Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Bond Between A Farmer And His Farm

July 10, 2007

Why does it seem like the farm always comes first? Why does it seem like the farm competes in a real way with the time and attention given to the family?

There is relational time and task-driven time. In relational time, it is the quality of the experience that counts, not how much is accomplished. Children's needs are so compelling that other activities often have to be delayed or interrupted. It is during the holding, touching, responding, talking, teaching, caring, and engaging in mutual play time that the attachment bond is formed.

Child care also involves a certain amount of routine work that is task oriented - laundry, bathing, feeding, monitoring. In the case of infants - dressing, undressing, changing diapers.

Another example of relational time is in marriage. A marriage partner has needs that can be seen as compelling and worthy of an investment of time. Though not as needy or insistent as a child, the relational needs of the mate are just as real and need attention. A marriage also has its share production-oriented work - cleaning, cooking, laundry, home maintenance, paying bills, etc.

Relational time can be seen as qualitative time and task-driven time as quantitative time. Qualitative work can be absorbing and demanding and has the power to give a "relational" time experience. The job itself dictates when you are finished or when you have come to a natural breaking point. Creative effort and excitement provide a time flow experience - people become so absorbed that they completely lose track of time. Leisure activities, like time spent in meaningful work or relationships, also have the ability to absorb us completely.

Timing is everything. Many "tasks" on a farm are seen through the lens of qualitative time. Animals and crops are growing, living things with their own unique logic and demands. Some jobs can't be conveniently shoved off to some other time frame.

Farming is also driven by weather. Weather creates needs. Some jobs have to be done NOW.

The work is all around. There is little separation between work and home. When is quitting time? When is the work done well enough? Late hours, evening hours, and weekend hours go with the territory.

A farmer can lose himself in planting, harvesting, calving, lambing, and so on. Each job has its time frame. The creative aspects of the art and science of farming can capture a farmer's attention and make it easy to lose track of time.

This is not to say that part of farming can't be scheduled and managed by the clock like any other job. Quantity of work is also important. Success depends on planning and doing routine work so there are as few urgent tasks as possible. Time is a commodity, a valued resource to be spent, saved and used to further one's advantage.

Farming is different. Unlike most other jobs, farm work has a dependable mixture of "production" work and "needs" work. Like devoted mothers watching over their offspring, farmers can't completely leave farm work

alone. In meeting needs, the attachment bond becomes very strong.

They are aware of so many things that need to be done. Unless they can get physically get away, they rarely feel free of the responsibility. Even that doesn’t work for some farmers. Unless the farm is in trusted hands, much like a reliable babysitter, they can’t relax.

Like a sick child, events on the farm have the potential for interrupting scheduled activities. The interface between a farmer’s schedule and the 40-hour work week world is decidedly imperfect. Social life suffers. Worse yet, the needs of the farm and the farm family occasionally clash. Marital partners have difficulty coordinating time and activities. Time frames and needs don't match up.

A farmer who is too absorbed with his farming has difficulty coming up with the emotional energy for marriage or parenting. Problems arise when farmers consistently put the needs of the farm ahead of the relational needs of the family. Child care, meeting a spouse’s needs, or doing work within the home are not put on the same par with their own "little baby."

Not all farm work is dictated by need-driven tasks. A farmer may be tempted to rationalize or justify his activities when in reality he does have choices. Furthermore, his prestige and standing in the community is being judged by how his peers judge his farming practices and his hard work. It is tempting to play to that audience instead of meeting the legitimate needs of his family.

Finding a balance. A farmer needs to have a balance of quantitative and qualitative time. The vigilant, nurturing quality he puts into his farm work needs to be extended to his wife and children. Neglecting relational needs in the home while the farm runs as smooth as a top invites marital discord. Farmers need to remember that the relational needs of the farm family are the most important needs on the farm - most of the time.

A city-raised woman adjusting to a farm has to learn to appreciate how compelling the "needs-driven" aspect of farm work can be. It helps to think of her husband's approach to the farm as being quite similar to putting a small child’s needs ahead of her needs. Weather, biology and breakdowns create demands where the farm really needs to comes first.

Having qualitative time experiences is an important component of a happy life. Family farming satisfaction is a question of balancing the abundant opportunities for meeting needs between "family" and "farming."