Farm stress stock photo

Aug 26, 2019
Action, empathy urged for stressed growers

Headlines for years have repeatedly announced crisis levels of farm stress, but a surplus of spring rain in some U.S. regions has made this season particularly concerning.

In the Midwest, growers have had less time to work outdoors. Disease pressure, particularly in vegetables, will be worse than usual later in the year due to the moisture. Southwest Michigan peaches suffered greatly in a spring freeze.

While farmers of all sorts have serious business concerns, fruit and vegetable growers have specific problems. The difficult labor climate, increased regulation and buyer-mandated prices for fresh-sold perishables leave growers with little room to maneuver.

Officials are trying to help, offering resources for mental health, as well as practical advice for navigating stressful business transitions. The 2018 Farm Bill included bipartisan reforms to provide farmers with critical support and mental health resources. Extension specialists across the country are writing articles about how to recognize critical stress levels in one’s self, as well as others. Michigan State University Extension Educator Ron Goldy has organized a day’s worth of farm stress education sessions at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO, held December in Grand Rapids.

The educational sessions will cover a variety of topics. One goal is to simply get growers talking about their feelings – “Lots of times, in my experience, growers don’t like to admit they have a problem,” Goldy said – but another goal is to offer up some practical action items to dial down growers’ stress levels.

Action items

“You can’t just have a woe-is-me, touchy-feely kind of meeting,” Goldy said. “You want people to go away with some actions that they can do, because people are, in general, action-oriented. And they need to be able to take something home with them, saying, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

Ben Hartman
Ben Hartman Photo: Clay Bottom Farms

Some action items highlighted by Goldy’s speakers include hiring and keeping good seasonal retail staff, and creating value-added products to pad the farm income. Ruth Ann Roney of Tuttle Farms will give a lecture on how to sell fruits and vegetables online. Ben Hartman, an author writing about farm efficiency, will speak on minimizing waste and maximizing value on farms. Hartman and his wife earn a living while cultivating just half an acre of land at Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana.

“While hard work is a virtue, so is finding a healthy life-work balance,” according to an email from Hartman.

Some families can reduce future or current stress by creating a farm succession plan.

Paige Pratt Picture
Paige Johnson Pratt, Instructor/Extension Youth Specialist, Animal and Poultry Sciences

Paige J. Pratt knows the importance of farm succession planning from experience. Her own family farm transition led to moving the Pratt Cattle Co. from Virginia to Kansas and back again.

Pratt – who now works as a succession planner – said the young and old alike stress out over the process.

“As young farmers are taking on debt and trying to plan for their future – if there’s uncertainty in that future of where they stand or what they might stand to inherit at the end of the day, then it can lead to not only a lot of stress for a young person but if it’s a married couple, it can lead to a lot of stress in their marriage,” Pratt said. “For the older generation, it’s stressful, because you don’t want to disappoint any of your children.”

She encourages farm owners to talk with their children about succession as early as possible, and to put their decisions in writing. In her own family’s case, a transition facilitator helped to write a buy-purchase agreement and establish a limited liability company, and in the end, guided the family to a happy ending.

“Everybody still talks – everybody still gets along,” she said.

Real emotion

Flooded tomato field
Flood conditions such as this saturated tomato field have caused increased challenges
for growers across much of the U.S. Photo: University of Massachusetts.

Weather, labor availability and even price-setting may be out of growers’ control, but they can and should get emotional support when they’re stressed by them.

Ron Goldy
Ron Goldy
Photo: MSU

Goldy explained some of the common stressors: “I don’t know of any other industry that works this way, but farmers are not able to tell a buyer what the cost is. The buyer tells the farmer what they’re going to pay them. The price that the farmer gets has not gone up to the extent that the farmer’s costs have gone up.” Labor necessary for harvests is scarcer and more expensive. Increased regulation of farms also is mostly out of their hands.

While growers face stressful situations for completely understandable reasons, many are slow to talk about it or otherwise express emotion, he said. However, those conversations need to happen.

Goldy, who is encouraging growers to bring their spouses to his education sessions, emphasized that family members need to keep talking to each other and their faith-based organizations, surrounding themselves “with people that care for them.”

A variety of resources are available for help. Nonprofit group Farm Aid – famous for its star-studded fundraising concerts – operates a phone hotline specifically for farmers. Struggling growers can call 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243) 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. EST to talk to farm advocate Joe Schroeder and other Farm Aid staff.

Such discussions might include a simple sharing of grief.

Bill Grabemeyer
Bill Grabemeyer
Photo: Bill Grabemeyer

Bill Grabemeyer, a fruit grower near Dowagiac, Michigan, will speak at the EXPO about “Preparing for Life Before and After the Auction.” Farm auctions are often associated with the end of the family business.

“Whenever that happens, there is a price to pay emotionally,” Grabemeyer said. There is a grieving process similar to divorce or other tragic life events, he said, with the associated stages that include denial, bargaining, and ultimately acceptance and growth.

Farm auctions don’t always go well – some require sheriff escorts. Others, he said, have unfortunately been followed by suicide.

It should never be that way, Grabemeyer said. The farmer is, in his words, “the most valuable thing at a farm auction that never gets bid on.”

“My goal is that no one that faces a forced auction goes the route of suicide, but still understands that they have inherent value as a person, and are willing to accept that and grow from whatever it was that caused that situation,” he said.

– Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor


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