Lance Ellis knows how stressful farm life can be. His experience on family farms taught him how easy it is to feel isolated and alone with anxious thoughts about the family business.
“I know what it’s like to be by yourself on a tractor and get yourself beaten down over challenges your business is facing,” said Ellis, a University of Idaho Extension Educator in Fremont County. “Your thoughts can really make you lose hope or feel overwhelmed.”
And, year-to-year, farmers may have much cause to fret. Crops or livestock can thrive or fail based on things outside of their control — weather, livestock sickness, equipment breakdowns and fluctuating commodity prices.
Owners of small farms experience challenges like other self-employed businesses, but they have unique trials that others might not face. Farmers comply with additional government regulation to farm their land, such as pesticide application, licenses, property right problems, and environmental regulations.
They are also uniquely tied to the family business that supports their households and has sustained their ancestors for generations. Many small to mid-sized farms have been held in the same family for more than a century, and a typical farmer may be the third to fifth generation producing a livelihood on the land.
If maintaining a thriving farm is a legacy and responsibility that is tied to a farmer’s value of self and identity, then what happens if circumstances drive farmers to fail on their farms? It becomes an emotional crisis equated with losing a child.
“It’s common for a farmer who is facing foreclosure or bankruptcy to experience grief, extreme loss and self-loathing,” Ellis said. “A lot of them look at their grandparents who made it through the Depression or other tough times, and think they are the weak link because they lost the farm. It can lead to thoughts of self-harm and suicide.”
Farm Stress Management Training
Because of a growing national trend showing farmers often don’t manage stress in a healthy way, Ellis and fellow UI Extension Educator Lance Hansen offer classes at cereal schools and other agriculture trainings to educate Idaho farmers about coping skills and resources for stress management.
“We first identify as a group what sources of stress they face, and audience members become involved almost immediately,” said Ellis. “They really relate to examples other class members share.”
Ellis then points out the ways the body physically reacts to stress, like stomachaches or teeth grinding.
“Then we talk about how that same stress manifests itself through behaviors,” he said. “It could be they yell at their kids. Do they break things? We help them identify what these internal and external manifestations are when they become worried, anxious or depressed.”
The group also talks about successful ways to manage stress.
“We have them practice different stress management techniques, such as taking three deep breaths. We teach them about how to step back and avoid spiraling into feeling overwhelmed and anxious,” Ellis said. “It helps them to stop and de-escalate the moment, recognize resources they have available, and use stress management tools to help themselves or others.”
Challenges and Needs
Ellis was surprised at the depth of need that farmers have for opportunities to talk about stress management and to find help without the stigma of being viewed as weak or vulnerable for making mistakes.
“There is pressure as a farmer to be a strong individual who pushes through adversity, even if they are in pain,” said Ellis.
And the people that most understand what farmers go through — other farmers — may be closed mouthed about their own struggles. A farmer’s competition many times is their neighbors and other farmers within the community, so they may experience reluctance to be vulnerable.
Participants do find all farmers struggle to some extent or another, and they share part of the human experience and part of the farming experience with each other. Farm Stress Management Training isn’t a support group, but participants can share whatever experiences they’re comfortable sharing.
“We are trying to get the dialogue going and help break down the stigma about talking about their challenges,” said Ellis. “Sometimes family is in the room with them. Sometimes neighbors. But they are able to be open in a lot of ways, because people share personal stories about the challenges and stresses they are facing.”
The impact of this training is hopeful. The Idaho Farm Bureau is hoping to partner with UI Extension to sponsor training for their members. Ellis also hopes to provide more formal education in the future and is looking to work with more groups that connect UI Extension to agriculture producers and share resources and tools that are available.
“We care about people being better and getting the support they need to be successful,” Ellis said. “Too often the person is completely focused on the bottom line, but we should consider what the bottom line is doing to the person. This program helps us support the people behind the business.”
Article by Aubrey Stribling, University of Idaho Extension
Published in December 2020