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Peeling back the causes of farmer stress, one layer at a time

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LAYERS OF STRESS: Farmer stress is like layers of an onion. Meg Moynihan, senior adviser on strategy and innovation for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, shared this metaphor with the virtual audience gathered for the 2021 Kansas Governor’s Summit on Agricultural Growth on Aug. 26. She spoke about the work Minnesota is doing to address farmer mental health, and the causes for farmers’ mental crises.
Farmer stress has many layers that we often overlook; but all together, they can overwhelm.

Farmer stress is like the layers of an onion. You first peel back the outer layer and think that’s the problem. But then you peel back another layer, and another problem. And on, and on, until you’re sitting on the floor of the farmhouse kitchen, weeping and surrounded by the layers you peeled back.

Meg Moynihan, senior adviser on strategy and innovation for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, shared this metaphor with the virtual audience gathered Aug. 26 for the 2021 Kansas Governor’s Summit on Agricultural Growth. Moynihan spoke about the work Minnesota is doing to address farmer mental health and the causes for farmers’ mental crises.

Layer upon layer

That metaphor is going to stick with me for a while. I understand what she was getting at, because it’s never just one thing on the farm. If it was, we could handle it and move on to the next task at hand.

But we keep getting weighed down by layer after layer of stresses and worries — Moynihan calls them micro stressors, macro stressors, episodic stressors and chronic stressors — that we can’t fully control.

Take the pandemic, for example. I’ve spoken to farmers who, overnight, had spouses and children (and sometimes grandchildren) home working and schooling, and using up the farm’s precious bandwidth. It may seem minor to someone outside of agriculture, but spending the day as an IT tech instead of getting into the field to pick corn was a lot of added stress for many farmers. Others may have seen their or their spouse’s off-farm jobs eliminated, cutting their household income and health insurance at the worst possible time. Those would be episodic stressors.

But then start adding the macro and chronic stressors that farmers are juggling every day. Farmers, by their nature, feel responsible for the farm, the land and their families. So is it any wonder that worries over debt, labor, rising input costs, low commodity prices, competition for farm ground, farm succession, family dynamics, divorce, isolation and more layer on until they overwhelm them?

Can’t get away

Moynihan made another good point. Sure, others have those same worries about their own jobs, but they get to go home from their job at the end of the day. Farmers live with their messes and their mistakes, and can’t just close the door and drive home during rush hour traffic and decompress while listening to NPR.

“And, our coworkers are frequently family,” she adds. Now some families work together well, and others are a nightmare of disruptive personalities and mistrust. You can’t fire family.

Well, some do, but it makes a family reunion awfully awkward.

Is it any wonder that divorce, family dynamics and farm succession were top of the list of farmer stressors?

Moynihan brought up another really good point that’s worth pondering, the “praise-and-blame whipsaw.”

On one hand, the public puts farmers on a pedestal and trusts them as bastions of wholesome values, strong work ethics and caretakers of the land. On the other hand, the public also lashes out at farmers and blames them for polluting the soil and water, causing global warming and hurting animals. That’s a dichotomy that, whether farmers can name it or not, is a stressor on their mental health.

Manifestation

It used to be that you could go to your neighbor a mile down the road and sit at the kitchen table and commiserate over a cup of coffee. But with fewer and fewer people living in the country, that outlet’s being taken away. So the layers of stress, guilt, resentment, anger and fear just keep piling up until they explode in episodes of domestic violence, substance abuse or self-harm.

Moynihan says there are other invisible and visible warning signals of mental stress, including: paralysis or inability to make decisions; relationship problems with friends and family; withdrawal from activities and people; unexplained irritability; gastrointestinal problems; poor hygiene; change in weight; sleep disturbances; and risky behaviors that are out of character.

How many farm accidents do you know of were caused by someone who was tired, distracted or angry? Sure, farmers know better. But if someone is in a mental health crisis and not thinking clearly, safety precautions are often out the window.

As I listened to Moynihan, I admit I saw myself, and friends and family, in her words. If you’ve read this and seen yourself in these words, or you can see someone you care about in these words, I want you to know it’s OK — and you aren’t alone. It’s not shameful to ask for help in peeling your metaphorical onion.

Reach out to the Kansas Rural Family Helpline at 866-327-6578, or visit kansasagstress.org to find resources to help.

 

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