Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Fall Weather Poses Major Stress For Farmers

November 17, 2008

Weather is the greatest test of a farmer's management. Farmers do everything according to the weather, from the spring of the year until after the harvest. The weather determines the priorities of the day. A farmer’s judgment matters. Margins are too thin for bad decisions. That is stress. The only time it doesn't matter is when he is all caught up and that isn't often.

Late season rains have added severe stress to what has otherwise been a good growing year. Farmers are on edge with anxiety and impatience about getting their crops out. The harvest is slow and farmers are looking at small windows of opportunity to get their crops off. The corn is wet and winter is coming. This is no small thing in the Midwest and upper Midwest.

So how do farmers cope with the stress of weather? The weather isn't an enemy. It is what it is. Though stressful, winning the battle with weather brings feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. It validates a farmer’s skill.

There are some things to watch for when fall harvest is beset with weather problems: worry, haste, fatigue and frustration.

- Task complexity and worry. Accidents happen when farmers attempt a complicated task with sequential steps while preoccupied with other matters. Solution: Postpone worry until later. Use mental discipline to focus on the here and now.

- Haste. Today’s high powered tractors and combines travel at double the speeds of ten or 15 years ago. Farmers can be lulled by their own thoughts while traveling at these higher rates of speed. Solution: Operator attentiveness has to match the increased ground speed at which they are traveling. Farmers can turn the radio on to block out thinking time. Farmers need an extra sense of awareness of the space around them and the technology they are using.

- Sheer fatigue. Farms have grown in size to the point where farm operators push past their physical limits. Solution: Change operators or pull over and take a short nap. Eat nutritious meals. Take away the coffee cup and the poor diet that goes with long hours. For late evening work, a second meal late at night adds energy.

- Anger and frustration. Being angry and frustrated takes energy. Trying to suppress anger and hostility takes energy. Solution: Farmers need an outlet to discuss and process their anger. Decide to deal with certain matters later. This decision removes the need to be agitated and angry at the moment, knowing that the issue will be dealt with in a timely fashion.

Personality characteristics are more pronounced during stressful times.

A typical farmer or rancher personality profile. Most farmers or ranchers and their spouses would agree with this description of themselves: hard workers, conservative decision-makers, practical, orderly,

organized, matter-of-fact, realistic, and dependable. They feel a strong sense of duty. They value belonging and contributing. They are patient with routine and detail. Success comes because of their ability to be persistent and conscientious.

Farmers and ranchers focus on the "here and now" problems and expect the future to take care of itself. They have a need to be in control and take control of situations when they can. They trust their own judgment and analysis. They are independent almost to a fault.

Some common weaknesses. Every set of strengths has its flip side. The same qualities that serve farmers well in their profession can cause problems for themselves and others close to them. Family members of a farmer or rancher see some of these negative characteristics more than they would like.

- Farmers and ranchers take a lot for granted. They are known to be critical, sarcastic or impatient. They tend to overwork while having difficulty with leisure and relaxation. They have a hard time expressing love or appreciation. Because they have high standards of performance, they rarely recognize or comment on the efforts of others unless it is truly exceptional.

- Farmers and ranchers tend toward a "doom and gloom" appraisal of the future. They are not generally open to new ideas unless they are practical, realistic and related to his or her current mode of operation. They may not see the significance of changing times, outside forces or new developments.

Farmers under stress. What kinds of situations are most stressful for farmers or ranchers with this personality profile? They feel stressed out when:

- their plans are blocked, when things don’t go right, when there are too many deadlines. Harvest pressures fit this profile.

- they are confronted with economic uncertainty, when they lack control, when they can’t correct the problem, when the risks are great. Quality of the crop affects financial prospects.

- they are faced with conflict or confrontation, when there are too many people demands, when they feel misunderstood, when they feel let down by someone. Potential for conflict, impatience, and misunderstandings increases during a tough harvest.

- they don’t meet their own expectations, when they make a mistake, when they feel like they’ve failed. Perfectionist, focused and driven farmers expect a lot of themselves and can blame themselves excessively.