Somewhere around Memorial Day last year, my husband and I started having conversations we’d never had before. We’d planted maybe 300 acres at that point, most of it back in April, and meteorologist Eric Snodgrass was forecasting rain until June. Those conversations boiled down to one question: “So, like, what happens if we don’t actually plant a crop?”
Neither of us really even wanted to say it out loud. Conditions didn’t look good, but giving voice to contingency plans for not raising a crop for the first time in 21 years — that thing that the entirety of what we do hinges upon — made my heart pound. Saying it out loud named the burden of the stress we were carrying.
So we talked about it. We could sell some cows, we had my job, we’d put some other plans on hold. It would be fine. We were lucky.
Nearly every conversation I’ve heard between farmers this past year has hit on the stress they felt grinding through 2019. The reality of having work to do when circumstances won’t let you do it wears on a person. Day after day, week after week. So while we’re spending a lot of time lately looking at how to plan for 2020 in light of 2019, what about mental health? What did we learn in 2019?
First of all, contrary to a lot of jokes I can think of, family time can keep us sane. Mike Nelson, Paxton, Ill., tried not to take work home and instead spent quality time with his wife and 3-year-old son. “Family time was a valuable commodity,” he adds.
In general, being with people is good for us when we’re stressed. We’ve had a close group of friends from our young farmer days, and I can always tell when my husband’s talking to one of them on the phone. The stories and the complaints and the laughs are all different. It helps. Bill Christ, a Master Farmer from Metamora, Ill., concurs. Some of his go-to people work in ag and some don’t, so they give him a good cross-section of advice and support.
There’s clearly something about farm friends made young. Peotone, Ill., Master Farmers Jim and Pam Robbins have been circling up for 40 years with their young farmer friends. Pam, who’s a nurse, adds, “Keeping anxiety and fear of the unknown inside is unhealthy. Isolation is the enemy; talking it out is therapeutic.”
She’s right; talking with other people helps you figure out what you can actually change. And what actually matters. That can help you stop blaming yourself for perceived failures.
And if it’s too much, get professional help. Master Farmers Ron and Julie Lawfer are dairy farmers from Kent, Ill. Julie’s one of the most delightful, encouraging people you’ll ever meet.
“The anxiety and depression hit me hard,” Julie says of the past year. She’s seeing a therapist once a month now and takes medication for anxiety and depression. “Best decision ever. It helps keep circumstances in perspective.”
Stress is hard on a marriage, too. A friend recently shared how another young farm wife pulled her aside this winter and cried on her shoulder, hard. Her husband was drinking more and didn’t want to come home. She’s sleeping on the couch.
2019 weighed so heavily on everyone — and not just the farmer.
Always next year?
So many of us are so optimistic, even in the middle of our pessimism. Even in the middle of low yields and low prices. We keep at it. Every year. Farmers young and not-so-young have told me over and over, “2020 is a new year; we have a positive outlook on all aspects of our operation; we see good opportunities in the coming year.”
Strasburg, Ill., Master Farmer Tim Lenz gives it a little more perspective. “I keep reminding myself that the worst day of farming is still better than a real job. We still work for ourselves on our own schedules. There are so many people that would love to be able to farm but didn’t have the opportunity.”
Hope often dawns eternal, especially on a farm.
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