Farm family finance resiliency

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Even if crops and animals thrive, workers abound and the weather is ideal, a farm needs one more element to be successful: effective management of the farm’s finances. Maria Pippidis of University of Delaware Cooperative Extension and Jesse Ketterman of University of Maryland Extension recently presented “Managing Your Finances Resiliently” as a webinar.

Ketterman listed no to low income, large debt load, clash between needs and wants, disagreements with family members, uncertain markets, unexpected expenses, caregiving for parents and/or children and cost of healthcare insurance as financial stressors in many families.

“What are the things that cause stress?” he asked. “You’ve likely either experienced them yourself or know someone who has. Especially as you age, you start thinking about healthcare and expenses.”

Eliminating all stress is not good. For example, going on vacation or getting married generates stress; however, these are not prolonged stressful situations. Mitigating the effects of stress is key to remaining healthy. “Prolonged stress is distress, when things are overwhelming,” Ketterman said.

That can cause physical and mental issues, emotional and behavioral issues and social, relational and environmental problems. Stress effects could include headaches, backaches and sleeping and eating problems. Emotional issues could include depression, anger, anxiety and increased substance use.

“The isolation piece is something farmers need to be aware of,” Ketterman said. “You could be the only one working all day. That can increase your stress and make you want to keep within yourself. You could have increased conflict with others.”

This could also manifest as poorly maintained equipment or livestock – or even the farmer’s appearance. “They dress one way all the time and then they become disheveled,” Ketterman said. “Or people who normally attend a meeting are no longer attending. Financial stress can be seen in all these things. Your body doesn’t sort out if it’s financial or relational stress.”

He said that resiliency is the ability for people to not just survive but to thrive. “You’ll feel stretched and pulled, but resiliency is the ability to have flexibility and be able to pull forward,” Ketterman said.

He identified helpful traits as the ability to be adaptable, hopeful, robust, flexible, communicative, interested in learning to improve self and others, being social and interactive, being prepared and to have reserves, diversification and being able to bounce back or even forward. The skills include the ability to integrate change, communicate effectively, organize, use resources effectively, problem solve, share feelings, show compassion, create meaning from experience, learn from experiences, build strong relationships and social networks and practice healthy coping behaviors.

The traits of resilient individuals include “self-compassion – positive adaptation to a crisis or stress,” Ketterman said. “Hardiness – the belief one can get through tough times. A sense of self-control – the belief that you have some control, if only your response, versus that lack of control. Having skills for decision-making and problem solving and can establish priorities. It ties back into strong social connections. With farm and farm families, we talk about the family element. There are traits that go back to farm families.”

These include commitment, time together, respect, spirituality, connectedness, adaptability, communication, cohesion and community support – one aspect that hit home for Ketterman.

“My dad had an accident on the job and wasn’t able to work anymore and the community came together,” he said. “Once he had his accident, I felt like the community raised me. They’d tell me when I wasn’t doing right and when I was doing good.”

In addition, he believes that building resilience depends upon “the ability to anticipate and use stressors – shocks, disruptions and disturbances – to spur renewal and innovative thinking.”

To do this, farmers need to be able to make realistic plans, reframe problems into lessons, identify resources and use them effectively, seek new information and identify individuals or organizations who can provide support.

“Before you’re in the situation, you want to have buffers, which is having money set aside already for emergencies,” Ketterman said. “Another way is to have that ability to borrow – establishing credit along the way. Have insurance that would address particular challenges you may need to address” – which could include crop insurance and health insurance.

Pippidis reminded farmers that they and their farms have certain strengths. Part of managing finances resiliently is to think about those belief systems we have for ourselves, our family and our community and within our farm family situations, she said. “Sometimes, as we’re approaching financial stressors, we’re so overwhelmed that we’re not always able to think about these strengths and to leverage them in a way that helps us recover or even bounce forward.”

Sometimes the stress itself short circuits a person’s ability to think clearly. In these cases, Pippidis recommends naming that feeling and what the problem is so that the person can take direction. “Once you get there, then you’re sort of able to pull on these strengths to come up with ideas on how to address it,” she said.

Farmers need to look at what they dream about and what challenges represent barriers to achieving their dreams.

“The dream can help prioritize solutions to address the challenge,” Pippidis said. “The challenge can help motivate action to achieve the dream.”

By creating this knowledge, you’re better able to name whatever the issue is, the challenge or the dream and that can help you communicate, seek solutions and help motivate change, she explained.

She sees the younger generation as integral in developing solutions, so long as they have the latitude to try things like diversification.

“Oftentimes, we’re in our head, trying to problem solve and cope with the stress,” Pippidis said. “We haven’t necessarily shared with our family members or farm partners clearly where we want to go or what needs to happen. This is where disagreements can happen and break down communication even more. That’s where we need good communication. Identifying those action steps in a concrete way is key to help address and solve problems.”

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