By Ray Atkinson
The American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee recently held a special session of YF&R Connect, a monthly Zoom meeting for young agricultural professionals, to share experiences with farm stress and mental health. Titled “Prospering While Balancing Farming and Family,” the session featured farmers and advocates who are navigating the challenges of chronic stress and mental health while managing the demands of farm life.
Tennessee Farm Bureau member Matt Niswander is a first-generation beef cattle farmer and a family nurse practitioner. He and his wife, Colbie, started Niswander Family Medicine in Etheredge, Tennessee, to help address health needs in their community. Matt talked about some of the challenges he’s faced as a farmer and practitioner, and how he dealt with the stress that comes with it.
“Farming is hard, and trying to balance that is difficult,” he said. “We jokingly say that balancing your farm and your family is kind of like juggling, except you're riding a bicycle, and you're juggling chainsaws, and the bike is on fire, and you're on fire and everything's on fire. It feels like that a lot of times, having so many irons in the fire and so much going on around you all the time.
“Sometimes it feels like you're not getting anywhere, and I hate asking for help. But I realized I didn't need to start asking people for help necessarily, I just needed to start saying no. I needed to stop putting irons in the fire, and I had to learn how to say no.”
Jenny Holtermann and her husband, Tim, are fourth-generation California farmers. She is second vice president of the Kern County Farm Bureau and a California Farm Bureau board member. Jenny said her biggest challenge with stress came when she was appointed as the California YF&R chair in 2008.
“Within two months of being appointed, my father unexpectedly passed away, and that year was the perfect storm of my life,” Holtermann said. “The way I found myself being able to combat those challenges was just by being in that leadership role with like-minded individuals and people who had similar goals. I was able to rely on other people and ask them for help, because I had no other options.”
Holtermann said that taking time for self-care is important, especially with all the stress brought on by the pandemic.
“Just getting outside and going for a walk sometimes can really help. I’ll just walk around our reservoir and come back and say, ‘OK, now I’m ready to do this, I can tackle it.’”
Randy Darr is founder and president of Soil-Right Consulting Services Inc. in Shipman, Illinois. He is a lifetime member of FFA and served nine years on the Macoupin County Farm Bureau board of directors. Darr said that in order to cultivate mental wellness, you have to accept that stress is going to come.
“There's no way around it. It happens. So, what I do to somewhat stress-proof myself is I continuously do things that add to my mental health,” Darr said. “One of the most helpful things to me is helping others. If you visit a bookstore, you’ll see that there’s a whole section of self-help books, but there’s no section of ‘help others.’ I think over time we've missed the point of helping others. When you're adding value to others and seeing them grow, it adds to your mental health.”
Morgan Norris, a Florida native, serves as treasurer of the DeSoto-Charlotte County Farm Bureau board of directors and just completed a one-year term as chair of the AFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee. She said one of her biggest challenges with stress was a year ago after she was elected chair of the YF&R Committee.
“I went into 2020 with this excitement,” Norris said. “And then March came around and we were planning to go to Kentucky and have a big YF&R conference, and that week the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. I just thought ‘this is going to pass,’ we’ll have to cancel this conference, but it’s going to be this really short-term thing. It took me a few months to realize that mental health would be probably one of the most important topics of 2020. And we began to realize that we could still be effective leaders behind our computers and not behind a podium. We could still do incredible things.”
To view a video of the full YF&R Connect session, visit this link.
If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or has concerns about their mental health, visit the Farm State of Mind website, where you can find crisis hotlines, treatment locators, tips for helping someone in emotional pain, ways to start a conversation and resources for managing stress, anxiety or depression. You can also register for a free, online farm stress training program that provides skills to understand the sources of stress, learn the warning signs of stress and suicide, identify effective communication strategies and connect farmers and ranchers with appropriate mental health and other resources.
Ray Atkinson is director of communications at the American Farm Bureau Federation.