Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farm Women React To Financial Stress

April 20, 1998

For the past five years there has been wet weather - way too wet for the traditional crops grown in northwestern Minnesota and parts of eastern and northeastern North Dakota. The wheat crops have had low yields, been diseased and bring low prices.

The winter of 1997 was a devastating. Even more devastating were the summer rains of late June and early July. For many farm families, this represented the last blow in a valiant battle against incredible forces beyond their control.

Here is an insightful letter I received from a farm woman. She describes the emotional plight of some of the women in that area.

Dear Dr. Farmer,

I am writing you to express myself about a farming issue that weighs heavily on my shoulders. I know I am not alone. I have admired your column for years and have been amazed on how "right on" it is on farming issues as they affect relationships.

First, I want to say that our marriage is very sound. In fact, we happen to be best friends and confidantes more than anything. Secondly, I want to say that if anything can test that relationship, it is the trials and tribulations of trying to figure out the farm mess; get in, stay in-- keep on trying, it will get better, how to pay taxes if we get out, what will dad say about the farm. It goes on and on. In our area it's utterly amazing how many people are dropping out. To say it is an epidemic is not too drastic.

I feel there is a forgotten group out there that suffers as much as the farmer and that is the spouse. Many women have talked with me. I know about their feelings of pain and what is happening with their family. I can pinpoint some of the common things I hear and, to some degree, feel myself.

1. A feeling of being left out of the loop. Many times the wife doesn't know until that terrible time when the husband gets the final bad luck at the bank in February or March just how bad it really is. Their husbands have been non-communicative about the details of the financial crunch. Only when confronted with options that spell disaster - incredible IRS numbers, facing new employment, selling the land - do some women find out the truth. When this happens, the next problem arises.

2. A feeling of being inadequate to address their husband's emotional hurt and feeling her pain is not being treated seriously. Many of the women describe their farming spouse as having been taciturn, remote, and unable to share his emotions. Even the sharing of bad news comes in bits and pieces.

The wife often feels her husband is depressed, lonely, and won't seek help from loved ones or neighbors because of feelings of shame and inadequacy. This is a new ballgame for her and she asks herself, "What do I do?" "Is it O.K. to talk about this with someone or will he be mad?" "Do I dare bring this up today or is it better to let him deal with it alone?"

The problem with all this is that often times the woman has her own emotional needs that have to be met by someone during the crisis.

3. A sense of fear. Most farm women now work off the farm. When faced with the fact that her husband may be getting out, she often feels fearful that her income will have to suffice - and she knows it won't.

Also, many of these women blindly signed farm notes for chattels and operations. She is scared she will be financially on the hook at some point in time. She is scared, not just for her and the children, but for him too. He may be facing finding a new occupation at 40, 50 or 60.

4. A feeling of confusion. "How did this happen?" "I don't understand it." No one really sat down with her and explained the cost of production. No one explained the financial package they have. No one explained how much equity in the land they are losing and how.

5. Feelings of being mad and resentful. Perhaps this one is the hardest for women to talk about - that somewhere inside of them they are mad that this has happened. They are mad at their husband for not keeping them informed. They are mad that the bank never explained their personal liability. The women I talk to feel guilty and being mad!!

Well, Dr Farmer, these are just some thoughts I have about this crazy mess the farm community is in. I personally try to stay positive and that is not always easy to do. For us, we are continuing on. Only the future will tell us if we have made a mistake or if we have been wise.

Sometimes I think a spouse support group would be warranted. I am not sure the farmers would want anyone to know their business though!! They are tough nuts to crack, like the saying goes. Thank you for listening.

- A northwestern Minnesota farm woman.