Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farmers Cope With Another Wet Spring

June 21, 1999

Here is what I gleaned about the present farm situation from my interview with Lowell Nelson, a farmer from Sabin, MN who was the subject of an ABC "Nightline" farm crisis program.

In our country, in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota farmers are being drowned out again, little by little. The water comes on the heels of several wet years that have reduced yields of normally reliable crops. Farmers needed at good start. This has been a tough spring. Things are not going right - again.

What does a wet spring mean? A shorter growing season means poorer quality and lower yields. Good yields are crucial when prices are so low. The length of the growing season determines the crop.

For some crops like wheat, hot weather is bad. The cooler it is, the better the crop. Early plantings beat the heat. A late planting followed by an early frost is a terrible combination. That is not a pleasant thought to carry all summer.

"You have sunk a quarter of a million in the ground this spring. Will you get it back?" The most frustrating days are those when you can't do anything.

With a shorter growing season, there is more pressure. When it does dry out, you get out and work hard. It might rain again. Farmers go looking for a dry field and proceed to get stuck. They even know they are out there when they shouldn't be, but they can't help themselves. Work, problems and stress multiply when there is a late spring.

Family life and the schedule go out the window. Marriage is put on hold. Irritation, blame, frustration and temper put a strain on a marriage and parenting. Bad weather can eat you alive.

It is not just the farmer but the farmer's wife who is under a strain. Her frustration, her loneliness, her worries, and her discouragement factor in to relationship problems. The weather gets to her as well.

It isn't just the amount of rain, but how it comes down. If rain comes down hard there is more trouble. Downpours cause crusting on top of the soil. Standing water washes out and kills seeds. Low spots have a low or no yield. Drowned out spots need to be reseeded. If you reseed, then you have two stages of crops in one field. The later crop isn't as good and harvesting is a lot more work. Heavy rains also cause the runoff of fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides into ditches and eventually to rivers.

What about weeds? Weeds rob the soil of fertility. The shade of the weeds robs plants of sunshine. Weeds stay green in the fall and plug up the combine. Weed seeds means dockage and discounts. Weeds have moisture and have to be cleaned out or dried before grain is stored. Farmers do not like weeds. The only way to spray wet fields is to hire an airplane which is not "cheap." This means sticking more money into the crop without knowing if you'll get it back.

So the crop is in. What's next? A summer hailstorm can wipe everything out in 15 minutes. Farmers live with that fear. They have to carry hail insurance. Yet some years are so bad that farmers pray for a hailstorm. They would be better off with the insurance.

Harvest has as much urgency and narrow time frames as does the spring. Rain during harvest drives down the quality of most crops. It makes harvesting more difficult. Untimely rains can ruin a hay crop lying on the ground waiting to be picked up. It is one more time when the wrong weather at the wrong time can make you or break you.

Too much wet weather can cause a number of diseases in small grain crops. Wheat "scab" these past several years has caused the demise of farmers more than any other factor. Scab shows up in the fall with what farmers call "Norwegian wheat" - nothing in the heads. It is like losing a crop to a hailstorm.

Weather is the greatest test of a farmer's management. "We do everything according to the weather, from the spring of the year until it dries up," said Nelson. The weather determines the priorities of the day. His judgment matters. Margins are too thin for bad decisions. That is stress. The only time it doesn't matter is when he is all caught up and that isn't often.

Crops grow and mature. There are beautiful timely rains that makes life so much easier. A farmer gets the weather he wanted. There are tremendous feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment when a farmer knows he's done everything right. Winning the battle with the weather validates his skill.

So how do farmers cope with the stress of the weather? They live with it. They have to let go and just react to it. Worrying about it doesn't help. The weather is going to do what the weather is going to do. It takes great faith and optimism to put seeds in the ground, hope and pray for the best, and then accept the weather as it comes.

Farmers can handle the stress of farming if they come to terms with the fact that they can do everything right and the weather can still break them. They do not personalize failure. When they win, they feel good. When they lose, the weather got them. That is nothing to be ashamed about. The weather isn't an enemy. It is what it is.