Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Dr. Farmer's Best Advice On The Farm Crisis

September 20, 1999

North American farmers are facing an unprecedented siege of low prices. The economics of farming are poor. It takes a lot of money to farm - whether it be land payments, repayment of operating loans, the high costs of inputs, and high cost of living. Income from crops doesn’t begin to stretch far enough.

This isn’t an ordinary profession or business that one can walk away from at a moment’s notice. The debts, assets, tax liabilities, and contractual obligations can be overwhelming. The ideal way to leave farming is through an orderly process that takes place over a two to three year time frame. That is just from the economic standpoint.

From the emotional standpoint, farmers have to give up a profession and lifestyle in which they have spent a lifetime learning. They have to reconcile themselves to leaving land that has been in the family for generations. They have to overcome their fears of finding something else to do in life that is as rewarding as farming. They have to face leaving a community of family and friends and starting over in an unknown world that won’t care in the same way.

To leave farming, farmers have to turn their backs on their traditional formula for success: commitment, persistence, hard work and faith – faith in themselves, faith in God, faith in a profession where the business cycle eventually turns good.

Here is my best advice for farmers trying to cope with decisions of this magnitude:

  • Be familiar with your own financial numbers, equity, liabilities, cost of production, cash flow, and outlook for future prices. Face this reality with input from your lender and other financial advisers. Don’t hide from the facts. Find your hope - your best scenario for survival – and subject it to a rigorous critique to see if it passes muster. If it does, work to make it happen.
  • Aggressively gather information. Just as love takes away fear, so does knowledge. Find out about resources. Find out what you need to know. This year is a new situation, a harsh reality that has to be faced and recognized for what it is. If your existing equity permits the choice, then it is a judgment call whether to fight one’s way through a tough situation or to admit that farming isn’t profitable and not worth the emotional and financial risks. Find out about what others know and have done who have been in your shoes.
  • Decide on what is best for the family. This is the standard by which you should judge your decisions. A farm is a means to an end - the happiness and well being of the family. If keeping a farm becomes an end in itself, then the farm is a liability that interferes with rational decision–making. Past generations would applaud your efforts to look after your family in the best way possible. That is what they did by uprooting themselves and searching out a life in a distant land.
  • Talk about your situation. Talk through your inner emotions. Talk some more. Share your thoughts with your spouse and in other confidential relationships. Talking will help you become more objective about the problem. It will clarify your thinking. You will also gain the input and support of those with whom you share ideas. Going through a crisis alone makes for poorer decisions and depression becomes more likely.
  • Avoid guilt and self-recrimination. This is not a personal failure. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Your dilemma isn’t a result of poor management. It is a reflection on the world farm economy, farm technology, business trends, and a host of weather and ag policy decisions that extend far beyond the fence line.
  • Be equally adept at listening. You aren’t the only person facing a challenge. Your spouse, your children and farming partners all need to share their concerns with you as well and to be greeted with an understanding heart. By supporting one another through a difficult time, you can strengthen the bonds that really matter with those you love.
  • Be kind to those you love. Be careful with your anger and harsh words. Now isn’t the time for blame. During stressful times it is distractions, humor, family fun, light-hearted moments, and showing love that puts you and your family above the crisis instead of below it. Laugh at the absurdity, irony and unfairness of life. Know that your life and those you love are far more precious than cruel economics and unwanted change.
  • Renew your faith. There is purpose to life. It is a test and a challenge. Seek and find spiritual comfort for dealing with adversity and suffering. From bad can come good. Find the silver lining – the personal and spiritual growth that comes from hard times. Take pleasure in the new things you’ve learned about life, love, friendships, family, your spouse, and yourself. The turning points in life come from humbling experiences where the only place to go is to your knees.

Family farming is special but not so special that it becomes more important than marriage, family, health, mental health, and faith in God. If you should choose to quit farming, remember this: you and your family can be happy somewhere else, doing something else. This is life. Life is change. Life has possibilities. God has another plan for you. Your brain, your heart and your faith have to work together.