I remember it well. It was 6 a.m. on June 11, 2015 when my friend and young farmer, John Suscovich, announced to the world on his 75th Farm Marketing Solutions Podcast, that he was having an emotional meltdown and heading into the thralls of depression. As he divulged his inner pain, a wave of tears dripped onto my keyboard, partly from my empathy for him but also from the release that, I too, suffer from the “Burning candles at both ends” syndrome.
Mental health is not something we discuss very much, especially at the farm level, partly from internal pride, and the connotation that we are tough, optimistic and can handle any situation. “We as farmers as a whole do not like to talk about mental health. This really should be the first thing talked about before getting into farming full time,” said farmer Bruce Linebaugh.
The mental, physical and financial stress afflicts men, women and even the children of agriculture, but it still remains in the shadows. “People say we’re ‘rich in other ways,’ but that doesn’t fix the ugly fact that most farms are unsustainable,” said California farmer Jaclyn Moyer. Folks are hurting and we must confront this issue head-on.
“A group of top economists told the House Agriculture Committee that the farm economy is bad, but not as bad as the 1980s. Still, the prolonged downturn in the ag economy — moving into its fourth year — is increasing stress on farmers who rely heavily on operating credit. Banks have tightened loan requirements, leading more farmers to rely on USDA loans. And roughly one-in-five farmers specializing in some key commodities and livestock now have debt-to-asset ratios that will make those more vulnerable to a financial crisis if prices continue to worsen for the crops and livestock they raise,” said Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor.
Clayton continues, “Even before the current downturn, farmers were more prone to succumbing to mental stress on the job than other careers. A study released last summer by the Centers for Disease Control looking at suicide rates by professions in 20 states from 2000 to 2012, showed the suicide rates for people in farming, fishing and forestry was the highest of any profession by a wide margin, though the study did not offer any explanation as to why the suicide rate in agriculture was higher than other jobs. The 2008 farm bill included a program called the Farm & Ranch Stress Assistance Network, but the program was discretionary and never funded, so it never got off the ground.”
I find springtime as the most vulnerable time for emotional and physical stress because there seems to be an unrelenting list of things to do. John found this out too as a manager, marketing man and “Mister Fix-it” on a small, diverse livestock, vegetable, hops and fruit operation. Couple an unrealistic work-load with financial stress, no time off, stupid stuff happening, lack of sleep, lousy eating habits and farmer’s pride, and you have a recipe for a personal trickle-down disaster. You trick yourself into thinking that if I just put in more hours, I can catch up and all will work out. It’s a fallacy.
The melting creeps in subtly, as negativity and the feeling of being under-appreciated eventually transposes into physical fatigue, worry and the debilitating notion, that it’s all my fault. It creates a negative work environment, an air of chasing fires and eventually depression. For me personally, I falter because I never seem to get ahead in my mind or when I think I do, something always takes it away. As it turns out, many of my dairy farmer friends feel this way.
John described the day he melted down, as “taking the cork out of a champagne bottle.” He just shut all systems down which worried his wife immensely. My case is more Rip Van Winkle-like, because I laid down for a nap from exhaustion and slept for three days. Too many hours of working without a break, deemed me almost incapacitated. The traits for this spiraling condition is partly hereditary, partly pride in the ability to conquer and partly having standards and expectations too high and not finding the balance in life and farm goals.
So what do you do if you feel yourself in the “tornado of negativity”? Know your cues of the impending meltdown in advance if you can. If you’re not sure, ask your spouse, children, friends or co-workers as they can be brutally honest but also the most important support structure to relieve the situation. The critical point is to get help and talk out your stressors. We are blessed to have local medical professionals, clergy and an often consulted, NY FarmNet group (800-547-3276) that are gifted in mediation 24 hours a day.
Dr. Michael Rosmann, a psychologist from Harlan, Iowa and syndicated columnist on rural issues and behavioral health, said, “I get anywhere from three to 20 emails or phone calls a week from farmers or their family members around the country asking for information on farm counseling. The story is financial uncertainty. We have to deal not only with the financial cycles, but there are other factors. One of them is that farming is so stressful and there are exposures that other occupations don’t have.”
By episode 76 of the Growing Farms Podcast, the burnout had dissipated and John was able to talk about his steps to recovery and get feedback from his guests as well. “Losing it” is not an easy thing to talk about. No one is really proud of not being able to keep it together under pressure, yet as small business owners it is something we all go through.”
Being a recovering work-aholic, John and I “talked it out” and found some common ground solutions: Reassess your goals and prioritize in importance, schedule time off away from the farm, get a “good sleep”, focus on doing less and doing it well, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your network of friends, delegate duties to others on the team, hug and love your family in the time of need and have a financial advisor you can trust to help in critical thinking.
“There is a community of honest hard-working people where you are literally and figuratively out in the weeds just as I am, and you know what it is like to be in my shoes. If my experience could help one other person, that’s why I put myself out there,” said Suscovich.
I’d like to think I had my meltdown triggers in check but it takes “more work” to find the sweet spot of life balance when you’re working with the dynamics of weather, markets and the worry of things you can’t control. As you finish this paragraph, know this, I have taken the advice of my friend and have a scheduled stress-reliever where I am receiving beach therapy with my wife. “An ocean breeze puts a mind at ease.”