Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Debt Comes In The Door, Love Goes Out The Window

September 16, 2002

What happens to a farm couple when persistent financial problems plague their farm operation?

A farm in the family. Full-time farmers generally grow up on a farm, gain farm skills and knowledge, inherit land and get their start in farming through family support. This process completes a parental dream of keeping the farm in the family and having one or more families from the next generation maintain a foothold in agriculture.

The larger and more prosperous the farm, the more likely it is that the family attaches high value to family continuity on the farm. This is especially true where the farm family derives its income from the farm and has not had to rely on off-farm income for their living.

A sizable percentage of sons in these operations marry women with farm backgrounds themselves. Their lives as farmers are enclosed within the world of agriculture. They have absorbed the skills and values of a farm-based lifestyle.

Not enough income. How do they think when confronted by a situation where their farm income falls substantially? Full-time farmers are far more likely to seek a solution to their income problems within agriculture. They are more likely to work harder on the farm, tighten their belts and accept a lower standard of living. They are reluctant to shore up their income through non-farm work, though many do make this choice.

This strong commitment to farming is underscored by the expectation that they will "farm their way out of trouble." If anything, they are likely to increase their energies and investment in farming to make it work.

Their lifestyle, their close social ties to friends and relatives, their familiarity with the land and the community, their knowledge base and farming skills, their commitment to keeping land in the family, even their very identity - these things are centered in farming. It is a different world from other occupations.

Full-time farmers with this background lack interest in pursuing alternative careers. They lack enthusiasm for taking off-farm employment. They definitely aren't interested in giving up farming. During a financial crisis, they continue to look at other means of increasing their production and their investment in the farm business. The belt they wear gets pretty tight, especially when it comes to family living expenses.

What does that mean for the farm family? What is functional for the farmer's goals and maintaining the farm business may be seen as a hardship to other members of his family. Under these circumstances, family members can be expected to sacrifice, go without and be pushed into even longer days and harder work. This happens within an emotional climate of depression, anxiety, high stress, angry outbursts and unreasonable demands.

Working harder on the farm and adjusting to a lower standard of living for the sake of continuing in full-time farming isn’t very appealing. This is especially true for wives who don’t have farm backgrounds or whose commitment to keeping a farm in the family is not their top priority.

A wife, under these circumstances, becomes critical and finds it difficult to support what she sees as an emotionally debilitating and financially draining enterprise. Having conflict with his wife adds to a farmer’s feelings of loss of control, worry and depression.

He is wrapped up in his problems and doesn't offer much support to his wife. His lack of support coupled with economic problems increases the feelings of loss of control in her life and the likelihood of her becoming depressed.

Communications suffer. His wife’s attempts to suggest alternatives such as leaving the farm are rebuffed as out-of-hand. Her efforts to provide honest feedback and correct mistakes being made aren't heeded. She doesn't feel like he really wants her true feelings anyway. The farm and farming; his feelings and his needs are definitely and emphatically put first. This is a rude awakening. Her happiness and the happiness of the children aren't being considered.

To her, keeping the farm in the family and having her husband always be a farmer are negotiable compared to the emotional well-being of everyone involved. She is surprised by his lack of flexibility and stubborn clinging to dreams that are sinking the family. She begins to lose respect for his decisions.

He makes things worse by criticizing her lack of commitment. He is mired in worries and anxieties. The farm is all he wants to talk about. He is depressed and depressing. Occasionally he explodes in anger. He accuses her of withdrawing her support just when he needs her the most.

It is true. She is scared by her reaction. She doesn't care how he feels. The feelings that are supposed to be there aren't there.

Now what? He's not an ogre, an alcoholic, a wife-beater or a skirt chaser. He is an honest, hard-working farmer. His very being is tied to the land regardless of what the emotional price might be to him and his family. The farm crisis brings out how differently they each really feel about the things they want in life. They are pulling in different directions.

Who would understand that something like a farm could drive them apart? There doesn't seem to be many other explanations for their troubles. Their differences about the worth of farming became apparent when debt came in the door.