Kub's Den

Ambiguous Loss: Market Losses and Identity Losses

Elaine Kub
By  Elaine Kub , Contributing Analyst
The prospect of changing career identities resonates with Elaine Kub as she shifts from regular Kub's Den columns to a new chapter. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Kub)

Loss is common in the agriculture industry. Livestock farmers sometimes lose animals -- even beloved animals -- to disease or injury. Grain farmers are unlikely to make it through a career without facing some kind of natural disaster and crop loss -- tornadoes, hail, flood or drought. Nobody makes a Hallmark sympathy card saying, "Sorry your machine shed burned down," but maybe they should. There is a term -- ambiguous loss -- that describes the grief that comes from examples like these, with no clear public acknowledgement, validation, or source of closure for the pain people might be going through. Ambiguous loss isn't accompanied by official mourning rituals like a funeral after a death, but it nevertheless causes stress and deserves recognition.

With new-crop corn and soybean prices looking like they will be near or below the costs of production for the 2024 marketing year, and if that condition continues for several years at a time, we might predict that some grain farmers will be having difficult conversations with their lenders, or with their families, about the entire risky business of being a farmer. Weathering a little financial loss is one thing -- maybe missing the top of the market to make grain sales or facing the sticker shock of skyrocketing input costs. But simple frustration could turn into full-on grief if profit losses mount up in such a way that a farm family must stop farming.

When a farmer stops farming or a rancher stops ranching, the loss is often more complex than a straightforward job change or retirement; although retirement, too, can be a source of ambiguous loss. Many people in this industry consider "farmer" or "rancher" to be their entire identity, and the loss of an entire identity is tricky, especially if it occurs because of complex markets beyond anyone's control.

Michelle Krehbiel, Ph.D., professor and Extension specialist at the University of Nebraska -- Lincoln, has studied ambiguous loss and farming, and she encourages people facing these challenges to take a broader perspective about their identity, and develop a new narrative. "Don't take market loss personally. A crop failure doesn't make you a failure. One crop is not your life's work. A market collapse doesn't make you less of a cattleman. Things out of your control don't define you as a human being. You are more than just farming."

Consider any of these scenarios, or others you may have seen in your own neighborhood:

-- Crop loss.

-- Disease outbreak.

-- Sale of farmland.

-- Losing a lease on rented farmland.

-- The closing of the local milk plant.

-- Being laid off.

-- Economic downturn.

-- Divorce.

-- Lost limbs.

-- Declining health.

-- Lost ability to perform certain tasks.

-- Seeing a key person move away from the farm.

-- Farm consolidation that requires a new way of doing things.

These events may be outside of anyone's control, and they can't be fixed by just working harder. Instead, the best suggestions for dealing with ambiguous loss, according to Extension educators at the University of Minnesota, involve first clearly identifying the stressor, next figuring out who can offer support, and then having a discussion about how to change gears for the future. The very act of identifying and clarifying grief is an important step, instead of suppressing and ignoring a source of stress that will never be resolved on its own. Lack of clarity about a loss may prevent others from validating the loss, and that lack of validation may in turn prevent someone from moving forward to solve the original problem.

Let this be a sign to all of us to acknowledge our friends and neighbors when they may be struggling with retirement, or giving up a cattle herd, or giving up a piece of land. Maybe it seems like no big deal, and maybe they would say out loud that they're doing fine, but maybe they have a lingering sense of grief that needs to be talked about, and since there won't be any socially sanctioned public acknowledgement of that grief, our day-to-day understanding and validation may be important to provide. "The bottom line is: We need each other," says Krehbiel, "especially in rural communities where access to mental healthcare may be scarce. There is power in the simple act of a neighbor checking in on a neighbor."

Of course, when it comes to market losses, it might be a bit awkward to hold a full-on wake service just because the futures drop a nickel or local basis weakens a bit. Nevertheless, many of the same psychological pitfalls that cause stress for people grieving ambiguous loss also strike grain marketers when things don't go their way. From a University of Minnesota workbook (https://extension.umn.edu/…) on ambiguous loss: "Not knowing is worse than knowing the truth, from a well-being perspective. Anyone who does not know facts will fill in with ideas of their own, which may be worse than reality. Not knowing, or not having clear information, can freeze you and your family in place. Ambiguity contributes to depression, anxiety, and hypervigilance and blocks decision-making."

I suspect most people who have ever been through the stressful task of choosing when to market a crop of grain or livestock are familiar with that feeling of not knowing what the future holds, and then becoming either frozen into inaction or driven into obsessive hypervigilance, checking the futures prices on their phone every six minutes. Neither course of action will solve the unsolvable problem of having little to no control over the prices in commodity markets. But identifying the stress, being honest, and sharing that stress with others, and building resilience by developing a tolerance for living with unanswered questions -- these are things that can truly make an agricultural producer's life easier.

"You can't control the weather; you can't control the markets; you can't control what John Deere charges for a combine, but what you can do is pause to watch the sunset for 30 seconds and develop a new narrative about your identity and your worth as a human being," counsels Krehbiel. "You are more than just farming -- being a parent is a really important thing; being a community member is a really important thing; fulfilling these roles and others makes you more than just your job."

This topic of ambiguous loss is particularly poignant for me this summer as I consider shifting gears in my own career and my own sense of identity. I won't be writing Kub's Den on a regular schedule anymore, as I've decided to go pursue more education, potentially setting myself on course to become the most absurdly overeducated (J.D., CFA, MBA) cow-calf operator in South Dakota; but I'm sure there's competition out there for that title. I'm so thankful to DTN for the chances I've had to explore interesting ideas and connect with passionate readers, and to you, readers, for being interested in my analysis and sharing the adventure of the grain markets with me. If I've learned one thing from analyzing markets over the past 17 years, it's this: We never know what the future holds.

For more information on ambiguous loss and farming, visit www.ruralwellness.unl.edu/ambiguousloss and https://extension.umn.edu/….

Progressive Farmer magazine also devoted a May 2024 special issue, titled "Rays of Hope," to addressing rural mental health challenges. You can read stories from that issue and find additional mental health resources here: https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/….


The comments above are for educational purposes only and are not meant as specific trade recommendations. The buying and selling of grain or grain futures or options involve substantial risk and are not suitable for everyone.

Elaine Kub, CFA is the author of "Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made" and can be reached at analysis@elainekub.com..

Elaine Kub