Is Farming Becoming a Lonely Occupation?

How can we make farmers’ social support systems stronger during this time of intense economic pressure? ( Sonja Begemann )

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner Entira

Note: We first researched and wrote this article because our team believed it was an important topic; but now with a global pandemic creating confusion and concern for everyone, it seems more important than ever.

I was at a farm show in Indiana recently and something about the crowd felt very different. 

On one hand, the farmers in attendance seemed generally positive despite enduring gut-punching losses this past year. Being around upbeat farmers is usually comforting and gives you reassurance about the state of the industry. But something about the vibe was different, and I wasn’t feeling reassured.

In the past these shows have been full of husband-and-wife teams making the rounds, visiting booths and talking with industry pros. But what I saw this time was an arena full of farmers flying solo.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times—it’s true more women are taking active roles on the business side of the operation, so maybe their absence was more reflective of wives staying back to keep the farm running. Or maybe they’re busy with another career and/or their active family. Or is it something else?

I’ve been in the industry for “a few years” and I was here through the harsh farm economy of the 1980s. I watched a lot of farms go bankrupt, and as a result, many farm families fell apart. The divorce rate really spiked during that period—climbing to mainstream levels—and undoubtedly had a strong correlation to farm insolvency.

Then there was a shift, and farmers who got their start in the early 1990s experienced a couple of decades when farming was pretty fun again. We conducted a study during those good times in the early 2000s that showed farmers spending weeks out of the year looking for new equipment—and what’s not fun about getting a new truck or a new tractor every year?

Now here we are in 2020, and the picture once again is less rosy, which no doubt is taking an emotional toll on farmers and contributing to family stress. We’re starting to see the divorce rate creep up again in the ag community, along with economic fallout, farms going bankrupt and farms being sold; and it's all just really devastating.

I’m not at all speculating that any of the farmers I saw at the farm show are headed for divorce; but seeing them there alone, my concern is about whether or not they have strong enough support systems to make it through the tough times—given what’s happening now and what’s yet to come.

Much has been said in recent years about the declining emotional health of farmers. Alarming realities like increasing divorce rates and higher than average suicide rates are sparking important conversations. As they should be. The suicide rate in farm-related occupations jumped 34% between 2000 and 2016, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reporting suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average. What’s even more shocking is that today’s suicide rate is 50 percent higher than what it was during the 1980s farm crisis. These are grim symptoms of the emotional toll the business of farming can have on individuals and families—it’s a dire situation in need of serious attention.

On the bright side, the industry is taking notice and making an assertive effort to raise awareness. Organizations all over the country are launching programs and ag media is doing a fantastic job educating people on what to watch for and where to turn to for help. All of us in the ag community need to be in tune with farmers’ emotional health and do what we can to connect them to these resources when they need them. (The Rural Health Information Hub has an extensive list of links to resources and information on supporting farmers’ mental health, and there are many more out there.)

Farmers Need Human Connections
The struggles and pressures of farming these days are hard to bear. There are many different factors at play, but one I’ve been thinking about is how the traditional human connections involved with farming are dwindling. And I wonder what that might be doing to farmers’ well-being, and how it might be detrimental to the family unit.

For a line of work that’s traditionally powered by authentic, solid, local relationships, those connections are showing signs of weakness that I find very troubling.

At home, farm families are more frequently choosing city life that offers career opportunities, activities, and a lifestyle you don’t get in a small town. I know several farmers and other ag professionals who split time between their rural job location and the city, with their family living 3-4 hours away in a metropolitan area because that’s where they want their kids to attend school or where their spouse’s employer is located.

Meanwhile, social media and technology have taken away so much of our face-to-face communication that it’s harder for farmers (or anyone) to connect with people on an authentic interpersonal level. As a result, relationships are more superficial, and that’s just not conducive to building a good support network.

In the community, the traditional places farmers went for social interactions are not nearly as active or prevalent—like church groups and Lions Clubs and Elks. Farmers used to spend a lot of time down at the local co-op coffee shop, shooting the breeze with other farmers. Maybe that didn’t solve all their problems, but it gave them a sense of community. Those support networks just aren’t as prevalent anymore.

The business of farming relies so much less on face-to-face interactions nowadays. If you order online there’s no need to stop into the retailer’s office. With mobile apps and technology right inside their pocket, they don’t need to bring an agronomist to the field as often—troubleshooting can happen over the phone. Documents can be signed over email and authorizations given via text.

All of these cases amount to daily personal touchpoints ceasing to exist—and those daily touchpoints are vital to keeping farmers engaged with their support networks. Those very things that are making the business of farming more efficient and convenient are dissolving the relationships and sense of community that have long been the hallmark of agriculture.

We Can Be the Eyes and Ears
The pressures that accompany farming will always be there; and handling the trials and tribulations of farming will always require a whole village.

There’s more we can do to support the whole farm family.

As an industry we must continue to drive programs to make the business side of farming as lucrative as possible. That’s why we’re here. But in addition to helping farmers achieve higher yields and profitability, we can and should do more to support their emotional well-being. We can pay attention. We can be a friend. We can find ways to keep farmers connected to a community that’s encouraging and has their backs.

If the local social clubs are becoming a thing of the past, maybe we need more online networking groups that bring farmers in similar demographics together. They may not live in the same town, but groups like this connect farmers so they can bounce around ideas and commiserate about the stresses of the business—like a virtual co-op coffee shop. It’s a great way to create community for farmers who are spread far apart and might be feeling very isolated.

Ag professionals who see growers on a weekly basis—the retailer, the banker, the crop insurance agents, etc.—are in a unique position to notice when something is wrong. In what ways can you provide support beyond what you’re providing on a technical basis? Yes, it might be out of your comfort zone, but it’s far more uncomfortable to find out a marriage crumbled; or to learn about something even more tragic, like suicide.

If you suspect a problem, first of all trust your gut, and ignore any internal voice that might be telling you, “it’s none of my business.” Spend more time with the person. You don’t need to over-react, but just reach out so you can break through those barriers that are blocking us from forming meaningful connections. Ask for a casual, weekly coffee, not as a sales call, but just to talk about things human beings talk about.

I’m encouraged by all the ways the industry is responding to this crisis and I hope it can only mean good things for farm families in the future. Economic pressures may be rising, but there’s more support available today than ever before. And these subjects are no longer taboo—hopefully that just means farmers will be more open to discuss personal matters and mental health and be willing to accept help when they need it.

Don’t be afraid to be human with the people you’re interacting with on a professional level. You might just be in the best position to uncover something they aren’t sharing within their closest circles.

So much information is out there to help us help farmers. One great place to start is the Rural Health Information Hub, which is full of resources and information on supporting farmers’ mental health.

In the midst of this global health crisis, we are hunkered down and staying informed like you; but Entira is still open for business! The best thing we can do for each other and our country is to continue the work of supporting the farmers who feed our nation and the world.