Last week a young farm wife asked me how to help her husband who she said is unfairly overworked by his parents in their family farm operation.  Earlier, two women requested assistance for their farming husbands who are struggling with stresses they could manage satisfactorily when they were younger.
 
A 69 year old farm man called this week to say he doesn’t know how he will take care of his 120 head cow/calf operation and farm 400 acres next year.  He could handle his farm with little additional assistance previously but now finds himself overwhelmed and increasingly unhappy.
 
There is a common denominator among these situations: an aging farmer who can’t handle stressful work as well as when younger.
 
It comes as no surprise that as we age we usually become less able to handle stress.  National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health researchers, John Myers, Larry Layne and Suzanne Marsh, reported that both fatal injuries and the severity of nonfatal injuries increase among farmers as they age.  
 
Their report was presented at the 2007 Conference on the Aging Farm Community, held in Indianapolis, and is available in the March 2009 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.  I also gave a report at that conference indicating that behavioral health problems increase among aging farmers.

The National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2012, released on August 22 this year, indicates that although fatal work injuries are down among farmers since 2011, the rate of fatal injuries is higher among farmers than among any other occupational group.  Stress has a lot to do with their fatalities and injuries.

Many farmers have more difficulty handling highly technical farm jobs as they age.  As my father approached his early 70s he asked his sons who farmed to take over planting and harvesting, jobs which involve remaining attentive for hours on end.  Dad said the monitors on the planter equipment and the combine made him nervous.

Dad died at age 72 from a coronary blockage.  I still needed his advice at that point.  
 
I didn’t fully grasp my father’s assessment of his mounting difficulties until I reached my mid 60s.  I can’t as easily endure jobs that require sustained attention as long or as easily as I did formerly.
 
The young wife mentioned above thanked me for my perspective.  I had suggested that her husband was being urged to take over tasks his parents couldn’t handle anymore, for the same reasons my father couldn’t handle them.  
 
She said problems will continue but she doesn’t want to cause a rift by bringing up concerns to her husband or his parents.  Her husband is overworking and becoming stressed.  Is this right?
 
Taking on more than one can comfortably handle is not necessarily the solution, even if the younger persons in the operation decide that addressing what they feel are unfair expectations by the older generation is not something they want to pursue.  
 
Bottling up mounting resentments will likely make the young wife and her husband unhappier, which she acknowledged.  Their children will likely copy their parents’ example when they assume positions of responsibility, whether engaged in farming or other careers.  They will probably overwork as adults.
 
The issue needs to be addressed in open business-like discussion among those involved when one or more persons in a joint operation are overworking.  The two farm women, mentioned at the outset whose husbands can’t handle as much stress as when younger, initiated family discussions with an external consultant.
 
Already, these two families are feeling better about getting their concerns into the open and they are committed to resolving their farm stress dilemmas though periodic business meetings.  Both sets of parents are scaling back their workloads as their children and their respective families take on essential responsibilities which they feel they can handle.
 
The parents know their children want to modify the farming operation; they are willing to give them opportunities to explore new methods of farming.  The parents are willing to offer advice and financial investment, but the next generation must take over the planning and implementation of the operation.
 
The farmer with the cow/calf operation and 400 acres of cropland is turning over his operation to his son and granddaughter.  Although they have some wrinkles to work out, their approach is reasonable and will give direction and opportunity to the parents and the children taking over.
 
Not all farmers handle stress the same and some aging farmers actually manage better with a lot of responsibilities than when younger.  They rely on the wisdom they have gained through experience.
 
Dr. Arthur Benton, a great contributor to the field of neuropsychology, said at age 94 in his keynote address at a meeting I attended years ago, “Getting old sucks.  But there is one benefit about aging; we become more adept as we age at determining what is important.”  Good observation!

Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan Iowa psychologist and farmer. Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at the website www.agbehavioralhealth.com.



By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.

Share your thoughts. Email Dr. Rosmann at [email protected], or visit his website at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.  You can call him at his office in Harlan, Iowa at 712-235-6100.