Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Early Signs Of Trouble On The Farm

March 19, 2001

Lowell Nelson and his wife Sandy, former farmers now residing in Moorhead, MN, spoke at a recent retreat for farm couples. Hindsight is 20/20. They looked back on their past few years in farming and identified some early warning signs of a downward spiral of personal and financial ruin compounded by their own misjudgments.

The Nelsons invited the participants at the retreat to add their experiences to the list and then gave me permission to publish the results. There is no particular ordering of the list except that the last ones mentioned are more serious.

- Not keeping up with financial statements. This includes avoiding the actual numbers describing the financial health of the operation, not staying in touch with your lenders and hiding key developments from them, or using the numbers the banker was letting you use instead of realistic figures.

- Not answering the phone. Screening calls by an answering machine - you avoid talking to creditors. Not opening the mail.

- Not filing income taxes. This is blind optimism versus the federal government. Who do you think is going to win?

- Gambling to recover losses from farming. Speculating on the commodity markets.

- Mortgaging the homestead. Blind optimism and strong emotion lead one to believe that this is the year to recover and therefore everything is put on the line.

- Taking cash from life insurance policies, This is especially bad if not enough money is left in to cover future premiums.

- Borrowing money from children and relatives. In many cases, this money is money earned and set aside by the children themselves as a college fund. The parental optimism about using the money and repaying it with interest didn’t happen.

- Farming because you think you are not capable of doing anything else. The perceived lack of alternatives leads people to make risky choices. The reality is that farmers are enormously talented and dedicated workers who are self-motivated, excellent trouble shooters and decision-makers who love a challenge and who have an abundance of transferable skills.

- Doing questionable or fraudulent actions with Federal Crop Insurance, Farm Service Agency or your lender. Desperate people do desperate things. Faced with threatened losses, honest people rationalize their values and compromise their integrity.

- Experiencing a loss of energy and desire to do a good job farming. Not getting things done in a timely fashion. The farmstead isn’t kept up. Safety is compromised. This is a sign of depression, a highly treatable medical condition.

- Withdrawing from society. No wanting to be in the café, at school functions, at church, or being around other farmers. Not knowing what to say about farming because your emotions are close to the surface. There is a pride factor of wanting to save face and feeling like you might give yourself away.

- Using up your equity. This isn’t the normal ups and downs of farming but a pattern of losses that eat away at years of hard-earned value. Most farmers who leave farming wish they would have left two years sooner than they did.

- Seeing your health deteriorate because of the stress of farming. Being sick a lot. Living under chronic and severe stress that interferes with sleep. Being unable to shut down your worries and losing your sense of humor.

- Watching family life, marriage or communications start to suffer. Anger, blame, arguments, angry withdrawal, preoccupation with self, lack of support and affection are all signs of a relationship being affected by severe financial and work pressures.

- Using your credit cards to finance your farming operation. The participants at the retreat speculated that maybe one farmer in a hundred might use credit card financing to successfully work their way out of a problem. The others are digging a deeper hole which is only makes matters worse.

- Dropping your health insurance. Without health insurance, people don’t see their doctor and health problems can mushroom. A serious injury or illness can devastate what is left of personal and business equity.

- Planning or thinking about suicide. Any suicidal thoughts with specific method or plan of how it might be carried out are of grave concern. Seek professional help. Talk to someone about this. A farm is not worth your life.

Lowell Nelson appeared on Nightline May 18, 1999 when Ted Koppel and Kevin Newman did a program on the farm crisis called, "The Silent Surrender." Lowell now works for Lutheran Rural Response in Fargo, ND and provides kitchen table support and information to farm families in trouble.

Take this list and do a personal inventory. How are you doing? There are an abundance of resources available to help financially distressed farmers. Each state has a cadre of farm financial consultants, mediators, and counselors to help connect people with the resources they need. Don’t fight this battle alone. Don’t stay too long a path that only brings more trouble.