Farm Stress & Decision Making During Challenging Times

Farm Stress & Decision Making During Challenging Times
John Shutske, Extension Specialist
University of Wisconsin Madison &
UW Extension Cooperative Extension

What Causes Stress for Farmers and Farm Families?

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? 

     I haven’t started the paperwork for that major loan due next week!
     Who knows whether the big tractor will make it through another full chopping season?
     Should I go back to school with so much economic uncertainty?
     How will I ever find time to learn more about precision farming?
     What will happen to commodity prices after all this political turmoil?
     My spouse and I just cannot talk about things the way we used to.
     I haven't had a moment to myself since we added all that custom work to make our business plan feasible.
     There's a missed call on my smartphoneOne of our employees is hurt! 

Farmers face many stressors.
Photo credit: John W Hancock/Shutterstock.com
The list could continue endlessly for most people who work in agriculture. Farming is one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S. The following are some of the common stressors we encounter:

     Financial pressures
     Debt load
     Dependence on unpredictable weather and volatile markets
     Extreme outdoor work conditions
     Fatigue
     Lack of personal time
     Little time to talk through difficult problems
     Inter-generational differences and views of work, business philosophy, and the future
     Excessive workloads, which hinder our ability to cultivate valuable relationships
     Health, pain, disability, or mobility issues connected to years of physical labor 

Stress is a double-edged sword. A little stress can serve as a constructive motivator, galvanizing us to action. Too much stress, on the other hand, can damage our health, compromise safety, and sabotage personal relationships. It diminishes our capacity for considering and evaluating alternative solutions to complex problems, and this can limit our power to make sound decisions. Stress often manifests itself through vicious cycles with escalating consequences that can paralyze a person or family.

With the arduous and sometimes volatile conditions we see in agriculture, the risks of too much stress are alarming.  Material here comes from three decades of working and spending time with farmers, agricultural service providers, community leaders, lenders, clergy, health professionals, educators, and others in the ag industry to compile answers to these questions:

1. What causes stress in the lives of farmers, their family members, workers, and those closely connected?
2. How do successful individuals and families in agriculture cope with stress?
3. How can I help myself or others when there is too much stress?

Physically, What Happens?

Stress is our reaction to a threatening event or stimulus. Such events and stimuli are called "stressors." People differ in how they perceive and react to stressors. Something one person might rate as highly stressful might be rated as considerably less stressful (or even desirable) by another. Several factors influence our capacity to cope with stress:
     The presence of a social network (e.g., family, friends, community groups, church)
     Our skills in assessing a complex situation and then developing and evaluating solutions
     Personal variables (e.g., physical health, life experience, confidence, anxiety threshold, problem-solving ability)

Individuals and families are
directly affected by stress.
Photo credit: Joy Brown/Shutterstock.com
When we encounter a stressor, our brain and body respond by triggering a series of chemical reactions that prepare us to engage with"fight off"or run away from the stressor. Two hormones that we release are adrenaline, which prepares muscles for exertion, and cortisol, which regulates bodily functions.  If a stressor is exceptionally frightening, it might cause us to freeze up and become incapacitated.  The stress response causes our:

     Blood pressure to rise,
     Heart rate to increase,
     Digestive system to slow down (or stop), and
     Blood to clot more quickly.

Thousands of years ago, a caveman (or woman) who stumbled upon a hungry saber-toothed tiger would be more likely to survive the encounter if they were able to spring up and sprint away swiftly. An increase in blood pressure and heart rate and a slowdown of digestive processes meant more energy could be directed toward escaping, and if they couldn’t run quickly enough, their odds of surviving if wounded by the hungry tiger were better if their blood clotted rapidly.

Too much unmanaged stress is associated
with heart disease, high blood pressure,
diabetes, and increased injury risk.
Photo credit:Alexander Kalina /Shutterstock.com
Today, this physical response to stress can be damaging to our health. Unrelieved stress is a known risk factor in many leading causes of premature death among adults; conditions and illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and deterioration of the immune system. Stress is also a risk factor for depression and suicide.

What about My Safety?

Farming ranks as one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S. Stress, long hours, and fatigue contribute to injury risk. When we confront several stressors at once, we may become distracted.  Distraction can cause errors that lead to serious or fatal incidents such as tractor rollovers or entanglement in a fast-moving machine. Thus, proper safety precautions are essential to prevent such tragedies. 

Stress & economic conditions
can influence safety conditions
and behaviors.
Photo credit: GW Images/Shutterstock.com
Farm operators who face financial pressures while running a modern farming operation sometimes don’t invest in eliminating farm hazards. Damaged or missing shields are not replaced. Old tractors are not retrofitted with rollbars and seatbelts. Investments in equipment and facilities needed for safe animal handling and housing are deferred.  Children are required to do potentially dangerous farm work before they are physically and mentally ready to perform these jobs safely, or the family may not have help or resources to look after very young kids. All farm safety efforts must include taking specific steps to better cope with the stress we are likely to experience!

At the end of this article, you will find a “top ten” list of farm safety tips based on the research and experience of safety specialists and researchers throughout the U.S.

How Do Farmers and Their Families Cope with Stress?

Managing and mitigating stress requires
a purposeful set of strategic actions.
Photo credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com
During recent decades, we have learned how successful farmers and families effectively manage their stress by sitting down and discussing their stress management methods with them. The actions described in the following paragraphs come directly from those discussions and suggestions from the ag community. Some of these actions involve preparing ourselves physically or emotionally to deal with stress, while other actions, such as planning and education, involve efforts to minimize confusion and ambiguity while bolstering our levels of "hope" and perceived control. 

It is important to recognize that it's impossible (in any job) to totally eliminate all stress but that effective management is possible.

You Are What You Eat

Eat right: It sounds simple, but we don't always do it! No farm operator would ever dream of feeding their animals lousy feed or heading out to the field in a chopper with a half-filled tank of low-grade diesel fuel to complete harvest.

Yet, when the rush season rolls around, we fill our bodies with cheap fast food and other high-fat, low-nutrition junk, or worse, we don't eat at all! It's worth the time to wake up a few minutes early to eat breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch that includes fruits and vegetables to munch on during the day, with limited amounts of fatty meats, added sugar, and caffeine. An occasional cup of coffee or a can of soda is okay for most people if balanced with plenty of water, at least eight glasses a day.

Sufficient water intake is critically important while working. An easy way to tell whether you're hydrated: check the color of your urine. If it's dark, you're probably not drinking enough.

Get Moving!

Exercise is a natural and healthy stress reliever. Physical activity provides an outlet for extra energy generated by the chemicals released in the body during stressful situations. Exercise stimulates and even increases the size of the parts of the brain that keep our stress response in check as well as the parts of the brain that we need for good decision making and problem solving.  A simple, purposeful 20-minute walk with your spouse, partner, child, or friend can make all the difference in the world. People who exercise during the day often experience better quality sleep, and adequate rest and sleep also help us cope with an ever-changing world.

Exercise prepares us for the long, strenuous work days. If your doctor approves, a few minutes of walking or other aerobic exercise can have tremendous stress-relieving effects, and you will feel less exhausted at day's end.  An Olympic athlete or marathon runner wouldn’t tackle a grueling race without proper body preparation, and the demanding physical and mental work of farming is not all that different. Timely exercise eases the strain of vigorous physical activity and brightens our perspective.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

Laughter helps us to see all sides of an adverse situation and relieves us from the cycle of stress. It's easier to laugh and regain perspective when we're around other people, which is a reason why coffee shops, restaurants, churches, coops and farm supply stores are such popular places during difficult times.

Avoid Unhealthy De-Stress Methods

One of the unfortunate consequences of too much stress is an increased risk of drug, alcohol, or tobacco use and abuse. These substances alter our perceptions in the short term and often make challenging problems worse in the longer term. Drugs and alcohol abuse contributes to many farm and roadway accidents, and it can also damage our most precious relationships.

If you are concerned about drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and your health and personal safety or the health safety of a loved one, support and assistance are available. Don't be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.

Talk, Talk, Talk

Strong relationships and family bonds allow
for healthy coping.
Photo credit: HTeam/Shutterstock.com
Have you ever been directly asked "What's bugging you?" only to find yourself clamming up and not wanting to talk about it? This common reaction isn't always harmful. However, openly discussing and airing problems, concerns, fears, and frustrations can be constructive and healthy, which is especially true if we can move from the mode of being "cranky" to actively addressing the problem. Families and couples who handle stress well communicate freely between partners. For men, the process of admitting to worries and fears is often difficult, but when both partners have open and clear access to information and can assist each other in finding solutions, our problems become easier to solve!

It's vital to solicit aid and advice from others in our community who are willing to help. Friends, extended family, church members, and others in the community can often provide needed support. No matter who we talk to, vocalizing our concerns helps alleviate some of the confusion and tensions that can compound feelings of stress.

Learn about the Agricultural Industry

Agriculture is growing increasingly
complex. Take advantage of
opportunities to learn and grow.
Photo credit: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock.com
As an industry, agriculture is becoming increasingly complex. Reports about biotech, big data, precision farming, complex marketing strategies, a changing trade environment, and the latest changes in farm programs and tax policy are now commonplace in most major farm news outlets, which is why we should learn as much as we can. Successful operators have a handle on the latest and most effective production and finance-related practices and can take advantage of the latest technological developments.  We're never too old to learn, and there are many informal education opportunities through local extension offices, universities, tech colleges, university research stations, or private sources such as crop consultants and sales reps.

Self-education requires time and commitment, but it lowers stress by providing us with a mental roadmap that directs planning and decision making. Successful producers who participate in educational opportunities feel less stressed as a result. Education builds confidence, and attending a class or an informal workshop series might open doors to new or supplementary business and financial opportunities. 

Of all the resources we have to work withincluding land, animals, cash, fertilizer, seed, and machineryour minds are our most valuable asset.

Plan to Clarify Long-Term Goals

Although we might dislike record keeping, paperwork, and planning, well-maintained records and evidence of a long-term plan are required by lenders and others who allocate resources. Thorough planning requires an objective examination of current resources and future goals. This sometimes onerous process of planning, goal setting, and record keeping can be facilitated with the advice of accountants, attorneys, Extension educators, farm management specialists, state/local agencies and lenders.

Like education, the process of farm planning provides a roadmap that reduces confusion and ambiguity and thus reduces stress.  These positive actions enhance the functioning and structure of our brain and actions create positive cycles of change and growth.

Plan for Family Time & Check-Ins

Have you ever missed a special family event like a parent-teacher conference or family reunion because you were overwhelmed with work around the farm? Many of us have. While it might be unrealistic to shut down a complex operation for a couple hours to go talk to our kid's teacher, we often miss family events because we don’t plan, which results in feelings of guilt, anger, regret, and loss. By setting aside a few minutes each month to record important dates, events, and meetings, we can prioritize our schedules to prevent ourselves from missing out on important moments. If conflicts arise, communication within the family will help everyone understand current deadlines and priorities, especially when schedules become hectic. This kind of communication establishes a team spirit and ensures key tasks around the home and farm will be managed rather than dropped through the cracks.

Help Yourself (or Others) during Stressful Periods

Many resources exist to help farmers
and family members in difficult times.
Photo credit: Phovoir/Shutterstock.com
Because of the high stress levels in farm communities, people who work in agriculture experience higher reported rates of depression and suicide. The following checklist provided by the National Institute of Mental Health lists some common symptoms depression.

To help decide whether you or people you care about need support and treatment for depression, please review this checklist and mark the symptoms that apply. If you experience any of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, if you feel suicidal, or if the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, see your family doctor and bring this list with you. As a first step, your doctor or another health professional may recommend a thorough examination to rule out other illnesses.

Symptoms of Clinical Depression:

    Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
    Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
    Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
    Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
    Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
    Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
    Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
    Appetite and/or weight changes
    Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
    Restlessness, irritability
    Persistent physical symptoms

There are resources on suicide and suicide prevention that vary from state to state and across communities.  If you’re thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like support, a Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States.  It is free of charge and confidential.  Call 1-800-273-8255 or visit http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

What About the Terrible Stress of Having to Quit Farming?

Change of any type can be a major stressor, but people who face the possibility of retiring from or leaving farming often report experiencing tremendous guilt and shame caused by feeling forced to abandon a legacy. These feelings are normal, and they are part of the grieving process any person goes through when they lose something or someone they love.

Remember that many of the structural and economic factors that drive changes in production agriculture are beyond our control. If you are struggling to keep pace with these changes, request support, expertise, and assistance from qualified professionals.  The choice of whether or not to leave farming is almost always one of the most complicated and emotional ones that many farmers and their families will make in their lifetimes, but help is availableDo ask!


Top Ten Farm Safety Tips


  1. Buy a rollover protective structure (ROPS) for older tractors. If an approved ROPS is not available, avoid using that tractor for work or consider trading or selling it through a local dealer.
  2. Replace all missing power take-off and rotating equipment shields. Shut off power equipment before leaving the operator's station.
  3. Check that lights, flashers, and reflectors on machines work properly. Always use them when traveling on roadways.
  4. Replace “slow moving vehicle” emblems that aren’t clean and bright.
  5. Prepare farm machinery before the busy season. A well-maintained machine will operate more efficiently and reduce the chance of an injury.
  6. Use proper equipment and procedures when hitching and unhitching implements.
  7. Never enter a manure pit, grain bin, or silo without following confined space entry procedures. The gases and materials in these structures kill farmers each year.
  8. Ensure that all workers receive specific instructions on their tasks and the machines they are operating in a language they are familiar with. Be sure they read and understand all operational procedures in the owner's manual. 
  9. Take the time to learn basic first aid, CPR, and emergency response.
  10. Do not assign jobs to children unless they are physically, mentally, and legally ready to perform the job safely, follow directions, and can respond to unexpected situations, which may mean waiting until kids are at least 16 years of age.



Author, John Shutske is a Professor & Extension Specialist, University of Wisconsin and UW-Extension, Cooperative Extension.  Editorial support & assistance was provided by Kelly Morehead, copyeditor.   For permission to re-print, adapt, or use this material, please contact the author at: shutske@wisc.edu

Photos in this article are used under a paid license from Shutterstock.com and must not be copied or used in formats other than in this article.

Reviewed and updated August 2017

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