Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Attachment Bonds Make Loss Of Farm Painful

June 3, 2005

During the farm crisis of the mid-1980s and late 90s, I was often asked why farming was different than any profession. Why would farmers have any harder time adjusting to the loss of their occupation than any other person who lost their job or a business?

Attrition from farming goes on. This spring I’ve personally met or read e-mails from farmers who are facing significant financial pressure and have made the choice not to farm anymore. I have also encountered other family-owned businesses who have come to a crossroad. They need to stem the tide of losses and to preserve equity, stop the stress and re-prioritize choices about marriage and family life.

Farming involves huge capital investments, variable markets, uncertain weather conditions, and precious little margin of error. There is a significant percentage of farmers (10 to 20 percent) who farm close to the edge of solvency, are going backwards, and can’t stop the cycle of erosion of equity. In any given year, roughly five percent or less face the prospect of making an immediate decision to leave farming or risk going into bankruptcy and foreclosure.

It is real and the emotions are still the same whether it is 1985 or 1992 or 2005. In a way it may be worse now than during the farm crisis years. It's not supposed to be happening now.

There is no media hoopla, no support groups, no public sentiment or moral indignation, and no sense among farmers how many of their compatriots share their dilemma. They bear their pain alone.

Why farmers develop such an emotional bond with their profession.

- Relationships. The emotional ties to friends, relatives, neighbors, and community are important in the lives of farm families. This sense of belonging in small, caring community is a powerful bond and an incentive to stay put.

- Identity. The composite skills that go into farming form a basic part of a man's identity. A threat to his status as a farmer or rancher may be perceived as a threat to who he is. The more single-minded or focused a person has been on farming as his exclusive activity, the more vulnerable he is. Some farmers haven't experimented much with anything else in life nor do they believe anything else can be as rewarding. They may underestimate their abilities to be valuable in another part of the economy and don't know what else in life might be enjoyable.

- Responsibility. Farming involves the care and nurture of living things. Crops and animals have needs. Their growth and well-being depends on the farmer being vigilant and dependable in their care. Under these conditions, an attachment bond or love takes place. Farmers have dirt in their veins and cows on their brains.

- Family heritage. Socialization to agriculture takes place at young ages with positive parent/child involvement and teaching of skills. Decisions are made early to farm and to take on the family heritage of farming someday. The farm is seen as a link or a bond between generations. The failure to keep the family farm is perceived as a failure of trust and a violation of a sacred obligation, both to the past generations and to the children for whom the opportunity to farm "must" be kept alive.

- Self-worth. One's status in the community depends on his managerial competence, reputation as a hard worker and farm ownership. To have financial problems become public or to lose a farm represents a major lowering of statues in his own eyes and community judgment. There are feelings of shame, guilt and failure. One's status as a farmer is a major portion of self-esteem.

- Independence. Farming is an independent business activity. The loss or threat of loss of independence - of working for oneself, being able to set one's schedule and goals, having a variety of daily experiences, and seeing a direct connection between one’s labors and rewards - is a significant fear.

- Lifestyle. Farmers enjoy the lifestyle of the farm, animals, closeness to nature, privacy, togetherness with their spouse, and the benefits of raising children in this environment. This is another strong emotional appeal of staying on a farm. To be cooped up by neighbors, concrete, and the congestion of the city violates the sense of space that farmers have come to need.

What happens when emotions and economic realities collide?

Farmers are raised with the ethic of solving their own problems. When they become overwhelmed by stress factors beyond their control, they don't feel an inner permission to seek help or express one's confusion or pain.

They are afraid to talk about what they are going through with others. This self-imposed isolation deprives them of needed sources of caring and ideas to help them grasp their problem. Being seen in an emotional state and not in control is a threat to mental well-being.

They try to manage by working harder and longer, by taking extra work, by using the spouse's off-farm income, and by cutting corners. This equates to a special burden of anxiety and depression as they progressively lose ground in their struggle.

Marital problems often ensue as each partner fashions their own solution. They also may not be meeting each other's needs as well because of their preoccupied emotional state.

Losing a farm or a ranch is a painful and catastrophic loss experience. Farm couples need to reach out and get the help they need to absorb a loss of this magnitude and to move on to what for them will be a better life.