By Rita Brhel

A lot has changed in the farm economy in the last five years, and it’s weighing heavily on family farmers.

But agricultural producers are self-sufficient by nature, so their stress remains largely unaddressed until it’s to the breaking point—whether a financial crisis or worse. That’s why Extension professionals, like Brandy VanDeWalle, are stepping in.

“Really, our health is our wealth,” she said. “If we take care of ourselves, we’ll be much more productive.”

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator spoke out about suicide prevention during the 2019 Farmers and Ranchers Cow/Calf College on Jan. 14 at the Clay County Fairgrounds near Clay Center, Neb. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this risk is even higher than it was during the 1980s farm crisis. 

USDA data reveals how national net farm income in 2018 fell 46 percent since its record high in 2013, the peak in a so-called golden period between 2011 and 2014. Farm income has been dropping since as input expenses continue to rise despite weak commodity prices, which are largely the result of lower exports due to an ongoing trade dispute with China. It’s an economic situation that sees no easy resolution in the year to come.

In 2016, UNL and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture joined in conducting a Farm Financial Health Survey, which found that 54 percent of farmers were feeling stressed financially. More than 70 percent were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to obtain necessary operating capital the following year, and more than 60 percent were worried that interest rates would increase. A total of 45 percent predicted that their overall financial condition would decline, and another 45 percent expected it to at least remain the same.

More than half of both livestock and crop producers included in the survey plan to reduce operating costs by deferring machinery replacement as well as reducing family living expenses. Approximately a third of livestock producers planned to also reduce their herd size, feed supplement costs, and hired labor. Among crop producers, a third planned to reduce fertilizer rates and a quarter planned to reduce hired labor in the hope to better balance the farm budget.

In addition, about a third of producers surveyed planned to pursue an off-farm job and another nearly 15 percent hoped to develop a custom operation to help offset expenses.

What all of this adds up to is a need for healthy stress management, VanDeWalle explained. The first step is to differentiate between good and bad stress. Good stress can be motivating, such as a deadline for a task that helps to structure the timeline. Yet, for others, deadlines may feel constricting. Exactly what constitutes as good stress is subjective to each individual and requires an honest inventory of stressors by each person as well as their behavior in an attempt to mitigate the stress.

There are unhealthy reactions, such as shutting down emotionally or acting-out, continued VanDeWalle, and there are healthy responses. A few she suggested:

• Building gaps into the day for mental breaks;

• Being assertive and saying “no” to self or others as needed;

• Getting physical activity every day;

• Talking to someone or journaling about stressors;

• Using time management tools, such as making to-do lists, using a planner, setting goals and prioritizing daily tasks, avoiding the temptation to either procrastinate or be perfectionistic, and not sweating the small stuff;

• Working during the self’s unique biological prime time, whether that be in the morning, afternoon, or evening;

• Rewarding self with time off or another incentive;

• Getting enough sleep;

• Eating a balanced diet;

• Spending time with family and friends;

• Accepting that stress is a part of life;

• Learning to relax and conquering workaholic habits.

However, VanDeWalle admitted, even those most practiced at stress management can sometimes be caught off-guard. She recommended four interventions for particularly high stress situations:

1. Taking a 10-minute walk;

2. Changing self-talk from negative to positive;

3. Focusing on an encouraging saying, such as a Bible verse;

4. Doing a deep-breathing exercise.

Perhaps the most lasting strategy is to learn to think more positively, VanDeWalle offered, explaining that 80 percent of the average human’s thoughts are negative. Considering that the human mind has an average of 70,000 thoughts per day, there are ample chances to practice optimism.

“That’s 70,000 opportunities for either positive or negative thoughts,” she said.