When Stressed, Control What you Can

Reaching Out to Others Can Help Deal with Farm Stress

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Farmer Sara Grier of Canfield, Ohio, posted this picture of her husband Wayne on social media to help share the stress her family has been going through this spring. Tens of thousands of people responded. (Photo courtesy of Sara Grier)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Canfield, Ohio, farmers Wayne and Sara Grier say they're private people. On their 1,500-acre farm, the Griers produce corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and hay, and raise Boer goats. In addition, they operate a feed and lawn fertilizer store.

This year, though, things are different. The Griers waited for elusive dry weather to plant in the eastern part of their state. Persistent rains didn't help their fertilizer business either -- it's difficult to fertilize lawns in the rain.

As pressure grew, Sara Grier felt compelled to speak out about their struggles. On June 5, 2019, she posted on Facebook a black and white photo of her husband in the field. She said why she was posting the picture -- and shared what they were going through.

"What you can't see or hear are the tears that are welling up in his eyes or the cries out of WHY," she wrote. "Why wouldn't the monitor work last night so that he could finish planting that field, why can't the weather cooperate, why can't we get our crops planted when we need to. I got the phone call earlier this morning that 'it's just too wet, I tried my hardest to make it through the field but I'm going to do more damage to the soil and possibly the planter, I'm done for today. Please come get me.'"

"During my 10-minute drive to pick him up, I ran every possible encouraging thing I could say through my head, but the truth is I just don't have any. We all feel defeated. Today is the crop insurance deadline to plant corn, the last day that we will have full coverage if our crop fails. We have contracts in place that we may not have the grain to fill come harvest.

"I'm not sharing any of this for sympathy, I'm sharing it for awareness. There are hundreds of thousands of farmers across the United States that are in the same situation. Please be patient with us moving our equipment on the road, please pick up the phone and call or text your neighbor or friend that is a farmer. Check on them, let them know that you see them and you see how hard they are working. Take them a coffee or a cookie. Offer a handshake or a hug. Above all else, pray with me that our mighty God will allow us to finish planting so that we can feed and clothe not only our families but the world."

After she posted her note, Grier's friends encouraged her to open the Facebook security settings on her post so more of the public could read it. She did. Within days, she had almost 30,000 likes, and many people reaching out to her. For this private family, suddenly their situation was very public.

However, talking is helping them get through the challenges, Grier said in an interview with DTN.

PRESSURE FROM MANY PLACES

Maybe not since the 1980's farm crisis have American farmers faced so many challenges.

Farmers are dealing with incessant and heavy rains disrupting their planting; an ongoing trade war with China cutting off vital agricultural markets; input costs exceeding their commodity prices; severe blizzards, and then disastrous flooding across the Midwest that for some hit especially hard on their livestock, homes, farmland and even transportation. Add to the stressful mix, their farm incomes continuing to plummet for the past several years.

Elevated stress levels raise concern for farm families about maintaining emotional health. At a time when the pressure is immense, the risk of depression and anxiety is higher. For producers looking for ways to come out on the other side of things happy and in good health, more attention needs to be given to how farmers respond to the causes of their stress.

CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN

With so much uncertainty in agriculture, farmers need to know they can only control what they can, said Michael R. Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer based in Harlan, Iowa.

The good news is stress can be overcome through the actions the farmers take.

He said the actions are doable, "it's just a matter of convincing people to try them," Rosmann said. "If you can mull over all the things that are wrong, you can make yourself pretty upset," he said.

"Go outside in the sun, have a meeting about the actions you can take. These are under your control. We're not going to change a federal policy. One of the few things you can control is your behavior. We can't manage the weather or federal policy," Rosmann said.

CONVERSATION STARTED

One of the actions farmers can take is talking with others about what they are facing; this helps others understand what farmers are going through, but also may encourage others to help them, even if it's just moral support from family, friends and strangers.

In recent months, farmers and ranchers have been talking -- a lot -- about what now has become known as "#noplant19" in social media.

Images of what appear to be lakes and streams are actually farm fields largely lost to planting for the season.

"I had four or five friends who are not farmers who said 'you need to tell your story,'" Sara Grier said.

"That kind of support has been good. There are so many ups and downs every day and every week. We're more used to dealing with this than the average person. We're very involved in our church. They have been very prayerful for us. We're just telling the story. More farmers need to do this."

REACHING OUT TO OTHERS

Grier said the feedback she got to her post has compelled her to reach out to other farmers she otherwise doesn't contact all that often. Chances are, she added, there's always someone with circumstances that are worse.

"We have friends in some counties that have not been able to get seed in the ground," she said.

The Griers are in a situation not uncommon in agriculture.

This week, they continue to wait to hear more details about timing of the $16 billion in Market Facilitation Program funds, all the while trying to decide what to do with their remaining acres yet to be planted.

"This year has been the imperfect storm," she said.

"Markets are terrible. In the east, we don't see good market prices. On our farm, we probably have less than half to plant. It has been a big struggle to decide to plant corn or soybeans. We planted more corn this year after we saw a rally in prices on the (futures) contract. If there is an announcement on the Market Facilitation Program, we could change that."

NEBRASKA HOTLINE BUSY

There is another way for farmers to talk about their challenges and stress, especially if they are uncomfortable sharing openly what they are going through.

They're calling hotlines that aim to help them -- and something changed for the Nebraska Rural Response hotline in 2019.

Michelle Soll, farm and ranch program director for Legal Aid of Nebraska, said she fields calls to the hotline and helps connect producers with resources to help them weather storms.

Consequently, the Nebraska Rural Response hotline has seen an uptick of calls from people dealing with added financial distress, largely caused by the devastating spring floods in Nebraska.

Soll said calls to 800-464-0258 have remained consistent at 300 to 325 per month, but more and more of those calls have been from farmers and others seeking behavioral-health counseling.

However, according to information from the Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, one of several partners that help to support the hotline, there was a record number of calls coming in even before the flood disasters.

Soll often refers hotline callers to what has become a growing list of sponsors who provide assistance in times of crisis.

That includes Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation, North Central Risk Management Center, the Behavioral Health Division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Beginning Farmer Network.

Soll said farm financing counseling programs are full and there continues to be a waiting list to attend. Through help from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, farmers can have a few counseling sessions at no cost, she said.

Farmers suffering hard economic times can also request help from outside economic advisers through the hotline.

WHEN TO SEEK HELP

Some families often see a loved one struggling emotionally, but find it difficult to convince them to seek professional help.

"Sometimes an individual signs up, then wives ask their husbands to come along," Soll said. "One of the things is when a wife says you need some counseling, the husbands go. The flood disaster was the icing on the cake for many farmers. They were already in financial distress and they have no margin for the extra costs. Maybe they're not even getting to plant fields."

Soll can understand firsthand the pressures faced by the people she's trying to help. She told DTN her 192-acre farm was among those flooded out in the northeast part of the state this spring.

"We had a lot of cleanup," Soll said. "We're so busy there's not a down time. Sometimes too much is too much. We flooded last June. You just kind of get used to it. There's a lot of financial difficulty and stress -- the costs of flood recovery and time. We have been lucky that the water all left and we got our crops planted. A lot of farmers don't see a future in getting crops in the ground. It's just devastating people who lost family farms. They're dealing with a lot of depression and stress. Family dynamics are tough but for the most part, they're staying strong."

CONTROLLING BEHAVIOR

Rosmann said the current farm economy and all of its pressures, has led to the highest stress levels among farmers and ranchers than at any time since the 1980s.

That's why it's good for farm families to be alert to the behavior of their loved ones.

Rosmann said there are tell-tale signs someone may need professional help to deal with depression and anxiety.

"You should look for a person who withdraws, has no smile or laugh, and goes three weeks without taking pleasure in something," he said.

Rosmann said people who put themselves down or have outbursts of anger may have depression.

Though it may be counterintuitive for independent-minded farmers, perhaps the best thing they can do is rely on teams of advisers, he said.

"If we have the support of others, we also have on the team that convenes on a regular basis lenders, agronomists, animal nutritionist, and sometimes it has to have a behavioral health expert," Rosmann explained. "It's OK to have someone who knows about agriculture, but understands behavioral health."

When more people are helping farmers, it reduces the stigma that often comes with behavioral health issues, he said.

Farmers are independent by nature, so they often feel isolated when they go through difficult times. Though independent tendencies are beneficial in helping many farmers and ranchers get ahead in the industry, that independence can work against them, he noted.

"When they get angry, depressed and isolate themselves, it is a danger signal," he said. "Now they know they have to reach out. We've got to manage our sleep, exercise, proper diet and not overdo alcohol and drugs, and work out conflict by talking it out and having good communications in business meetings. We need to be teaching farmers how to handle conflicts."

Rosmann founded the non-profit Agriwellness Inc., in 2000 with the idea of bringing together resources to help farmers.

"In the crisis of the '80s, none of us knew what needed to be done, or how they needed to be treated for depression," Rosmann said.

Times are very different now in that people are more open to talking about depression. The clientele reaching out to Agriwellness has changed with the times as well, as more men than women make calls to his office, he said.

"There's been a cultural shift in a way that men talk more about stress and the public is much more informed," he said.

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Editor's note: Look for DTN's continuing coverage in the next few months on surviving the stress facing farmers. We also welcome your feedback at talk@dtn.com

To read more DTN coverage on farm stress, go to the following links:

https://www.dtnpf.com/…

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Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley