Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Farmers Learn To Live With High Risk Decisions

September 6, 2010

An awesome responsibility of farmers is to reduce risk in a business environment that is inherently competitive and risky. Production has to be good. Cash flow is important. Marketing is crucial. The potential is there to make good money and have really good years.

The downside is that farming can have major losses even when the decisions are sound. It is a nervy, high stress way of making a living. Add how farmers love their profession and way of life and you have high emotions entering the decision-making process.

What to plant? When to plant? How to market? How to deal with equipment repair and replacement? What to spray and when? Fertilizers? Major land purchases? Is there enough work and income to support additional families? What about new technology and new ideas?

Depression can paralyze the decision-making process. Depression needs medical and psychological attention. Some farmers may develop excessive worry or anxiety about their fears and decision-making. They may need professional help in getting their anxieties under control. Obsessive worry can take the fun out of farming.

How should farmers approach decision-making? Seek information. Consult with knowledgeable people. Be a good listener. Get "big picture" information about weather, markets, new technology, agronomics, machinery, etc. Do a "pro" and "con" list but also take your "gut" feeling into account.

Have consensus decisions on big ticket items. Persuade, educate and give farming partners time to think through the issue and give their ideas. A family business meeting is ideal for drawing out ideas and developing a unified strategy on key decisions.

Some decisions (land, major equipment) may take months and even years before they are enacted. If decisions are made this way, there will be few "I told you so’s." Family members will share in the responsibility. Both sides of an issue need to come out with plenty of comparison information and shopping around to be done.

Carry out experimental decisions on part of your operation before converting the whole enterprise to the new idea. New ideas should have to prove themselves with first hand experience or based on proven results and research data from a trusted source.

How does a farmer let go of decisions once they've been made?

It is a matter of controlling the controllable and letting go of the uncontrollable. Once a decision has been made, farmers need to detach from it and have the patience to sit back and wait. To second guess or blame oneself puts unnecessary agony and anxiety into farming.

There are plenty of day-to-day decisions to worry about without revisiting a decision you’ve already made. Make the tough decision and then work hard to make the decision the right one.

This detachment can take the form of concentrating on a quality family life, hobbies, community

involvement, church activities, friendships, leisure and developing an ability to relax. If something needs to be done then you do it. Otherwise farmers can handle stress better by looking after other things and rethinking their major decisions only when new developments occur.

Decision-making is easier when farmers have an equity base and savings that enable them to withstand the bad years and capitalize on the good years. A lot of pressure can be taken off farmers when they set aside savings or investments that can buffer hard times. The conservative use of money and the retirement of debt after good years sets up farmers for a calmer existence in the future.

Farming on the edge has higher levels of stress as the threat of loss becomes more real. Farmers with high debt loads and a tenuous foothold in farming despite their best decisions have a battle with depression and anxiety.

Farmers in this position need to consult with outside sources for an analysis of their situation and be open to options and alternatives. Stress will moderate when people have hope and confidence that they have a good plan and that it is working. Lenders need to be brought into the loop as options are explored.

How do farmers live with mistakes? If farmers see themselves as learning and growing, mistakes are useful information upon which to make future decisions. Paying attention to mistakes and correcting them is the name of the game. Nobody is perfect. By trying things, people learn and improve what they are doing. As one farmer said, "We try not to make the same mistake twice."

Farmers also benefit from their inner confidence in their overall decision making. Success builds on success. If over the years their decisions have generally been good, then new circumstances cannot intimidate them as easily. They may not know the immediate answers, but they can have confidence that they have risen to the occasion in the past and are likely to do so again.

Experience in farming gives farmers a sense of security when making decisions under stressful circumstances. Basic optimism and self-confidence go a long way in life and in farming.

Decisions are the building blocks of life. The big ones take thought, communication and research. The next step farmers have to take is a step back - to watch, learn, adjust and to go easy on themselves as conditions change. A sense of humor, a balanced lifestyle and a spiritually grounded view of life make that step back an enjoyable one.