Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Loss Of A Farm Is Like A Death

March 4, 2002

Grief following the death of a loved one is a wrenching and painful experience. Losing a family farm is very much like a death in the family. How is grieving the loss of a farm similar to grieving the loss of a loved one?

Like some deaths, the loss of a farm may have been prevented.

There are many causes for the loss of a farm. Some have to do with debt issues created around expansion, weather, low prices, living beyond one’s means, world economy, trade policies, government policy, disease, cost of inputs, expensive technology or unfairness in the economic playing field. This has resulted in a high risk economic environment with razor thin profit margins.

With 20/20 hindsight, farmers can second guess some decisions that didn’t work out. Even without an obvious decision to point to, guilt can arise from failing to anticipate the conditions that eventually placed the farm at risk.

If a farmer blames himself or herself, the reaction is guilt. Guilt can stem from a violation of a generational trust to keep the farm in the family. The loss of the farm also crushes a personal and family dream to pass on the farm to a child.

On the other hand, if the loss is perceived to have been caused by actions and negligence of others, then the farmer is racked with feelings of anger, bitterness and betrayal. This feeling extends to corporate greed, lenders, cheap food policy, government programs, landlords, cutthroat neighbors, or the specific actions of a particular individual or institution.

Like a chronic illness that eventually leads to death, the battle to save the family farm is lengthy and ambiguous.

Over the course of three or four years, the farmer experiences anticipatory grief - grieving the loss before the actual loss occurs - while at the same time trying to halt the threatened loss from taking place. The grieving intensifies with each new setback. Each heartbreaking circumstance such as a cash flow failure, the inability to meet obligations, a loan refusal, the failure to find new financing, a failed mediation, foreclosure and bankruptcy notices, court appearances, inventory day, the farm auction, or moving day trigger the grief response.

Like fighting cancer, farmers may choose to grasp at straws - anything to stave off the threatening events. Grief and hope alternate, depending on the rise and fall of hope. The process towards recognition and acceptance of the farm loss is painfully long and uneven. Even if the exit from farming is voluntary, the best plan to minimize tax liabilities is to spread out the sale and dispersal of assets over a two to three year time frame.

3. Like an impending death, there is a conspiracy of silence around the threatened loss of a farm.

The loss of a farm takes place in a social environment where farmers are quite knowledgeable and competitive with one another on management practices. Personal pride and respect in the community are at stake. The ethic of self-sufficiency is strong as is the disposition to judge. Despite many of the problems in agriculture are systemic and outside of personal control, leaving farming makes one vulnerable to judgments of others.

Anxieties and fears cannot be safely shared. A prevalent view of masculinity in farming communities is that showing emotion is bad and that misfortune should be endured stoically.

A farm failure is not one's loss alone. Farmers with a strong sense of morality feel deep humiliation and shame when they can't meet their obligations. Their reaction is to withdraw and avoid one's creditors and neighbors.

The economically distressed farmer no longer shares a common frame of reference with those not in trouble. The community doesn't know how to react to these families. The loss is ambiguous for them too. There are no community rituals, like a funeral, where the rural community can rally to the family's aid and recognize the profound loss. Like death, too many families are left alone or choose to be left alone in their grief.

Like a death, the loss of a farm changes everything.

The experience of being a farmer involves a unique integration of many skills such as financial management and strategic planning, marketing, machinery repair, "hands on" production knowledge and skills, animal and soil health and supervision of labor. This combination doesn’t transfer easily to other positions in society. There is probably no other occupation that has the potential for defining one's "self" so completely.

To lose the farm is to lose part of one's own identity. Part of oneself is missing. It cannot be replaced.

By leaving a farm, the family also loses a unique way of life. The emotional appeal of farming is with the lifestyle - raising children and enjoying family life in the context of farm life.

By leaving the rural community, the family loses cherished associations with extended family, neighbors, and friends. They also lose their connection with community participation where they have derived immense satisfaction from belonging and contributing.

Like a death, grieving the loss of a farm follows a predictable pattern of denial, emotional turmoil, resistance, acceptance, and finally assimilation - all of which takes place over an extended period of time. With all the love, commitment, and identity that go into farming, pain, hurt and loss go deep into the soul.