“We were part of a crew of neighbors that got together whenever any of us made hay or needed help of any kind. How I wish that were the same today,” said the 78 year old cattle-producer from a nearby county.
My well-spoken friend continued. “When I was in my fields raking hay or disking and a neighbor happened to also be working on the other side of the fence, we both stopped our tractors, walked to the fence and chatted a while. Now if we talk, it’s on the phone instead.”
There is a progressive age divide in farmer social interactions. Surveys conducted over the past several years, as reported in various print and digital forums, almost always say about 90 percent of the youngest American farmers use smart phones and the internet to conduct business, and to stay in touch with their family, but the use of electronic messaging declines as age progresses.
Older farmers still prefer to conduct business in person and to seal an agreement with a hand shake. Only about a quarter of persons over 70 years of age and currently farming rely on some type of digital technology other than the telephone to stay in touch with people they consider important and/or to conduct business, such as marketing.
Seeing people in person is important, especially for older farmers. Attending church, community meetings, weddings, funerals and neighborhood get-togethers were–and still are–the main opportunities for social interactions of most aging farmers.
My 78 year old farming friend said to me recently, “If I want to know what someone is really thinking, I have to look into his eyes.”
Few older farmers regularly use Twitter, email and other electronic methods to undertake marketing and to document contracts. But these older active farmers carry a mobile phone with them for telephone calls and texts, for they are well aware that having a phone can save time, many steps and sometimes their lives.
Farmers often worked alone during bygone eras, partly depending on where they lived. I enjoyed meeting a farmer who lived closest (20 miles) to the tiny hamlet of Two Buttes in the farthest southeast county of Colorado in August 1968.
My job involving migrant farm worker research took me to remote regions of several western states. As I drove 40 miles on a gravel road without seeing any vehicles, towns or farmsteads, I pulled up to a ramshackle house with a single tree near a decrepit house, a windmill, and a couple decaying wooden structures with a few chickens, pigs and a cow nearby, without any fences to contain them.
I wanted to make sure I was on the correct route. When I approached the house around noon, a hefty, unshaven 40ish man dressed in an overall with one suspender latched, no shirt and wearing worn shoes without socks came to the door after I knocked.
The fellow shook my hand repetitively as he said he hadn’t talked with anyone for over two weeks and that he drove to town only a half dozen times each year to buy the few items he needs and which aren’t otherwise available. He invited me to join him for the dinner that he was eating out of a can.
He pulled another can from the cupboard and handed me a spoon he retrieved from the kitchen sink. I declined his offer, for I noticed his kitchen sink was piled high with dirty dishes, but I stayed a while to talk.
His story fascinated me about how he inherited the farm from his parents who managed to hang onto the farm during the Great Depression and inconsistent years of drought. Oh how he wanted company, but I had to be on my way after another hour of interesting discussion with a socially starved person.
Capacity to tolerate isolation is a trait that formerly was characteristic of successful farmers, but not anymore. In the past farmers had to be able to work alone for long periods.
As a young farmer in the 1930s/40s my father often worked all day in the fields at a single operation like cutting hay; the only times he had any contact with others was during the morning, evening and at his noon meal.
Now most farmers’ days are spent multi-tasking, obtaining information, negotiating and communicating. The comfort with solitude and self-reliance that social scientists reported only two decades ago as characteristic of successful farmers are now disadvantageous.
However, many of today’s farmers have insufficient training in such complex social skills as contract negotiation, conflict resolution, behavioral health management and financial planning. High school agriculture courses, community college programs in agriculture and in agricultural business and related college programs for agriculture undergraduates and graduate school enrollees should teach these skills.
Communication methods are changing and farmers need to change with them. Today’s farmers want to be up-to-date, even if we don’t like it.
Dr. Mike is a farmer, licensed Iowa psychologist and educator. To contact him, visit www.agbehavioralhealth.com.