Comfortable Being Uncomfortable – A discussion on mental health on the farm.

Listening to podcasts is how I decompress most days. Not agriculture podcasts because I live in this industry and get enough information thrown my way. I listen to other podcasts, mostly fitness or sports-related. This is what inspired this blog – one of the primary podcasts I listen to had a member who passed away by overdose. Another individual that suffered from mental health issues, who, from the outside looking in, you would have never known. Another person we now have to talk about in the past tense.


In agriculture, we know there are significant mental health issues. Not just depression, stress, and anxiety, but also drug and alcohol abuse, among other things. I know people who have gone through it and are going through it – even I have utilized anxiety medications for years to deal with life at times.


There are many groups who are advocating and bringing this to the forefront, so I don’t want to highlight that side of the issue, instead I would like to identify the reasons and ways we need to change as an industry. How do we, as a collective, start reducing the stress the industry puts on its producers?


Afraid to Fail


The same reason that I love agriculture is the reason I hate it. 


We have created such a strong community and family legacy-type of environment, that when somebody fails it is considerably harder than most other businesses. A farm in most instances is a multi-generational business that was created by a family. Much like a hardware store, an insurance agency, or any other business that was built by entrepreneurs today. 


So, why in agriculture, do we take it so much harder?


The first reason is that this is how we built it. The family farm is not just a business, it is a lifestyle, it is family, it is “you”. 


This is what makes this industry great but it is also what is putting a significant amount of stress and pressure on every new farm entrant or new generation taking over a successful, or unsuccessful operation. The thought of failing is 100X more debilitating than any job you get fired from, or business you start that does not succeed. We created this, now we are stuck with the consequences.


The main thing we need to do is be transparent and have open discussions. Failure is an option, and it does not mean the world is coming to an end.


 I have seen farms come and go, I was one of those farms that sold and made the choice regarding legacy. Was it hard? Yes. Did I also know that life is really long and there would be other things more important such as family, friends, and other opportunities? Yes. 


This is important for everybody to hear; farming is not the “only thing” in life. In fact, I would argue that most farms should be trying to get more freedom of time and away from operations. 


Rugged Individualism


I love the term “toxic masculinity” but it is thrown around so many times in today’s environment. I know what they are trying to get at, but the majority of people misconstrue this with traditional values. Things such as strength, focus, mentality, motivation, and other things that we grew up with are not toxic, they are driving forces for what and who we are. This is the one side of the coin. The other side is rugged individualism.


Not sure who needs to hear this, but you are not “weak” if you talk to others. 


I have made a career of sharing, coaching and talking to hundreds or thousands of farms each year. For most of the consulting clients we service I consider myself and my employees as a part of their internal team. They don’t have to make every decision alone, in fact, most times they have a team of advisors, family, and employees behind them. This narrative in agriculture needs to change as well – you do not succeed alone, and you do not fail alone.


I have found that during the down times, you really need to be more open and have discussions with others who may be having the same problems. For most, this is usually financially driven, but for some, this can be family, marriage, or other areas of your life that are a concern. The main point is that everybody should have somebody to talk to. The days of being a one-man band have long passed. In fact, I spend most of my time now building teams, not individuals.


Education and Training


I recently saw a poll on stressors in agriculture and the main trigger for stress today is finances and business. With the size of the numbers, the tightening of margins, and the increase in costs of everything, this area of operations is the hardest for owners to navigate. After all, most farmers are not commerce or accounting graduates, and most are driven by yield and not dollars.


This is where education comes in. 


We are in an environment where we have access to information at any time during the day. With the use of a cell phone, we can identify numerous areas of data and learning that we have never been able to in the past. It’s why I always preach on the importance of teams, having individuals do the things that are less important while you educate and learn the things that are more important.


 Stress is reduced when you are comfortable making decisions because you know the information behind it. Most of our decisions on the farm today are driven by information and projection, our emotions no longer really apply.


Mental health is something that many of us struggle with. To say I don’t have bad days, even today with certain medications, would be a lie. Life is not supposed to be easy. If it was, I think a lot of the motivation to do great things would be gone. 


We need to remember that mistakes are to be learned from, most issues in a day are trivial and not as bad as we make them out to be, and keep in mind what is important such as family and friends. I truly believe that the more comfortable we are being uncomfortable, the easier dealing with day-to-day life becomes. Remember to reach out to those close to you, because the one thing that is not guaranteed is our future.