If the current prolonged downturn in the farm economy, now augmented by the COVID pandemic, continues to be like the Great Depression of the 1930s, agricultural producers and many people in agriculture-dependent industries will not behave the same after this crisis remits.

Whether the current farm economy is in a recession or in depression is debatable; regardless, both survivors and casualties of this farm crisis will not be the same after it winds down.

This prediction derives from 40+ years as a psychologist and farmer, and from two longitudinal investigative projects. The first was a three-year study of how 122 distressed farm clients at the Southwest Iowa Mental Health Center adapted behaviorally to the Farm Crisis of the 1980s (Rosmann, M.R. and Delworth, U., “The Clinical Psychologist”, 1990). None of the clients undertook suicide.

Our research identified five stages of adjustment that take place over several years:

  • An alarm phase occurs first when farmers experience financial threats that potentially could lead to restructuring or forced sale of their operations; sometimes they minimize their circumstances
  • Second, as farming losses worsen, agricultural producers and businesses dependent on farming become more worried and desperate; they may pin their hopes on unlikely solutions, such as raising new unproven crops
  • Third, when loan restructuring or foreclosure can’t be avoided, farmers usually become overwhelmed with anxiety, followed by depression, and sometimes suicide; this is the phase of greatest emotional distress, especially when undergoing court proceedings and forced auctions; the distressed persons need emotional support from family and neighbors, and usually require assistance from professionals in the medical, behavioral health, legal, and agricultural business fields
  • Emotional and financial recovery typify the fourth stage, which follows after legal and business issues are settled; settlement may entail a continuation of farming or obtaining other employment; hope gradually returns as life goes on and finances improve
  • The fifth stage involves permanent emotional scars, satisfaction from surviving and the development of wisdom, habits of frugality, and passing along the knowledge gained to successors

The habits of those who survived the 1980s are similar to those of my grandparents and parents who exemplify farmers that survived the Great Depression of the 1930s.

My grandmothers became so frugal that they repaired homemade dresses with mismatched buttons and patches until their dresses became threadbare. They never took vacations. My mother raised broilers and 200 laying hens; she canned most of the fruit and vegetables my family consumed.

My grandfathers and my father didn’t buy land during the late 1920s when times were good. During the ‘30s they hung onto most of their farmland by working extremely hard and postponing all but essential purchases until they had sufficient money.

They were poised to invest carefully in land and equipment as the Great Depression wound down.

Character played a role too. When my maternal grandfather joined the U.S. Army during WWI and was deployed to France, there was no one to farm the land he and my grandmother had purchased. The lender took their farm back but asked them to take over the loan again when Grandpa returned home.

The second major project evaluated farm crisis services in seven states (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) from 2000 to 2014 to determine the most effective services for distressed farmers and families. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the 2018 Farm Bill are based on our findings.

An extensive evaluation revealed that many farmers used farm crisis hotlines in the seven-state region that were free, culturally suited to the agricultural population, and confidential. A sample drawn from clients who participated in counseling from licensed professionals who received training in agricultural behavioral health revealed that 91 percent of those who evaluated their services said they would recommend counseling to others.

Development of support networks by distressed farm people and participation in community education workshops also emerged as best practices (Rosmann, M.R. & Stucker, S., “NARMH Notes”, a publication of the National Association for Rural Mental Health, 2008; and Rosmann, M.R., 2014 Conference of the International Society for Agricultural Safety and Health).

There are lessons from both major farm crises, but the current crisis is more like the Great Depression. Similarities between both include persistent low prices for most farm commodities, massive unemployment, the political isolation of the U.S., and withdrawal from international treaties and trade agreements.

Moreover, farmers then and now rely on government-sponsored farm loans, federal purchase of excess commodities such as milk, supplemental payments for some crops and livestock, conservation incentives, and farmland set-aside payments.

Farmers are always challenged to undertake innovative efforts to survive. Using knowledge gained from both previous farm crises and from research findings, producers must resist urges to splurge when times are good, manage their behavioral health, and build a team of consultants with the expertise they don’t have, in order to function optimally.

History will judge whether farmers have learned from their predecessors and from behavioral health research findings.