Blessings and burdens: The struggles of being a farmer

From hay baling to calving to planting, farming is hard physical labor from sunup to sundown. But what many don’t take into consideration is how emotionally difficult it can be. Managing a working farm can lead to depression, anxiety, marital strife, financial ruin, and addiction. In fact, farming has one of the highest workplace suicide rates of any occupation in the United States, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

A tough row to hoe

Farmers are used to facing tough times. The Great Depression began for farmers shortly after World War I and continued through the 1920s, hitting farming families hard with soaring machinery costs and rapidly descending farm prices. Despite this, farmer suicides didn’t get much attention until the 1980s farm crisis, which resulted from two droughts, a national economy in trouble, and a government ban on grain exports to the Soviet Union. Since then, the suicide rate for male farmers has remained very high: nearly two times that of the general population.

Signs of depression

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of interes in activities or work
  • Expressions or feelings of worthlessness
  • Nausea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Clammy skin

Leading causes of depression 

  • Addiction. The strong link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression is well-documented, and self-medication — whether with alcohol or drugs — can be a coping mechanism for struggling farmers. Loneliness, isolation, and the stress of juggling a farm, family, and finances also contribute to depression and anxiety. 
  • Debt. When a farm struggles because of weather, family crises, or overall poor financial management, hopelessness or panic can set in, resulting in increased physical and emotional illness.
  • Divorce. Farmers and their families have to sustain land, livestock, expensive equipment, and finances, all while balancing the work with home life. During parts of the year, farming is a 24/7, seven-day-a-week job. These demanding conditions can make agricultural occupations particularly difficult, and can take a toll on marriages. The psychological impact of divorce can also lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. 
  • Injury or illness. Agriculture is hard physical labor, so it’s not uncommon for farmers to injure themselves or skip a doctor’s appointment because it’s harvest time. Unfortunately, those injuries and illnesses can stack up until they become incapacitating or impossible to ignore, leading to lost time on the farm, financial burden, and then to depression and anxiety.

Fortunately, treatments for addiction, mental illness, and resources to improve your financial well-being are constantly evolving and improving. If you need help or know of someone who needs help, reach out.