Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Stress Affects Drought-Stricken Farmers

October 2, 2006

A tough year. This is a difficult time for drought-stricken farmers and ranchers. There are widespread areas of the Great Plains that are reeling from this summer’s drought. Politicians are pressing for disaster relief aid when our country’s resources are stretched thin - pressed by the war of terror, Hurricane Katrina relief, and an overload of uncertainty and bad news.

Further east the rains that came, came too late. Crops and yields were stunted. The impact of the drought can be spotty - affecting some farmers but not others. Prices for crops may not reflect the drought effects because the impact was primarily outside of the Corn belt states. This is confusing and more hurtful than if everyone was in the same boat. It also mutes the political response for assistance.

A typical farmer or rancher personality profile. What are farmers or ranchers like? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What happens when they are under stress?

Most farmers or ranchers and their spouses would agree with this description of themselves: hard workers, conservative decision-makers, practical, orderly, organized, matter-of-fact, realistic, and dependable. They feel a strong sense of duty. They value belonging and contributing. They are patient with routine and are detail-oriented. Success comes because of their ability to be persistent and conscientious.

Farmers and ranchers focus on the "here and now" problems and expect the future to take care of itself. They have a need to be in control and take control of situations when they can. They trust their own judgment and analysis. They are independent.

Some common weaknesses. Every set of strengths has its flip side. The same qualities that serve farmers and ranchers well in their profession can cause problems for themselves and others close to them. Family members of a farmer or rancher see some of these negative characteristics more than they would like.

Farmers and ranchers take a lot for granted. They are known to be critical, sarcastic or impatient. They tend to overwork while having difficulty enjoying leisure and relaxation. They have a hard time expressing love or appreciation. Because they have high standards of performance, they rarely recognize or comment on the positive contributions of others unless it is truly exceptional.

Farmers and ranchers tend toward a "doom and gloom" appraisal of the future. They are not generally open to new ideas unless they are practical, realistic and related to his or her current mode of operation. They may not see the significance of changing times, outside forces or new developments.

They are independent to a fault. It gets them in trouble when they don’t turn to others for help during a time of crisis.

Hard times have a negative effect. These personality characteristics are more pronounced during hard times. This is apparent to local townspeople, lenders, dealers, creditors, clergy, extension agents, neighbors and family members.

What situations are most stressful for farmers or ranchers with this "typical" personality profile? They feel stressed out when they:

- feel their plans are blocked, when things don’t go right, when there are too many deadlines.

- are confronted with economic uncertainty, when they lack control, when they can’t correct the problem, when the risks are great.

- don’t have enough work to do.

- are faced with conflict or confrontation, when there are too many people demands, when they feel misunderstood, when they feel let down by someone.

- don’t meet their own expectations, when they make a mistake, when they feel like they’ve failed.

- feel a lack of order or messiness in their environment.

- feel they have let others down.

- feel lonely or unappreciated.

What do farmers and ranchers need from others during stressful times? Here are some things farmers appreciate from others when there is too much stress.

Show concern. Help them understand they are not alone and they are cared about. Don’t get into the "blame"game. They are feeling bad enough already.

Be patient. Give them time to think about the problem. Don’t push for an immediate response. Don’t humiliate or embarrass them publicly.

Be organized. Present information with facts and figures. Get down to specifics. Work out details in advance. Be logical. Be realistic. Be careful in planning.

Teach by concrete example and by "hands-on" experience. Give "how to" advice from trusted authorities.

Give appreciation and recognition for their outstanding qualities: being responsible, industrious, careful, thorough and accurate. These strengths are often overlooked and unappreciated.

Don’t take criticism personally. Farmers may think they are stating blunt facts when their remarks are judgmental. There are times when they need to "blow off" steam without being taken too seriously. Don’t escalate an argument by overreacting to the way something was said.

Be faithful and reliable. Do your best to understand them, recognize their efforts and follow through with your commitments to them.

Reduce risk factors. Farmers are looking for stability and security - a way of getting back in control. Refer them to outside resources for help and encourage them to take steps in that directions.

By reading this, can you get a feeling of why farmers and ranchers feel stressed out when drought throws their finances and hard work into a tailspin? Drought and weather related problems create the opposite environment in which farmers and ranchers with this personality profile do best. If fact, the only thing worse is if they feel their problems are caused by human error, negligence or malfeasance.