Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farmers And Retirement: Do You Hope Or Plan?

May 16, 2011

Living the dream. In the best of all possible worlds, older farmers have a dream. They want to keep on working on the farm. It is their purpose, their dream, their identity.

Many times this dream includes leaving the legacy of the family farm to farming heirs who continue to work the land. They also envision themselves being able to help out by working on the farm in a semi-retired status and by serving as a management consultant to their farming children. They are able to shift a greater share of the physical labor to an adult child or children.

In the best of all possible worlds, their wife shares the same vision of semi-retirement and wants to continue on with a farming lifestyle.

In the best of all possible worlds, farmers hope their health holds up so they can fill their days with work and useful contributions.

Cutting back. Even if there is no farming heir to shoulder the work, older farmers cope with the physical limitations of advancing age by being active in their enterprises. They adapt strategies to compensate for their changing skills and energy levels. They cut back on community volunteering and other enterprises.

They reduce the amount of land they operate by leasing, selling or participating in federal set-aside programs. They cut back on labor-intensive commodities. They often turn to custom work and rely on other "retired" farmers to assist them with spring and fall work.

Each of these strategies enables older farm operators to adjust the scale and/or nature of their enterprise to the realities of their physical situation.

Dealing with reality. Here are six issues to consider that can make farming in older age a liability.

1. Ill health and disability. Ill health or incapacity may force a farmer to leave the farm. Farmers haven’t prepared themselves for less strenuous lifestyles by cultivating interests, leisure and hobbies outside of farm work. Their single-minded focus on farming leaves them bereft of skills, goals and personal identity to cope with a life without farm work and to use their time constructively.

2. Safety issues. With advancing age, farmers are at greater safety risk for a catastrophic accident as they attempt complex and often dangerous tasks. They have a false sense of security and fail to reduce their overall level of physical activity or to modify the type of physical activities that they perform on the farm.

3. Marital discord. A spouse may be looking for new experiences, a less rigorous life, conveniences of town living, travel or being closer to children and grandchildren. Her needs for a retirement away from the farm collides with his needs for identity and daily work. The result is often bickering and contention at a time when both could be enjoying their retirement years together.

4. Too much to do. The size of the operation and lack of a farming heir leaves older farmers with too much hard work and responsibility when they can no longer meet the demands in front of them.

5. Divisive relationships with farming heirs. Farmers often delay retirement because work has an intense personal meaning for them and because they have intensively invested themselves in the survival and growth of their business. To retire is to abdicate control of what gives their lives meaning and what has sustained them economically.

The desire to pass on the farm to the next generation collides with the pride that comes from having sustained the farm through a lifetime of hard work, uncertain commodity prices, high input costs, and bad weather - and the fear that the next generation may not be up to the same challenges.

Resistance to planning for retirement and to transfer ownership and decision-making to successors discourages or drives away farming heirs who have their own goals, differing family needs, or ways to make management decisions.

Sometimes the owner/operators own power and control has been the "glue" that has kept the operation functional. Adult children haven’t learned how to cooperate with each other or haven’t had enough experience with tough decisions without Dad’s protective influence and strong personality.

6. Needs of farming heirs. Sometimes the practical and emotional needs of the next generation of farmers means locating the family on the main farmstead, close to the equipment, shop and center of farm operations and to give the farm family an opportunity to raise their children on the family farm. Moving to town may be the best strategy - but the preparation for adjusting to a life away from the farm has not happened.

Do you hope or do you plan? While acknowledging that there might come a time when farmers would no longer be able to operate the farm, the general feeling is: "I don't plan for this time, it will just happen."

Planning for retirement means making a conscious choice not to put all of one’s identity into farming and to develop other hobbies and interests that are more compatible with old age. Unless the stars line up and the "best of all possible worlds" actually happens, older farmers are vulnerable to depression and a huge identity crisis when truly too old to farm.

Thanks to Lori Garkovich, rural sociologist from the University of Kentucky and her associates, for their research on retirement attitudes of older farmers.