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Farm stress in one generation can reach into the future

Brittney Schrick, extension family life specialist, teaches workshop attendees about managing farm stress at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture's Arkansas Grown Conference and Expo held in January.
UA System Division of Agriculture
Brittney Schrick, extension family life specialist, teaches workshop attendees about managing farm stress at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture's Arkansas Grown Conference and Expo held in January.

Steve Watkins knows that farm stress isn’t just a current problem, but one that also “reaches into the future” of farm families.

“We think about how this affects us, but the reach and impact that this potentially has on future generations is significant as well,” he said. “I grew up on a cotton farm in the 1980s, during the Farm Crisis, and during one of the most extreme droughts that ever existed in Arkansas. We had 23 days of 100-degree temperatures, and it didn’t rain from June to September.”

Watkins, an author who owns a retreat center and small farm in the Ozarks, was among those attending a workshop on farm stress led by Brittney Schrick, extension assistant professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The workshop was part of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Arkansas Grown Conference and Expo held in January.

“I was 14 years old, and I can still hear my father vomiting from the stress in the bathroom every morning at 5 o’clock,” Watkins said. “At 14, you’re pretty impressionable. It shaped many of the decisions that I made about how I would live my life, and what I would and wouldn’t do. It still impacts me today.”

Farming consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous occupations. Several important factors, including weather, market fluctuation and labor supply, lie outside of farmers’ control. This contributes to suicide and self-harm among farmers.

Signs of stress

To better care for themselves and help the next generation, it’s important for farmers to identify the physical, behavioral and emotional signs of stress, as well as the ways stress manifests in relationships.

“If you have hopes of having a multi-generational farm operation, but your kids see you not being able to function in your family and your life, the odds are pretty good that they’re not going to want to do that,” Schrick said. “The better you can take care of yourself and the better you can take care of your family, the greater chance you’re going to have of being able to continue that legacy. This is not wasted time or energy.”

“Physical symptoms can include things like headaches, muscle tension or pain, upset stomach or other GI issues, lack of energy or fatigue, and shortness of breath or a tightness in the chest,” Schrick said.

Behavioral symptoms—or changes in behavior—can include difficulty relaxing or sleeping, being quick to anger or lashing out at others, having difficulty making decisions, or increased or inappropriate alcohol or substance abuse, such as using prescribed medications off-label.

Similarly, emotional symptoms, or changes in the way one feels, include irritability or snapping at others, frustration or anger, impatience, feeling discouraged or hopeless, or feeling anxious or panicky.

“Relationships can be impacted significantly by stress,” Schrick said. “Some specific ways are difficulty communicating, increased conflict with family members, verbal or physical outbursts, or avoiding others because you feel so overwhelmed.”

When responding to stress, it’s important to focus on what can be controlled: prioritizing and managing one’s time, controlling one’s attitude, and controlling physical responses.

“Simplify your schedule and set boundaries when possible,” Schrick said. “To control your attitude, look at the big pictures instead of the current situation. Make a list of your current stressors and the resources you have to meet them.”

When upset by a certain problem or situation, take a moment to breathe before responding. Schrick said it can also be helpful to avoid stimulants when possible. “Coffee, tobacco and other stimulants can cause physical stress symptoms to worsen,” Schrick said.

Finding help

According to a 2019 Office of Rural Health study, at least part of every county in Arkansas is a federally designated Medically Underserved Area. For 80 percent of the state’s 75 counties, the entire county is designated as a Medically Underserved Area.

This lack of access to providers—for both physical and mental health—makes it difficult for farmers to get the care they need.

“If you don’t have access to a mental health professional, who are you going to? You might go to your doctor, but are farmers great about doing that?” Schrick said. “Even taking care of physical health is not always a priority among farming groups, so taking the leap to mental health is often a bridge too far for folks who work in this industry.”

In addition to unique stressors such as weather, supply chain interference, and machinery breakdown and maintenance, farmers also face isolation, which can exacerbate existing stress.

“The isolation of working alone for long periods of time, while always a risky part of farming, can be especially problematic during tough times,” Schrick said.

Socially disadvantaged farmers, including farmers of color, may experience compounding stressors such as limited access to loans and other monetary support, higher rates of poverty, and a lack of culturally competent outreach, Schrick said.

Offer and accept help from community

Stress levels can sometimes escalate beyond what people feel like they can handle, Schrick said. It’s important to check in with the people in one’s community and ask for help when needed, even if reaching out feels difficult.

“Rural communities rely on each other,” Schrick said. “Offering and accepting help is the nature of rural living. Communities couldn’t survive without this. Notice I have not mentioned asking for help—that tends to be where difficulties arise.”

Because of the way people in rural communities are often raised and expected to be independent, Schrick said “assumptions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance can make it difficult to ask for help or lead to viewing the need for help as a sign of weakness.”

The most important implement of success to a farm is the farmer, Schrick said. In the same way that sustainable farming practices are implemented to ensure the future of a farm, efforts must be taken to sustain the farmer, too.

“Any investment that you make in yourself—for mental health, your physical health, your family and social network—is an investment in your operation,” Schrick said. “You would take care of a broken or rusty implement because you can’t run a farm without them. The same goes for yourself.”

For more information about managing farm stress, contact Schrick at bschrick@uada.edu or visit the Cooperative Extension Service’s Farm Stress Management and Resilience Project website.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offers 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing mental health-related distress. People can call or text 988 or chat online at 988lifeline.org.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.