them through properly; “Writing it down is like a tire that gains traction, just thinking in our own heads is a spinning wheel,” says Tranel.
Poor decision making can lead to injury and when you consider that farming is among the most stressful occupations, it is no surprise that it is also one of the most dangerous. This idea that stress impacts judgment which can lead to injury and in turn cause additional stress creates a feedback loop that can feel impossible to escape. By being aware of what you or someone you know may be going through and how they are reacting is the first step in managing these conditions to be able to move forward. Feelings of emotional distress, anxiety, depression, anger, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse are all potential warning signs to be aware of. If you or someone you know may be experiencing some of these feelings, talking to the person, while difficult, may be the best way to let them know they are not alone; discovering that others may be feeling similarly can help reduce feelings of isolation or helplessness. It is not always easy or comfortable to ask someone how they are doing in stressful times, but more often than not, people will be appreciative and relieved that someone noticed, that someone cares. This might be all it takes.
Stress responses, particularly during the hectic planting and harvest seasons, as well as the inherent isolation which can accompany farming may lead to limited opportunities to talk to someone about how you may be feeling. ”Being connected to a social network is critical to help manage stress and reducing negative impacts,” says John Shutske, professor and Extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sharing your concerns and fears with your family are great ways to relieve stress and keep your family aware of the situation instead of alienating them. If speaking to friends and family does not feel appropriate, speaking to your doctor about your experiences is another option to begin to address these concerns to receive information, treatment, or a referral to a specialist. Some specialist support services are free of charge and available online or over the phone. In some cases, counselors who are trained with practical solutions may even come to you. “Stress, stressors, and our responses are a normal part of life. The ways in which we respond are what is critical,” Shutske says.
“We have to start by encouraging smart use of health care; financial issues aside; you need to start with a baseline of health. No farmer would dream of spending several hundred thousand dollars on a new piece of equipment and then put low-grade, low-quality fuel in and expect peak performance. Yet that is how we often treat our bodies in times of stress,” Shutske says. Being fit helps our bodies cope with the rigors of stress; activities such as eating healthy, keeping a sense of humor, getting adequate sleep, keeping physically active, staying socially active, and spending some time away from the farm are some options to help one stay fit to enjoy the good times and weather the tough times. Most importantly, do not become discouraged if your first efforts to reduce stress are unsuccessful as there will not be a one size fits all solution; your care may need to be tailored to you.
If all of these options do not fit your situation and you need of someone to talk to, call the suicide prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255 and 800-784-2433 or visit http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. “In severe situations where you see a loved one in imminent danger, please stay with them, call 9-1-1, drive them to someone they trust, but please don’t leave them alone.” Tranel says. It is important to understand that these feelings may manifest themselves in different ways. Remember that you are not alone, that your neighbors may be feeling the same way, and that those in your community will likely come to your aid if only you should ask.
Phillip Alberti is a University of Illinois Commercial Agriculture Educator.