Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Which Is It? Go To Plan B Or Get A Grip?

July 20, 1998

In the middle of the night, I am listening to the sound of death. It is the rumble of distant thunder. It is the sound of rain falling.

Why is a life-giving force such as rain so menacing? Instead of nourishing the soil, it is nourishing dark, runaway thoughts as farmers listen to the sounds. This sound of death is the death of family farms. Dark thoughts, growing with each storm, are thoughts about quitting farming, quitting while there is something left.

In eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota farmers are being drowned out again, little by little. I should say "a lot by a lot" as storm after incessant storm passes through the region. The water comes on the heels of last years flooding and blizzards. Too much water.

In Texas, it is too little water for farmers and ranchers. Here it is diseased crops. Too many weeds. More work. More spraying. More expense. More waiting to get into the fields. More worry. Record low prices. Poorer yields. More problems for next year.

Normally decisive farmers and ranchers, as confident and sure-footed as battle hardened generals, begin to second guess themselves. How sad that farmers who chose to spend a delightfully sunny Fourth of July with their families berate themselves the next day for not working on the holiday. Unexpected heavy rains stops their spraying! Is this what rural living has come to? Does life have to be this tense?

Does Michael Jordan quit at the top of his game? Unless he is as rare as Rocky Marciano or Jim Brown, he doesn't. People don't quit on a good year. It is too tempting to go another round - to have one more crowning success.

Smart farmers and ranchers, hard working rural families, people who have been consistently ahead of the curve in their business decisions, those as normally optimistic as the bright sunshine, the "Michael Jordan" kind of people - are planning their departure from agriculture. They are the harbingers of things to come.

Like everything else they have done, they are good at separating emotion from business decisions. They look ahead and decide to move to something else. They are not ready to let all that they have worked for go down the drain. They have nothing left to prove, either to themselves or to their neighbors.

They are at a crossroads. This year will be perfect for buying land. Others will be leaving out of necessity. To expand and grow is the way to stay in the game. But what is it all for? They have their retirement secure already. They can live well and choose their new way of life while they have their security in hand.

Why take on additional risks? Why add stress of new payments, more work, more equipment while sacrificing more family time? Goals have driven them. The hard weather years have made them realize that they have already accomplished all they need to accomplish. Work has stopped being fun and they know it.

Now is the time to go to plan B. Or invent plan B. They do not leave agriculture in shame but look at their lives with the same analytical powers they use on their farming and ranching decisions. Their decision to quit while ahead will someday look really good to others who find out they chose to stay too long.

But what about farmers and ranchers who still have future goals? What are they supposed to think about this year or last or about the general trends in agriculture? Their goals are not for themselves but for their way of life and for the family farm or ranch being passed on to a son or daughter who already has the soil in their blood. They have plenty of incentive to stay.

They are being overwhelmed by the stress and worry of events slipping out of their control. Weather is one enemy that is tough to beat. The markets are another.

This will be a good year if they regain their nerve. Their enemy, an unfamiliar one, is stress. They are not used to having their decisions go haywire - to losing when they should be winning.

It will be a good year if they learn they are human, that they are not perfect and that their focus is too narrow. It will be a good year if they learn to rally around each other, figure out what is really important and to live with the bad as well as the good.

For them, success has come naturally. Now it is time to become acquainted with surviving really tough years. Conditions will change. There is a future in agriculture. Good years will return. Weather will be favorable. They will be positioned to take advantage of the great rewards in agriculture to be had for those still in the game.

It is persistence, determination and faith that sustain people when all else fails. It is clarity of purpose. This isn’t the year Karl Malone and John Stockton quit either. It is enjoying the struggle. It is knowing how good you really are and being willing to make another run at the top.

This is a testing year. Same farmers and ranchers, same abilities - different decisions. They are smart. They know something isn't right and they are taking corrective action now. Go to Plan B or get a grip - or both.