Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Understanding The Motivations Of Farmers

December 7, 2009

I have been privileged to learn about the psychology and soul of rural people, of farmers and ranchers who brave this variable and occasionally inhospitable land. They have shared their pain, their worry, their joy, their hopes and their dreams. I’ve been privileged to be a witness to a special people in special circumstances and to tell their stories.

Right from the beginning I stood in awe of the lives and values of farm families. This was unique, different from anything I was used to. I've tried to understand and I'm still trying. I’ve written about unique themes, stories and lives playing themselves out in farmlands of the Midwest and in agricultural communities in general.

What is unique? Nature has to be respected. Hazards abound - blizzards, tornados, thunderstorms, hailstorms, complex machinery, disease and unpredictable livestock. The slightest miscalculation can be fatal.

What other occupation is so dependent on the weather? There are years when the country seems like it will dry up and blow away. There are some years when wet fields and flooding conditions have farmers holding their breath as they wonder about getting into their fields. It might be hail in the summer, killer frosts in the spring and early frosts in the fall - weather plays havoc with harvests.

This is a fragile land. So much depends on timely rains. Sometimes it hits just right. Some years it is too dry, other years it is too dry. Farmers understand and prepare for adversity. A bad year is followed by hope that next year will be better.

When biology is stressed, humans are stressed. When biology fails, humans sometimes fail. This is a land of hidden and not so hidden dependencies. Vulnerabilities are closer to the surface. Illusions of control are occasionally shattered by nature herself.

The human experiment of living in the Midwest and making a living here has been in progress for generations. Nature gives its gifts but manages to hold back a few surprises. Just when you think you've seen it all, you haven't. This land can break even the strong and resourceful. Some people show their resilience by leaving and moving on in life.

It isn't always nature. During the Mid-80s, it wasn't weather but a debt crisis brought on human policies and human error, many of which were made by lending practices based on inflation. Faith and trust were shattered in institutions and people. For some, the healing process from those rude and dark days rolls on.

Farming is a high stress profession. It is a dangerous occupation. It is a physically demanding occupation. The work hours are incredibly long. The risks are great. It is a gambling profession.

Why do it? What is this allure to occupations that depend on applications of biological knowledge, subject to all the unpredictability of biology, disease, weather and uncertain market prices? Why do people do it? What accounts for the tenacity and perseverance of farmers?

Economics is a part of it. Successful farmers and ranchers are able to enjoy good profits. It is an occupation from which you can make a comfortable living. It is a quiet secret not talked about much, but a reality that sustains many hopes and dreams.

A treasure trove of knowledge and experience on the land is stored and passed on to the next generation. The farm itself is a heritage, a gift passed from generation to generation. Victories come by attention to detail. Small victories lead to large victories. Each day is different. Each day can be a challenge. There is the thrill of being one's own boss in an honorable profession that sustains life for so many others.

Occasionally time stands still. Meeting the challenge of the moment becomes the most important thing, despite how long it takes. Crops need to be nurtured. Livestock need attention. People grow to love what they serve. It is easy to love the farm. It requires so much. Work is love made visible.

This attachment isn't just about money and work. Add to the mix all the lifestyle considerations that make farming satisfying. Rural people like their neighbors, communities and close relatives. The human face of agriculture is full of joy, faith and rewarding human relationships. It is an artful blend of work, love, family and community life. It is a place where it is easy to love others.

The farm is good for children, both for being around nature and taking meaningful responsibility. Husbands and wives can enjoy true partnerships in business and in companionship. Nature is just outside the door. And the door is a long way from the neighbor's door.

Who among those who have lived in the country hasn't thrilled to a starlit night, a timely rain, a mighty wind, the awesome power of a blizzard, the fury of nature that causes them to retreat to their homes and wait within the safe confines of family?

Who among those who have lived here haven't felt a spiritual relationship with the Creator because of this closeness to nature? Prayer might come a little easier to those whose livelihood depends on what the heavens may bring.

Can you see the love? Can you feel the pain when that love is not requited? I can.