Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Emotions Run High During Ag Crisis

January 4, 1999

Why is farming different from any other profession? Why do farmers have a harder time adjusting to the loss of their occupation more than others who are given a pick slip or lose a business?

This winter and spring we will hear again about the trauma of farmers leaving agriculture. Others look at the current prices and wonder how long they can hang on. Routinely, farmers face uncertain market and weather conditions, high cost of inputs, huge capital investments when expanding, and precious little margin of error.

In any given year there is a significant percentage (10-20 percent) of farmers whose finances are marginal and are close to the edge. Of that group, five percent or so face bankruptcy and foreclosure. The impact is real. Emotions run sky high whether it is 1985, 1993 or 1999.

In one way, the current farm crisis may be worse now than during the farm crisis of the mid-80s. It's price, pure and simple. Government aid will help some this year but won't correct the current glut of farm commodities and depressed markets.

Unlike the mid-80s, there is little media hoopla, little in the way of public sentiment or moral indignation and no common cause to rally the public. But within farm communities there is no shortage of hot topics at the "doom and gloom" cafe - industrial size hog farms, multinational grain companies, Canadian/US trade policies, and the effects of "freedom to farm" legislation. Commiseration helps but doesn't pay the bills.

Here are some reasons why farmers develop such an emotional bond with their profession.

  • Community. The emotional ties to friends, relatives and community are important in the lives of farm families. This sense of belonging in a 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 as 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.
  • Love. Farming involves the care and nurture of living things. Crops and animals have needs. Their well-being depends on the farmer being vigilant and dependable in their care. Under these conditions, an attachment or bonding takes place. It is a moral and honorable profession that produces food for others.
  • Fear. The socialization to agriculture takes place at young ages with positive parent/child involvement and the teaching of skills. Decisions are made early to farm and to take on the family heritage of farming someday. 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 skills and abilities to be valuable in another part of the economy and don't know what else in life might be enjoyable.
  • Status. One's status in the community depends on his managerial competence and farm ownership. To have financial problems become public or to lose a farm represents a major lowering of status in his own eyes and community judgment. There are feelings of shame, guilt and failure.
  • Guilt. 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 parents and to their children for whom the opportunity to farm "must" be kept alive.
  • Independence. Farming is an independent business activity. The loss or threat of loss of independence - of working for oneself, of being able to set one's schedule and goals, of having a variety of daily experiences, and of seeing a direct connection between one's labors and rewards - is a significant fear.
  • Lifestyle. Farmers enjoy the lifestyle of the farm - animals, the 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. There is also the fear of crime or other influences of the city affecting their children's lives.
  • Failure to seek help. 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 their 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 their well-being.

They try to manage by working harder and longer, by taking extra work, by using their spouse's off-farm income and by cutting corners. This becomes 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 or being good parents because of their preoccupied emotional state.

To lose a farm or a ranch is a painful and catastrophic loss. Living with debt is no fun either.