As times change for agricultural producers, so do the stresses that generate worries and affect the well-being of their families and agricultural operations. Farming has become more complex than during previous generations.

Surveys of farming stressors, such as those undertaken by Kenneth Olson and Richard Schellenberg in Kansas during the Farm Crisis in the 1980s, reported that the death of a spouse or other family member involved in the farming operation was the most stressful. They and other researchers found that as stressors accumulated, farmers’ defense mechanisms broke down, and that more than two major simultaneous stressors overwhelmed farmers’ coping capacities.

More recent research, such as a 2008 survey by Steven Freeman, Charles Schwab and Q. Jiang of 1,343 mostly male Iowa farmers (81%) in the Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, indicated that the death of a child in a farming event was a close second to the loss of a spouse involved in the farming operation.

Published and unpublished focus group research in 2013 indicated that the loss of a family farm was equal to the emotional toll from the death of a child in a farm tragedy such as a tractor rollover. The focus group participants said the death of a spouse ranked third and was followed by the death of someone else in the family or a long-term valued employee involved in the farming operation; divorce between spouses ranked fifth.

Qualitative research methods, such as focus groups, yield data that are not as precise as surveys or quantitative analyses of reactions to stressful events, but often the qualitative research findings point to contributing matters that could otherwise be overlooked.

Since the summer of 2014 I have observed additional shifts in stressors to people engaged in farming, but I have no hard data. My impressions are derived from conducting one focus group, and entirely from communicating with farm people via email, on the phone, and in-person.

Currently, 55% of the farm people who contact me are men; the number of contacts with farmers range from 3-12 per week. Those who feel they are about to lose the family farm are the most distressed when we confer.

Some are in tears as we talk; others sometimes ask their spouses or an adult child to explain their concerns. Our conversations often are gut-wrenching. Fewer others (about 10%) with whom I confer by email, on the phone, or in-person want mostly to discuss farm business prospects and ways to maximize efficiency. They seek information they can apply to manage their production units, themselves, and other persons involved in their enterprises so that everyone and everything functions optimally.

Most of these persons operate very large farms and are involved in multiple business ventures. Those with a strictly business-management approach maintain emotional distance from their operations; they contact me mainly for business advice and only a few say they are having sleepless nights and worry too much.

The persons who contact me about personal and family matters generally look at farming differently. Farming is their way of life.

They build on their predecessors’ efforts to acquire some or all of the land they operate, as well as to pass along the family farm to their successors. Their concerns are usually about stress, loan foreclosure, legal matters, family strife, substance abuse, depression, and worries that a loved one is suicidal.

Two major approaches to farming are emerging: farming as a business (sometimes called the industrial approach to farming) and farming as a way of life (sometimes called the sustainable farming approach).

The farming-as-a-business approach focuses mainly on making profits, applying technological advances, satisfying customers, and minimizing factors that might hamper profitability, such as governmental regulations and pressures from environmental and animal rights’ organizations.

The sustainable farming advocates focus mainly on making a satisfactory living, family well-being, and to pass along farmland, farming equipment, livestock, and other assets needed to farm to their successors in as good or better shape that when they acquired them. They debate how to best take advantage of new technology while being environmental stewards.

Most family farm operations today fall somewhere between the extremes of these two approaches. The 2017 Census of Agriculture indicates that family farms produce 85 percent of U.S. farm products; corporate entities produce the remainder.

Individuals and families operate 98% of all farms in the U.S. today. The USDA Economic Research Service indicated earlier this month that 89% of farms have gross sales of less than $350,000, produce 26% of farm products, and depend on off-farm sources of income to supplement their household.

They are struggling the most to remain viable as agricultural producers. They take their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being seriously. They view farming as a moral endeavor and themselves as integral parts of their communities.

Perhaps a new adage is needed: “It takes a community to farm.” Graduate students and other researchers: Are you looking at these issues?