Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Decision To Quit Agriculture Being Made Thoughtfully

August 4, 1998

Dr. Farmer, why is this a tough year in agriculture? Low prices. Low yields. Diseased crops in this region. Record amounts of grains and protein on the market. This year the Asian crisis has deflated demand. Drought in other parts of the country. In the big picture, technology is the main force in reducing the number of farmers and ranchers.

On a personal level, how does this year compare with past years in agriculture? How tough is it? I've had farmers come to see me in the middle of the farming season to discuss their personal coping, their overall goals, their lifestyle and their decision to stay in the business. Others have come about their marriage problems due to stress. And this is in the middle of the summer. It hasn't happened quite like this before.

I get many letters and comments about the toll the ag economy is taking on people's spirit. Frankly I'm quite worried about what this fall is going to bring. One choice is to leave agriculture on your own terms. Many are choosing to quit, not as a failure, but as a business and lifestyle decision.

What kind of farmers and ranchers are we talking about? I am talking about those in their late thirties, forties and early fifties who have been successful in agriculture. They are at the top of their ag careers. They are filled with doubt and worry about the future of agriculture.

They also have assets that they have worked hard to build. Part of their decision is to leave early with something to show for their efforts. This is different from the farm crisis years of the mid-80s when farmers were forced off the land when they had nothing left.

That must be a tough decision - to leave agriculture when they are capable producers? There is family heritage - land in a family name, personal identity as farmers, being one's own boss, being attached to nature and outdoor work, leaving a close community of family and friends. That is the tip of the iceberg as far as the attachment rural families feel.

Add to that the mixed feelings about seeing themselves, or being seen by others, as a failure. They love rural life as a good place to raise a family, have a fear of city life and worry about what else they can do with their life.

When farmers and ranchers bring up the choice about quitting, what do you say to them? I remind them about how good they are at what they do. I tell them that their drive and work ethic will serve them well in society. Ex-farmers and ex-ranchers rise to the top in whatever setting they choose. I tell them that there will be a period of adjustment and that most (80 percent) families who leave agriculture are satisfied with their new lives within three or four years after they leave.

What about their fears that family life outside of the country won't be as good? It isn't all economics. Part of their decision to quit has to do with all the stress, worry and long hours - the rural lifestyle hasn't been good for them or for their marriages and family. They know that.

They don't like the direction agriculture is taking them in terms of pressure and workload. Then when the losses come in, it is defeating to the spirit.

I try to reassure them that life in the city is OK. Rural families carry a lot of myths about city life being dangerous and corrupting to children. Families can raise children well in cities and towns. Adjusting to traffic, congestion, having neighbors close by, and working for someone else will take time. Many will miss their animals and their privacy.

Many families experience relief from stress, the pleasure of an 8-hour day, a 40-hour work week, and a dependable paycheck. They like family vacations and a lifestyle that leaves time for each other.

What about connecting with something as satisfying and challenging as the rural life? Isn't that a pretty big hole to fill? That is the hard part. People are leaving something they love and are good at. The three or four-year adjustment I talk about is the time it takes to connect with something new and work through their feelings of loss. These are multi-talented people who just need to experiment with some new or old dreams and ideas before they settle down.

Does age limit them? No. It isn't how old you are but how flexible you are. Each time we make a major shift in careers in our life, we start a new creative cycle for that career. Actually, changing careers keeps people young and vital.

What kinds of jobs do they find? The sky is the limit. Many go back to college. Some look at professional careers. With disaster aid, there will be opportunities to get help. Many have skills that fit well in construction and skilled trades. Many choose jobs that keep them outdoors and working with agriculture in some fashion or another. Many start other businesses and continue to be self-employed.

They need to be patient and find that niche that will satisfy them. If they quit while they are ahead, that should give them even more options for trying different things. Most of us in society are just one or two generations off the land. We are descendants of parents or grandparents who successfully made this change.