Stressful times can take emotional, mental and physical tolls on farmers.
“Mental health affects your overall well-being,” said Dr. Amy Johnson during a webinar on farm stress and mental health that was sponsored by Farm Credit Knowledge Center.
The most common mental health disorders are anxiety and depression, shared Johnson, a nurse practitioner with Centra Medical Group, farmer and Bedford County Farm Bureau president.
One of the most common factors leading to depression is stressful working conditions, and “if you’ve ever spent even one day on a farm, you know how stressful it is,” she explained.
Farmers face daily challenges like weather events, long hours, low commodity prices, steep debt and physical labor. “Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations,” Johnson noted, adding that injuries can prevent farmers from completing their work, which also leads to depression. “Occupational injuries in agriculture lead to a seven-times-greater risk of depression.”
She said farmers experiencing mental health issues face obstacles like accessibility to professional treatment and acceptance in their communities. Many rural areas face a shortage of mental health providers, and in some small towns mental health problems are stigmatized.
“Farming is stressful, and that’s not going to change.”
While farmers can’t change their stress levels, they can adjust their perspectives. In another Farm Credit webinar about farming during stressful times, Robert Mills Jr. said farmers need to look for things that bring happiness and “make us feel good about what we do.”
Mills, a Pittsylvania County farmer and Virginia Farm Bureau Federation board member, recalled how two weeks after the pandemic closed schools and businesses, he and his teenage sons went fishing every afternoon. “Without the pandemic, that probably wouldn’t have happened,” Mills shared.
During stressful times, farmers “get so overwhelmed by what’s happening that we don’t see what’s right in front of our eyes. We need to look for opportunities that present themselves.”
For example, since the pandemic began, produce growers who sell at farmers markets and livestock producers who sell meat directly to consumers have increased their customer base. That’s because Virginians quickly turned to farmers when grocery stores didn’t have the meats, milk or produce they wanted.
“Those farmers captured an audience they didn’t have prior to the pandemic,” Mills said.
In addition to raising poultry and cattle, Mills grows tobacco and uses migrant labor to plant in the spring. Because of COVID-19, his foreign laborers were delayed for 30 days. But the tobacco couldn’t wait to be planted, so he enlisted the help of his family.
On Mother’s Day weekend, 14 of Mills’ relatives—including his mom and dad, were all in the fields planting. “It turned into a family event I’ll never forget.”
Times are tough right now, Mills acknowledged, but farmers have faced many tough times in the past as well. “Always remember: ‘This too shall pass.’”