Farmers Under Pressure

Farm Science Review Spotlights Farmer Stress and Depression

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Farmers listen to a talk on the struggling ag economy -- followed shortly by a session on how to get rid of stress on the farm -- at the Farm Science Review in London, Ohio. (DTN photo by Emily Unglesbee)

LONDON, Ohio (DTN) -- Farmers are under more stress than ever -- and Ohio State is worried about them.

At the university's annual Farm Science Review in London, Ohio, experts lectured farmers on a series of gloomy topics, from low commodity prices to the raging trade war and razor-thin profitability margins.

So tucked in between sessions on swine influenza and farm estate planning was a very different type of talk titled "Getting Rid of Farm Stress."

Beyond the current economic situation, farmers are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of stress and mental illness because of the nature of the job, said Kathy Goins, an Ohio State Extension educator in Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Farmers spend a lot of time in isolation," she told the farm show attendees. "And it's a job with a high demand for work time," which can lead to family problems and other stressors, she added.

Many are tempted to shrug off mental problems like depression, which may seem less urgent than physical illnesses, she said. Unfortunately, studies have linked chronic untreated stress to a range of physical problems, from headaches and sleeplessness to life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, arthritis, strokes and diabetes, she said.


The farm economy's depressing effect on mental health was on full display at the Farm Science Review.

Ian Sheldon, an Ohio State professor of international trade, spotlighted the escalating trade war with China and Mexico.

"Basically, we've introduced a huge amount of uncertainty into the market and we've generated the potential for a very significant effect on U.S. farm income," he told farmers. Sheldon and his OSU colleague Ben Brown recently ran some calculations and concluded that if tariffs are left in place and market share loss continues at the current pace, farmers could face up to a 59% reduction in net farm income by 2024.

Well before then, growers in Ohio are likely to encounter serious financial stress, said Dianne Shoemaker, who works with the Ohio Farm Business Analysis Program. The program's yearly survey of Ohio corn and soybean growers this year showed depressing net returns after all inputs, labor and management costs were tallied.

On average, Ohio corn growers had net returns in the red, at -$111 per acre for rented land and -$119 per acre on owned land. Soybean growers were more likely to be in the black, but barely. On average, they netted $5 per acre on rented land and $72 per acre on owned land.

Although cash rents and land values are reacting to the change in farm income, it is a slow adjustment that won't provide much relief next year, added Barry Ward, who leads OSU's production business management programs.

"I'm sorry if this is doom and gloom ... but we're all telling the same story," Sheldon said of the Ohio State agricultural economic presenters. "Agriculture is being caught in the crossfire of U.S. trade policy, largely through no fault of its own."


Goins urged attendees to treat mental illness and depression as they would a physical illness -- with doctor's visits and medication if necessary.

Unfortunately, living in rural counties can make seeking treatment for depression difficult, she said.

"In the United States, about 55% of our counties don't have psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers on hand," she said.

That means rural residents must sometimes travel hours to find a medical professional who can help. "You have to leave work -- go away from this job with all these demands on you ... it just takes too much time," Goins said.

And, of course, the social stigma of acknowledging mental illness remains a serious obstacle, and can be especially prominent in a traditional, male-dominated industry like agriculture, Goins said.


Goins ended her talk with some tips for staving off the dangerous effects of stress and depression. She recommended growers make time to connect with family, friends and other farmers. "Especially for farmers who can work so much in isolation, having those one-on-one connections is really important," she said.

Exercise whenever possible and consider taking up hobbies or activities that involve active learning, which can keep your mind busy with more positive thoughts, Goins said. Helping others, such as donating time or resources to the community, can also offset stress, she said.

She left the audience with some final tips on practicing "mindfulness," a semi-meditative practice that farmers can practice anywhere or anytime, to calm the mind.

First, put down the phone, she said.

"We spend so much time on our phones and our televisions and our computers that our brain never really gets a chance to stop and reset," she said.

As thoughts come into your mind, let them go and instead focus on your breathing and your body, Goins said. "Notice the way the steering wheel feels in your hands or the cool breeze coming from the trees, the sounds the sights and the smells -- and you concentrate on all those just for a moment in time."

Sound silly? Do it anyway, Goins said.

"There are a lot of neuroscientists who are noticing and studying this idea of mindfulness -- that moment of pausing -- and they're showing that there's a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol in people and an improvement in the gray matter of the brain, the part of the brain that makes decisions," she said.

Goins also recommended that farmers -- particularly those who manage employees or work with family members -- consider taking a USA Mental Health First Aid course, a national program that trains people to recognize and react to signs of mental illness or substance abuse in others. See it here:…

For more information on Farm Science Review, see the website here:…

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Emily Unglesbee