The Recovering Farmer

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Surviving Stress

Farming, as we know it, has been around since the beginning of time. Over the ages it has evolved to what we see today. From small backyard hobby farms to family farms to corporations. From single, specialized operations to large diversified, multi commodity enterprises. Many of these operations have been successful and continue to thrive in today’s environment. Success, in many cases, has been measured by the ability of farmers to adapt to all sorts of demands coming forward from consumers, society and government. What farmers have had difficulty adapting to have been circumstances outside of their control. BSE in cattle, excessive moisture in consecutive years, collapse of livestock prices, volatility of exchange rates, to name but a few. So, in spite of success stories, stress has become a major part of a famer’s everyday life.

The World Health Organization lists farming as one of the most stressful occupations and is surpassed only by Mining in terms of suicide rates. In 2005 CASA (Canadian Agricultural Safety Association) surveyed 1100 farmers. Of those surveyed, two thirds described themselves as being “very stressed”. Commodity prices ranked first in creating the most stress. Although finances came second there are a host of other issues that cause stress. They include, but are not limited to, input costs, government policies, weather, workload, relationships, and uncertain markets.

I have always struggled with adapting to new technology. Whether its cell phones, computers, or ATMs, I tend to be one of the last to utilize technology that is actually supposed to simplify my life. How often as farmers do we go through the same fear and frustrations? Each year we are bombarded by offers of new technology. Technology that will increase production, decrease input costs, increase growth rates, decrease dockage, and the list goes on. The key is for all of us to try and decide what will pay and what will not. As economic challenges come our way we are left to make decisions that are difficult at best. Always second guessing, always wondering. It is downright stressful. It used to be said that “anyone could farm, that all that was necessary was a weak mind and a strong back, but nowadays to be a successful farmer a person must have a good head and a wide education in order to handle all the advice ladled out by city folk, government people and others and to select for use that which will do them the least damage.”

Second guessing becomes one of our worst enemies. Not only in making decisions about what to buy, farmers daily make a host of other decisions. Marketing the commodity grown on your farm has become very important as markets become more and more volatile and margins tighter. Unless we hit the top of the market we also second guess what we did. I remember when forward contracting became available to hog producers. The first year I used the program I “locked in” some good prices. Then foot and mouth hit the Taiwanese hog herd and my locked in prices looked terrible. The following year I locked in my hog price and then barley prices hit record highs. Got to the point where I was “spooked” and could not make a right decision. It becomes very easy to forget the age old adage that you never go broke locking in a profit. Never mind the fact that partners, neighbors and even the banker are watching. Making a wrong decision can impact relationships as the bottom line becomes ever more important.

Speaking of relationships, stress can wreak havoc on any relationship, whether with partners, family, businesses you deal with and even the community you are part of. Maintaining relationships is a challenge when our minds are consumed with weather, commodity prices, breakdowns and all the other “stuff” that hits us on a daily basis. When stress hit me and I found myself in that “foggy middle” I would ignore people around me. I would disappear to the barn and work. Imagine, a hog barn becoming a refuge and yet that is exactly what happens. Why? No phones, no creditors, no parental responsibilities, and the list goes on. And the more I tried to immerse myself in work the more the relationships would suffer. What a vicious circle. And yet relationships provide us with identity, purpose and direction.

How can we not only maintain relationships but also improve relationships when we face the stress of farming on a daily basis. We live and work in a world that is fast paced and ever changing. We hear more and more about “burn out”. We give till we have nothing left to give. Our emotional gas tanks are empty. And yet the demands on us keep coming. How can we cope? How do we avoid slipping into that dark abyss? How do we get out from the dark cloud hanging over us? How do we find balance in a topsy turvy world?

Take the time to play, to laugh, and most of all to talk. You know that kids laugh up to four hundred times a day and when we become adults that drops to twelve laughs a day. Something as simple as chatting with the person filling you gas tank or the person bagging your groceries, will help in lifting your spirits. Look for and discover your supports. They may be your partner, a neighbor, your clergy, a friend, or may be your doctor. I recall a neighbor dropping by my barn when I was going through a difficult time. When he asked how I was doing my initial response was the usual “doing okay”. Then I realized I had an opportunity to talk so I poured out my soul. It felt so enlightening to be able to verbalize a lot of the stuff going on inside of me. He did not need to provide any advice or answers. Rather he validated and normalized my feelings. Take advantage of your supports. You may be surprised at the renewed energy you have, at least for one more day.

Meeting the challenges one day at a time is a good approach to stress management. Some time ago I came across an article that challenged us to live one day at a time. It challenged the reader to NOT worry about two days of the week. One of those being yesterday, and the other tomorrow. It went on to say that what had happened yesterday could not be undone and we could not erase a single thing that had been said or done. The article also stated tomorrow is outside of our control. We can only assume what may happen and based on my experience I always assume the worst rather than the best. The only sure thing about tomorrow is that the sun will rise and set. The article suggested that “it is not the experiences of today that drive people mad – it is the remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday and the dread of what tomorrow will bring”.

I have mentioned but a few of the stressors that you may feel or experience. And as the stress mounts one stress can lead to and build on another. Stress management is key for, not only survival, but for enhancement of life in general. Klinic Community Health has some good ideas on a website at . They refer to music, nature, humor and others as tools to help one deal with the anxieties of life. There are other resources available as well. Many areas have Stress lines or Crisis lines. Avail yourself of the resources around you. I recall a picture my daughter made for me when she was quite young. It simply said “The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon but that we wait so long to begin it”. Make it a good one.

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