Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Crisis On The Farm

February 19, 1996

The news is not good. Pork and meat prices have gone to the basement. There are record numbers of cattle and hogs yet to work their way through the system. The feed grain costs are high.

The highly industrialized poultry industry is extremely efficient, competitive and continues to grow. Large scale hog confinement systems are staring to be major players in the market and put great pressure on the small independent producer. For meat producers, the prospects for the next two years look dim.

For grain farmers, crop prices are good - although two years of poor weather has produced low and spotty yields. Without anything to sell, the high prices don't mean much.

Longtime, experienced farmers and livestock producers can weather the problems. They'll be around when the business climate improves. Low prices and debt problems spell serious cash flow problems for some producers. Many are faced with the possibility of going out of business.

Stress and worry are hitting a lot of folks this spring. I've seen it in my office. I've heard it over the phone. Others tell me of their concern. It is not good.

There is anger about the price of meat in the stores. It hasn't dropped with the producer's lower earnings. Farmers could accept their plight easier if they could see the low prices being passed on to the consumer. Because there is tremendous concentration in the meat packing industry - three or four main corporations dominate the industry - there is suspicion of collusion.

Farmers work hard, put in long hours and take huge risks in an industry where their hard work is occasionally negated by market forces. Input costs continue to rise and advances in technology add pressures of their own.

Farmers and emotions. Farmers are socialized to a rural way of life, on the farm and in small communities. It is a neighborly world with lots of caring and personal interaction. They like being their own bosses They enjoy a kinship with nature and the outdoors. They are excellent problem-solvers and producers.

Farmers love what they do and are good at it. Many have inherited their land from their parents and have a strong goal of keeping the land in the family. It is a family dream and heritage for which farmers feel a keen sense of responsibility. They are loathe to leave everything they know and love.

Can you imagine the emotions, the hard work and the commitment to make it work, though times turn bad? The good years even out the bad - if they can make it through the bad. Hope is there. It is not a profession or a lifestyle one leaves easily.

Reality hits with a jolt. The lender has his or her own set of guidelines and assets to protect. Without an operating loan, farmers are out of business. Even if a loan is secured, the farmer has the anxiety of making it work or facing even bigger problems next year. Weather and prices - two big uncontrollable factors - will determine how things will go. This could be a tense summer and fall.

Stress on the farm. When things go wrong, farmers put in long hours, toss and turn at night and are racked with worry they can't shut down. They fight depression. They blame themselves. They feel anger and lash out at those around them - their families. Blaming large corporate farms that pose a threat to the economies of smaller farming operations is easy.

Working harder isn't the answer though it is the answer they know best. Putting in even longer hours adds to the stress level and can be counterproductive.

Farm women feel the stress of cutting back, making ends meet, working an off-farm job, and getting exhausted themselves. They worry about their husband and children. They especially worry about the quality of their marriage if their husband is withdrawing or blaming her for the difficulties. This is even a greater worry than the financial stress they are facing.

A farm crisis puts a marriage to the test and exposes some underlying weaknesses in communication and problem-solving. Marital arguments and clashes are common. It is easy to blame others and to get irritated when things don't go right.

Most farmers are self reliant and take responsibility for solving their own problems. During times of high stress this virtue becomes a weakness. The best coping strategies involve turning to others for help - getting good information about options and alternatives and taking action. Farmers don't farm themselves out of trouble. They manage themselves out of trouble.

Supportive feedback from a spouse and other's that care can sustain people and help them see the bigger picture. There is something healing and helpful about getting problems talked out. By talking and sharing feelings, they put the problem outside the self and it becomes less threatening. The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem.

There is something comforting in knowing you are not alone and in talking with others who are in the same boat. It also helps to know what you are going through is normal even though it is painful.