Farmers and ranchers are able to solve problems. They can turn challenges into success with systematic solutions in the face of adversity. While working on the farm is rewarding, it also comes with a high level of stress.
Research over the years has drawn attention to occupational stress and mental health in the organic farming industry. Conversations about this topic are becoming more and more popular these days, with more resources and assistance available to farmers and ranchers.
Brittney Shrek, assistant professor and family life specialist in the Department of Agriculture at the University of Arkansas. (Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service)
When it comes down to it, you (the farmer) are the most important resource on your farm. Taking care of your body, mind, and soul are all investments in your operation,” says Brittney Shrek, assistant professor and family life specialist in the Department of Agriculture at the University of Arkansas.
Self-awareness is the key
Farmers know the unique stresses involved in caring for the land, livestock and subsistence of their operations.
Plus, we’ve just made it through the COVID-19 pandemic, and farmers are dealing with the fallout from the 2022 drought. Each one brings new stresses to the farm.
Stress occurs, and signs can easily be missed when busy with daily routines and uncontrollable circumstances.
“It can cause changes in the way we feel physically and emotionally, and stress can also affect how we act. You may not realize how stressed you are until you feel unwell, so pay attention to red flags.”
Signs of stress may include:
- Headache and muscle tension
- Upset stomach and digestive problems
- Lack of energy and tiredness
- Shortness of breath and tightness in the chest
- Irritability and frustration
- temper tantrums
- Difficulty relaxing or sleeping
- Feeling hopeless and frustrated
- Anxiety and panic
- Difficulty making decisions
- Conflicts and difficulty communicating
- Increased or inappropriate use of alcohol or drugs
- Isolation and avoidance of others
If you experience any of these symptoms, see for yourself. Determine if it is related to your stress level so that you can take measures to control it. You may notice these signs in someone close to you, so take the opportunity to reach out and offer support.
While you can’t control the weather, the supply chain, or the rising costs of inputs, you can control how you respond.
Shrek noted, “Amidst high stress, you can feel overwhelmed and out of control. Therefore, it is important to focus on what we can control rather than what we cannot.”
To do this, a business partner proposes a list of current stressors and outlines the resources available to address them. Then use the list to develop goals.
Setting goals can shift situations from worrying to problem solving. Just make sure your goals are realistic. Otherwise, the process becomes counterproductive.
“One of the most stressful things we can do is set unrealistic goals and get upset when they aren’t achieved,” she stressed.
Also, be aware of your stress level when responding to others or particularly difficult situations. Negative responses from frustration or irritation may lead to more damage that must be repaired in the long run.
“Take a deep breath before responding to someone to avoid using an irritable tone. If you get frustrated while fixing something, take a moment to gather your thoughts. Maybe take a walk.”
“It will be easier to calm down and get back to it, than to break something in frustration and have more problems to fix later,” Shrek said.
Healthy lifestyle choices
Incorporating healthy lifestyle choices can build strength, health, and productivity in your operation.
Control your stress level and improve the quality of your sleep by:
- Eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods
- Get some exercise, even if you’re just walking around the field
- stay hydrated
- Take time to talk to others
- Laughs, because it releases endorphins
- Take five minutes to relax in the evening to avoid overheating at bedtime
- Stretch, read a book or make a list
- Meditate, pray or practice deep breathing
Additionally, Partner warns against relying on stimulants or substances to deal with stress.
“Try to limit it as much as possible. The more coffee or tobacco you have, the more anxious you are. You may not realize you’re nervous from excess coffee until you stop drinking so much,” she said.
Addictive behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption and taking off-label prescription medications, should also be avoided. If you find yourself using steroids and substances to cope, know that there are better options and that help is available.
Agriculture tends to be a solitary job. Find time to chat with friends and family and check in with others in the ag community. Social interaction can make a big difference.
Resources and help
Mental health services are widely available resources to farmers and ranchers. In the southern region of the United States, funding is coming through the Southern Ag Exchange Network (SAGE), which is provided under the 2018 farm bill through the Farm and Farm Stress Assistance Network.
“These programs increase the capacity to meet the community’s needs for mental health training,” she said, noting that the training is not just for those with careers in agriculture. “We want to train the people in the communities who work, live and interact daily with farmers and ranchers. Knowing the red flags can prepare them to intervene and direct agricultural workers to the right resources.”
Partner specifically referred to the programs offered by the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
QPR (Question, Persuasion, Referral) is a one-hour, no-cost program focused on suicide prevention. The training is open to anyone in the state, with 14 trained facilitators.
Mental Health First Aid is an in-depth, full-day program covering broad topics related to mental health where participants learn to help someone in crisis.
Another option for Arkansans is AR Connect Now, a comprehensive behavioral health treatment program at no cost offered by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). The call center is open 24/7. The program connects you with resources and professionals. No insurance required, and remote video visits are available.
Partner added: “Increased access to telemedicine is one of the positive things that has resulted from the COVID pandemic. You can sit in the cab of your truck or tractor and get advice from a doctor or mental health professional.”
Each delta state has resources to promote mental well-being in the agricultural farming industry. Contact the Cooperative Extension Service or your state’s Department of Agriculture for programs specific to your area.
For immediate support, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.