Farming Magazine - December, 2009


Stress Among Farmers

What to look for, what to do
By Barbara Mulhern
As bills continue to pile up, it has a ripple effect on everything else on the farm. Economic stress may be accompanied by marital problems, behavioral problems in children at school, depression and various physical ailments.

In 2009, one Maine farmer hanged himself in a barn. Two other farmers shot and killed themselves. In Vermont, workers at the University of Vermont Extension Service who answer calls from farmers about financial problems and other needs are concerned there haven’t been as many calls as might be expected.

A licensed social worker in New York who takes calls from farmers and their family members seeking assistance on a variety of issues says callers in recent months are facing “multiple stressors.”

“It’s never just one financial stressor,” says Pat O’Hara of Farm Partners, which offers free confidential assistance in parts of New York State to farmers and family members with stress-related issues. “For example, they may be facing bankruptcy, depression and physical health issues. Or, they may be undergoing financial stress, marital difficulties and isolation.”

While stress has always been part of farm family life, the depressed economy, decreased milk prices for dairy farmers and the resulting increased stress on family members is placing demands on Northeast farmers that some just can’t handle.

“The trends we are seeing are increased accounts payable with vendors; increasing debt because the price of milk is below the cost of equipment; the repossession of equipment by lenders; increased stress, anxiety and depression; and a lack of enthusiasm about the future among many farmers,” says Ed Staehr of New York FarmNet, a free statewide program that confidentially assists callers with business and family concerns.

Stress on the farm affects the entire family, including farm wives, who often keep the books and pay the bills. Economic pressures on dairy farmers in particular have resulted in the repossession of equipment, power shut-offs, the sale of cows in order to pay bills and the loss of longtime family farms.

Staehr, who says FarmNet also hears reports of alcohol or prescription medication abuse, adds that “some farmers are dropping their health care coverage, which shows how dire the situation is in those cases where they’re looking for potential places to cut.”The severity of economic and other stressors on farm families within the last couple of years has not been limited to the Northeast. The Denver Post reported that 14 Colorado farmers and ranchers committed suicide in 2008. At least two dairy farmer suicides were reported in California in 2009.

“Farmers are geared toward problem solving,” O’Hara says. “If they have a herd health problem, they have no problem [ talking to another farmer or to a vet.]"

"But, when it comes to mental health issues such as stress, they have difficulty calling in.”

While potential suicide is an issue for some farmers, O’Hara says he worries more “about farm accidents. Farming has always been a hazardous occupation. If you add to that a farmer who is clinically depressed and not sleeping, farm accidents are going to happen.”

Steps you can take

The isolation of many farm families in rural areas combined with the strong belief that farmers should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” makes it unlikely that many farmers who are under stress will call an outside organization or hotline for assistance.

Short of that, there are steps farmers, family members, neighbors, friends and other acquaintances can take. The first is to understand and acknowledge the signs that a farm family may need help. Among these signs:

• Change in routines

A farm family may stop attending church, drop out of organizations (such as the National FFA Organization or state Farm Bureau) and no longer stop at the local restaurant or other places farmers gather to talk.

• Appearance of the farm and farm animals decline. Upkeep on the farm may go by the wayside, and farm animals—including pets—may appear unusually thin, ill or otherwise neglected.

• Increase in illness among farm family members

Children may miss school due to illness an unusual number of times. Farmers and other family members may also experience more colds, the flu, coughing episodes or other illnesses.

• Increase in farm accidents

Even minor accidents may be occurring with more frequency due to an inability to focus on the task at hand and/or a feeling of being “overwhelmed.”

• Acting out or other behavioral issues among the children

“I have a real big concern for the children,” O’Hara says. “The kids know what is going on. Depression in kids often presents itself as behavioral problems in school.”

If you are a friend, extended family member or other acquaintance who sees some of these signs, ask if you can be of assistance—but don’t be surprised if the answer is “no.” Another step you can take is to call a confidential hotline or other agency in your community and ask what else you can do. (See the accompanying Farm Stress Resources sidebar for more information.)

If you are a farmer or family member under an unusual amount of stress, know that there are confidential resources that can assist you. Don’t be afraid or too proud to pick up the phone. It could make the difference in terms of not losing your spouse, your family or your farm.

“I fear that somewhere in New York State there is a farmer looking at his debt load and his life insurance policy thinking, ‘Would they be better off without me?,’” O’Hara says. “The sooner they reach out for help, the better off they are.”

“Our consultants can put together a plan for the future to help the farmer look ahead,” Staehr says. “They could be selling assets such as heifers that may be needed later on. It’s hard when you’re focusing on where the next dollar is coming from to prepare a debt structuring plan.”

In addition to picking up the phone, the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health suggests the following five steps as a starting point after recognizing you may be under stress:

• Stop to take breaks

Relax 20 minutes each day.

• Talk about your stress with others

This may include your spouse, your pastor, another trusted friend or other family members.

• Eat three meals a day

Do this while comfortable and seated.

• Prepare for stressful events

For example, if you know you will be meeting with your banker or other lender, schedule some time to “unwind.”

• Strengthen your relationships with others

Try to schedule some time just to have “fun.”

Farm Stress Resources

• University of Maine Cooperative Extension Web site on Helping Farmers Cope with Stress.

This Web site,, includes links to many resources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800-273-TALK (8255)), a free 24-hour hotline available to anyone in emotional distress. Calls to this national hotline are routed to your nearest crisis center. The phone number to call in Spanish is 888-628-9454. Among the other resources you can link to from this Extension Web site include articles on helping friends cope with financial crisis, assisting farmers in managing in tough times, an article called “The Personal Nature of Agriculture – Men Seeking Help,” and a recent Webinar on “Recognizing Farmer Stress, Anger, Depression and Suicide.”

• Your nearest cooperative extension office

Your Extension office can direct you to other resources in your area and state. These might include loan officers, county services or other organizations that can provide assistance.

• FarmNet and Farm Partners in New York State

For more information on FarmNet, visit or call 800-547-FARM (3276). For information on Farm Partners, visit or call 800-343-7527, ext. 235.

• Other local resources

Among them are county and private mental health services; local crisis hotlines; drug and alcohol rehabilitation services; hospital crisis intervention services; domestic abuse agencies and hotlines; and/or your pastor.

Barbara Mulhern is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Moose River Media.