Rural stress and carrying the yoke of the family farm

An invisible threat feasts on fears of declining cattle prices and thrives on unpaid bills, hail forecasts and sleepless nights. It is in you and it is in me and if it is not under control, neither is the farm. Stress, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, plays a crucial role in farming and it is a major health concern for anyone in agriculture.

In a webinar conducted by the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, several rural health experts discussed stress-related issues for people in the agriculture industry. Sean Brotherson, professor and Extension family science specialist at North Dakota State University, says agriculture is in the top 10 of most stressful occupations.

“People who work in agriculture tend to have a higher rate of some physical health- and stress-related challenges such as heart disease, hypertension and mental and emotional health related concerns.”

Corey Smith, assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, says a mild or moderate amount of stress is beneficial, because it gives us the opportunity to adapt to stressful situations. However, Smith says if the stress is persistent or at a long-standing level or if it is outside of our control, the ability to bounce back is compromised, which is known as distress. In these cases, the stress exceeds the internal capacity to adapt physiologically.

“In the short term, the body learns to adapt, but the body also sends signals like headaches, indigestion and sleeplessness, but could also lead to more chronic health conditions if not tended to, like high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar or sexual dysfunction,” Smith said. “If the source of the stress continues, these regulatory systems can get stuck in a state of hyper activity. Unless we take action, high levels of chronic stress will increase the risk for stress-related illness, injury and decreased life expectancy.”

Another way to think about stress is in the aggregate or a population level. Smith says injury and fatalities for farmers are among the highest of any occupation. Studies have shown that stress contributes to an elevated risk of injury in farmers.

“This includes inattentiveness due to fatigue and distraction resulting from high levels of stress while operating farm machinery,” Smith said.

Taking mental health seriously

Smith says a more direct relationship between stress and farm and ranch families occurs in the mental health domain.

“High rates of depressive symptoms have been reported in recent surveys of agricultural workers,” he said. “Depression, if left untreated is the most consistent risk factor for suicide attempts.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016 death by suicide among male farmers and ranchers was significantly higher than for males in all other occupations combined. Suicide among male farmers and ranchers was over three times higher than the age-adjusted suicide rate in the general U.S. population in the same year.

Brotherson said people in agriculture experience stress from a variety of factors that are beyond their immediate control, such as commodity prices, whether that is crops or livestock and weather conditions.

“Additionally, the way agriculture operates financially, it can be stressful getting an operating loan each year and managing debt payments for equipment and land,” Brotherson added.

Another contributor to stress is long hours, because farmers are often working a separate job and farming extra hours to make ends meet. That can cause family stress and exhaustion. This tension on the farm is often carried into the home as well. Brotherson says more stress increases cases of domestic violence and harsher parenting.

“Stress tends to ripple through the family, but in these times, it’s critical that people have resources to maintain their health.”

To complicate it further, many farms are family partnership operations and there can be strain in the decision making if there are disagreements. Brotherson says with all of these factors, there can be a storm of stress with people experiencing things that sometimes feel like they are beyond their immediate control.

“Under conditions of stress, people tend to have more complicated and poor decision making,” Brotherson explained. “When their decision making needs to be at its best, stress can make them more likely to make poor decisions.”

Carrying the weight of the family farm legacy

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To some, the most stressful aspect of farming is carrying the family farm on one’s shoulders and worrying every day that one bad decision could spell the end of a multi-generational operation. To farmers, it is like losing a living, breathing family heirloom that can never be restored again.

“The psychology of being involved in agriculture is often that people see it as not just a job, but as a piece of their identity and a way of life,” Brotherson said. “It is a generational history that they have the opportunity to be a part of and that they would like to continue. They often have, in a sense, a social mission associated with that, and they must carry on the family legacy.”

Brotherson says many people in agriculture practice what is called the 11th commandment orientation, which is thou shalt farm. Many farmers cannot see themselves working outside of agriculture and it is difficult to imagine themselves doing anything else, which puts pressure on them.

“Particularly for men who work in agriculture, they get much of their sense of identity from working in agriculture,” Brotherson said. “If they are struggling in that field, they tend to have feelings of inadequacy, feelings that they are not succeeding financially and it’s common for men to have a diminished sense of self that they are not succeeding in their role of farmer or rancher.”

The American farmer is dealing more pressure and stress than most people who walk this Earth. The strain has been and always will be there, the only answer we have is to be proactive in recognizing the symptoms and effects of stress-related reactions and seek help.

“Just as people value and depend on their equipment to function well at a critical time of need, the same is true in times of stress,” Brotherson said. “We depend on our health as a critical resource to allow us to function in times of elevated stress. Your health is just as important as your equipment when it comes to working a farm successfully.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].