Jun 18, 2020
Michigan tackles farmer stress during COVID-19
Zeke Jennings

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, agriculture ranks seventh among most dangerous jobs with 24.7 fatal injuries per every 100,000 full-time workers. In addition, farms are often in rural areas that may not have adequate medical care facilities nearby.

The mental strain of financial uncertainty, risk of injury to employees, long hours and physical demands make operating a farm a conduit for stress. This year is shaping up to be especially taxing for agriculture. In addition to the normal stresses of the profession, COVID-19 shutdowns have backed up the food supply chain, leading many growers with surplus crops they can’t sell.

The Michigan State University (MSU) Extension conducted a “Managing Farm Stress” webinar June 9, which detailed the warning signs of mental distress, which is caused by prolonged stress, and offered some tips on how to deal with it. The webinar was hosted by MSU Farm Business Management Educator Florencia Colella and included a panel of MSU Extension staff.

In 2017, the University of Maryland issued “8 Dimensions of Wellness,” which identified the areas of human wellbeing – physical, social, emotional, intellectual, vocational, environmental, spiritual and financial.

The presenters noted that anticipation for a big event, whether it be planting, harvesting or getting ready for a big family get-together, can cause stress, but oftentimes helps motivate and focus us to do what’s needed to get through it. Prolonged stress causes distress, which can lead to both mental and physical health problems, like hypertension or nervous disorder.

Weather, which is uncontrollable, of course, is a major cause of worry for farmers. Some other roots of stress noted were:

  • Large debt loads
  • Government regulations
  • Machinery breakdowns
  • High interest rates
  • Crop yields, which can hinge on weather, pests and disease
  • Livestock illness
  • Commodity prices
  • Family disagreements

“Disagreements with family members is something unique to small business, including farming, where you often have many generations working together,” a panelist said.

Step one in managing stress is identifying that it’s present. Signals can come:

  • Mentally (anxiety, sadness, anger, feelings of hopelessness)
  • Physically (headaches, nausea, backaches, elevated blood pressure or blood sugar, racing heart)
  • Through actions (increased alcohol, tobacco or drug use, unusual eating or sleeping patterns, yelling, breaking things, withdrawal)

Be on the lookout for warning signs in yourself, as well as co-workers and family members on the farm, especially when there are financial, equipment or crop issues present.

Management

The MSU panel noted that everyone is different and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach for coping with mental stress. There are many day-to-day practices for those experiencing stress to try, however.

In 2018, the North Dakota State University Extension published “My Coping Strategies Plan,” a toolbox that offers dozens of physical, mental, social and financial tips that can help maintain physical and mental health. They range from prioritizing daily tasks and goals to exercising to playing with children, grandchildren or pets.

“A study found that 30% of adults felt less stress after exercise,” said Eric Karbowski, a community behavioral health Extension educator that focuses on farm stress.

Most importantly, experts say don’t rely on drugs or alcohol to cope and don’t withdraw and try to shoulder it alone, which can be difficult for farmers to avoid due to the isolated and stressful nature of the job. Colella cited Michael Rosmann’s 2010 publication, “The Agrarian Imperative,” which explores the mental aspect of being a farmer.

“Farmers have a strong connection with their land and animals and will hang on to them at all costs,” she said.

Another important factor in management is identifying the cause of stress. Most university extensions offer assistance in mental wellbeing, just like MSU, but also have experts in financial management. On the farm, look for ways to delegate responsibilities and lighten your load. If equipment management, for example, is leading to stress, ask yourself if someone else in the operation is capable of handling that.

Communication

Avoiding withdrawal and isolation is a key component in coping with stress and talking with others about what is going on is an important part of that. Whether it is a counselor, Extension specialist, family member or friend, don’t forget there are people there to help. Oftentimes, fellow farmers can provide a level of understanding others may not.

“One thing about farming is that they tend to stick together,” Colella said. “Don’t forget your community is there for you.”

The panelists offered suggestions on what to do if you feel a fellow farmer might be distressed. It’s important to ask open-ended questions to get them talking, rather than questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” This leads to deeper revelation of feelings at their end, as well as a better understanding at yours.

One example is instead of saying, “Are you feeling OK?” say “How do you feel about that?” Another example is instead of “Did you make a decision?” say “What else do you need to make a decision?”

CDC studies have found that suicide rates are higher in farming than most other professions. Increased isolation, giving away prized possessions, decreased interest in things that have always held interest and making a plan for suicide and acquiring the means to carry it out are all warning signs.

“We need to be very direct with this question: ‘Are you having thoughts of suicide?’” said Karbowski, who added that studies have shown asking the question doesn’t lead to increased risk that the person will act on it. Instead, it provides an opportunity that the person will see that someone understands what they’re feeling.

If someone expresses that they are having thoughts of suicide, first and foremost, don’t leave them alone. Karbowski suggested calling for help or taking them to a hospital. He stressed the awareness of available resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, and suicidepreventionlifeline.org, which has online chatting available.

“They have trained experts on how to handle it,” he said. “They can be helpful even if you’re not thinking about it, but are just really stressed.

“Maybe keep the number in your truck or wallet.”

Above, many farmers are stressed this season due to a variety of factors. Stock photo illustration of a model.


Zeke Jennings is a contributing editor of Organic Grower. He also is the managing editor of Spudman and Produce Processing magazines.
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