The current drought in about a third of America’s most productive agricultural regions, and too much rain in other areas, are sparking stress and concerns about the emotional wellbeing of producers, even though there are more forms of economic assistance to farmers and ranchers available through the USDA than previously.  Fortunately, many parts of the country that suffered from multi-year drought aren’t affected as much this growing season as in recent years.

Drought, actually—all disasters, are hard to predict, and their effects on agricultural producers as well.  As last week’s article indicated, the available crop and livestock insurance protections don’t necessarily erase farmers’ emotional concerns.

Farming and related agricultural pursuits are more than about making money.  Having an agrarian life that is meaningful entails working hard, taking personal responsibility, and not just depending on crop insurance and USDA programs to remain viable.  Seeing efforts pay off in abundant production of food and materials that consumers rely on is agricultural producers’ best reward.

Self-doubts creep in when crop and livestock production are less than anticipated by farmers, even if caused by drought or other factors they can’t control, and even if there are financial protections that diminish their economic risks.  While it might seem strange to persons outside the agricultural arena, the experience of less than optimal production makes farmers feel less than fulfilled.

Farmers and their families (I’m including ranchers and farm workers here) try extra hard to overcome hurdles that diminish their production of agricultural goods.  This urge is mostly inherited and explains why farmers try their utmost to deal with disasters.

Farmers’ reactions to stress are somewhat similar to other persons’ reactions to stress, but they are often more intense and follow a pattern:

  • First, affected farmers gauge conditions to estimate the threat’s impact
  • Second, if a serious threat exists, farmers undertake any of a variety of strategies to understand the problem and to deal with it, such as asking agronomists for advice, chopping drought-affected corn for silage if the nitrogen content is okay–instead of harvesting it for grain, selling feeder calves or lambs sooner than usual to save feed, or any of a variety of measures
  • Third, if the drought or other stresses continue, anxiety worsens to the point that sleep, relationships, sound thinking, and other factors important to daily life, are negatively affected for producers
  • Fourth, the anxiety gradually takes enough of a toll that producers feel overwhelmed to the point that fatigue sets in as their adrenalin-fueled coping becomes overwhelmed; depression emerges, with its accompanying insufficiency of the beneficial bodily hormones: serotonin, norepinepherine, and oxytocin
  • Fatigue in the face of perceived threats usually must be dealt with through counseling and sometimes psychotropic medications, such as prescribed sleep aids and antidepressants; most people can’t recover on their own
  • Fifth, recovery usually follows, but only if the distressed persons are able to deal with their emotional encumbrances through behavior management and/or appropriate medications
  • Recovery is slow, because the persons affected by drought or other causes of diminished agricultural production, “have their guard up” for additional strife
  • If no more threats occur, farmers and family members gradually settle down into normal pursuits and emotions

Disaster recovery research has identified coping methods that enable farmers, and anyone—for that matter, to manage stress.  Most of these coping methods are behaviors over which we have control, which in itself provides a degree of personal security:

  • Reaching out for information about the dimensions of the disaster and available financial and emotional supports, such as attending community workshops about dealing with the disaster agriculturally and emotionally
  • Talking with others who have knowledge and experience helps us hear ourselves so that we can review what we saying, as well as to hear others’ advice; disaster counseling with crisis responders illustrates these proven benefits
  • Taking time to discuss with everyone in the household what is happening to the farming enterprise bonds the family and generates options
  • Making sure we also allot time for: breaks away from the stressful situation, adequate sleep, physical exercise, prayer, time alone, and recreation
  • Pursuing searches for useful input, like visiting the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) DTAC (Disaster Technical Assistance Center) website (www.samhsa.gov/dtac)
  • When disasters exceed local resources, state and federal resources may be called into action, so paying attention to our state Homeland Security announcements, state Department of Agriculture publicity, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency publicity can be useful

Farmers already know more threats can be expected this year and in the future.  Damaging weather events, political instability, shifts in consumer demand, or something else can develop to affect U.S. agricultural production and markets.

It’s important that we know, and implement, steps to manage our worries and our behaviors to handle agricultural stress and any serious behavioral health problems that emerge.