Flooded fields, late or still-unplanted crops, volatile markets, and ever-rising inputs have combined into epic-level stress for farmers across the Midwest.
Taking a look at the weather forecast, it doesn’t appear the pressure is going to lessen any time soon.
“This prolonged distress can result in emotional problems, some physical problems, or both,” said Brandy VanDeWalle, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator based in Geneva, Neb., during a recent webinar developed to help bring to light farmers’ stress and to encourage healthy stress management skills.
A recording is archived at https://go.unl.edu/wellnessintoughtimes.
VanDeWalle had already the idea of creating materials on this topic, prior to this spring’s devastating floods and ongoing pattern of rainy weather that has seriously delayed planting in the multi-state region.
Back in January, she presented what would later become the basis for the webinar during the 2019 Farmers and Ranchers Cow/Calf College held in Clay Center, Neb. Here, VanDeWalle addressed a topic that makes many an independent, stoic producer uncomfortable—that farmers and ranchers are affected by stress and how they cope with it can determine not only their happiness but the success of their operation.
“Really, our health is our wealth,” she said. “If we take care of ourselves, we’ll be much more productive.”
At the time, the major concern centered on weak commodity prices largely the result of an ongoing trade dispute with China.
A few months later, in mid-March, huge swaths of Nebraska saw historic flooding, mostly in agricultural counties. Some parts of Nebraska, as well as South Dakota, suffered a blizzard so ferocious that it was killing full-grown animals, not to mention calves born and frozen within minutes.
Now, in June, many parts of Nebraska are still at the very beginnings of recovery. Livestock producers have lost entire herds. Crop fields are buried under silt washed up by the flooding.
Even in parts of the state not affected by the floods, the spring’s weather has been so wet that a significant number of farmers are still trying to just get the crop in the field. As of June 2, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, there remained 12 percent of Nebraska’s corn to be planted and 36 percent of soybeans.
Weather is a not a new stressor among farmers, but it is unsurprisingly a major one this year. According to a statewide poll taken during the live webinar on April 23, 75 percent ranked weather as their number-one agricultural stressor this year.
Other top stressors identified included debt, at 71 percent, and volatile markets per 50 percent of those surveyed.
“If there are more than two major stressors in a person’s life, it gets really tough,” said Glennis McClure, of Lincoln, fellow webinar presenter and UNL Extension farm and ranch management analyst.
Farm Stress Building for 5 Years
USDA data reveals how national net farm income in 2018 fell 46 percent since its record high in 2013, the peak in a so-called golden period between 2011 and 2014.
In 2016, UNL and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture joined in conducting a Farm Financial Health Survey, which found that 54 percent of farmers were feeling stressed financially. More than 70 percent were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to obtain necessary operating capital the following year, and more than 60 percent were worried that interest rates would increase. A total of 45 percent predicted that their overall financial condition would decline, and another 45 percent expected it to at least remain the same.
More than half of both livestock and crop producers included in the survey plan to reduce operating costs by deferring machinery replacement as well as reducing family living expenses. Approximately a third of livestock producers planned to also reduce their herd size, feed supplement costs, and hired labor. Among crop producers, a third planned to reduce fertilizer rates and a quarter planned to reduce hired labor in the hope to better balance the farm budget.
In addition, about a third of producers surveyed planned to pursue an off-farm job and another nearly 15 percent hoped to develop a custom operation to help offset expenses.
How to Deal With Stress Healthily
The need for healthy stress management is evident, but when a producer is faced with seemingly insurmountable stress, remembering good coping skills can be difficult.
The first step is to differentiate between good and bad stress, VanDeWalle explained. Exactly what constitutes as good stress is subjective to each individual and requires an honest inventory of stressors by each person as well as their behavior in an attempt to mitigate the stress. For some, deadlines can be motivating and therefore classified as good stress. For others, deadlines may feel constricting and only add to bad stress.
The second step in developing healthy stress management is to take an inventory of any unhealthy reactions to stress, such as shutting down emotionally or acting-out toward family members or through addictions, VanDeWalle described.
The third step is to intentionally replace poor coping mechanisms with healthy responses, she advised. A few she suggested:
• Building gaps into the day for mental breaks;
• Being assertive and saying “no” to self or others as needed;
• Getting physical activity every day;
• Talking to someone or journaling about stressors;
• Using time management tools, such as making to-do lists, using a planner, setting goals and prioritizing daily tasks, avoiding the temptation to either procrastinate or be perfectionistic, and not sweating the small stuff;
• Working during the self’s unique biological prime time, whether that be in the morning, afternoon, or evening;
• Rewarding self with time off or another incentive;
• Getting enough sleep;
• Eating a balanced diet;
• Spending time with family and friends;
• Accepting that stress is a part of life;
• Learning to relax and conquering workaholic habits.
However, VanDeWalle admitted, even those most practiced at stress management can sometimes be caught off-guard. She recommended four interventions for particularly high stress situations:
Taking a 10-minute walk;
Changing self-talk from negative to positive;
Focusing on an encouraging saying, such as a Bible verse;
Doing a deep-breathing exercise.
Perhaps the most lasting strategy is to learn to think more positively, VanDeWalle offered, explaining that 80 percent of the average human’s thoughts are negative. Considering that the human mind has an average of 70,000 thoughts per day, there are ample chances to practice optimism.
“That’s 70,000 opportunities for either positive or negative thoughts,” she said.
When Crisis Hits
Because agricultural producers are self-sufficient by nature, VanDewalle explained that their stress remains largely unaddressed until it’s to the breaking point—whether a looming bankruptcy or worse.
“Let’s not be too strong to reach out for help,” McClure said.
VanDeWalle and McClure urged those who know a farmer who may be struggling to watch for signs of distress and to outwardly express concern for that person’s situation. Trying to assist the person to connect with resources, as needed, can be helpful.
It’s important not to ignore any talk of suicide, even jokingly, McClure explained, and to ask about a person’s suicide plans if he or she mentions the idea.
It’s a myth that asking about suicide encourages a person to go through with it, she clarified. Allowing someone to be open with their feelings demonstrates that others care, be more direct in encouraging him or her to seek help, and makes it easier to inform health care providers.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 may be called at any time, day or night.