Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Observations On The Farm Crisis

July 5, 1999

I was recently interviewed by Sheldon Green and Jim Coomber of Concordia College for a future book on the farm crisis. Here is what I told them:

I see a lot of people wearing out in farming. They are just even - staying on the treadmill. The common way of putting it is, "It's no fun any more." They understand it's not working and they would like to get out.

I also meet diehard young people who believe farming is their life. Some of them are third, fourth and fifth-generation farm people who have dirt underneath their fingernails and hold onto farming like dear life. Their commitment to farming ties in with their identity.

The single-minded, workaholic, perfectionist, hard-driving person who has put his life into his work is usually the one who's going to hang on. This farmer hasn't explored enough of life to know there are alternatives out there. So it's an all-or-nothing proposition. These farmers dearly love what they do and farming gives a lot of meaning to their lives. They are used to being in business and they see working for someone else as a form of slavery. There is a lot of fear about life away from their sheltered, rural community.

On the other hand, the people who are likely to make good adjustments are those who have been college educated or perhaps gone to technical school. They have the confidence that they could succeed in some bit of suburban life and know it isn't that bad. And they feel they have choices in life. Farming is one way to live a successful life, but it's not the only way. So they are not as wedded to the rural ethic as being pure and virtuous and ennobling with the rest of the world being somehow not as worthy.

There are legitimate concerns about leaving farming. Rural people have life-long ties with family and friends and community. Many are willing to be underemployed or fight to stay in agriculture simply because they don't want to disrupt the ties they have. They haven't experienced starting over in life, making new friends and building new support systems. They would be like a fish out of the water. The just can't imagine what it's like to go somewhere where they don't know anybody, where they have no history with people.

The declining population in rural areas is affecting folks. There is depression that goes with missing people who have left and the friendship community, which means the remaining people are called on to do more and more. There is no surge of enthusiasm or optimism. Instead there is a sense of loss and decline that affects the general mentality of the people who are left.

There are people who get together and complain - just because that is the way they talk when they're together. They feel a part of the group if they complain a lot. So there is an acceptance level of complaining that is normal. But there are some for which the complaining becomes their whole worldview. They begin thinking they are victims of a great conspiracy. This is what I call victim thinking. It has a powerful grip on the way some farmers think about everything. They feel helpless and powerless. They can become more emotionally reactive to problems because they feel they are being picked on all the time.

The people most likely to come in to talk with a counselor are women in stress. Some are assertive enough to get their spouses to come along. Sometimes people just want to hear that it is okay to get out of farming. They know what it's doing to them. They are working way too hard; their relationships are suffering; their family is suffering; the rewards aren't there; the pressure of debts piling up is incredible. They don't have normal lives. They don't have vacations or weekends off. They don't have vacations of weekends off. It's just a hard life. So they feel relieved when they make a decision. They just needed someone to encourage them.

The keys to successfully adapting to what's going on today in agriculture is a combination of flexibility, good communication, support, religious faith, sense of humor and attitude. People need to be able to move to Plan B or C when Plan A fails.

One of the dual messages is for people to be creative and use all of their management skills to get themselves out of crisis. Hang in there. Be persistent and dedicated. Use the usual formulas that count for success in farming. The second message is this: there is life after farming. A lot of people have made the adjustment. It may take a little while, but things will work out. It's a process to go through as people connect with something else that is rewarding in life. The old family farm lifestyle didn't turn out like it was supposed to, but their new lifestyle may actually be much better for them in terms of relationships, time and stress.

The era of the independent farmer is over. To survive, farmers need to share, perhaps get into some cooperative arrangements and work together. Or else they need to get bigger, and that is a treadmill that never ends.